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July 22, 2003

It's been a while since we chatted about the movie theatres, or lack thereof, in our town. It's a subject with well-nigh inexhaustible facets, so let's plunge right in and look at a few of them. Many fans of the big screen, and that includes yours truly, miss those film palaces terribly, and thinking about them just makes it worse. But, maybe this is good therapy, so let's have at it.

Perry has had quite a few of those theatres through the years, but all of them are gone now. We have to drive to a nearby larger city to see a movie, and even some of our much bigger - neighbors are suffering a similar fate. In years past, those old film houses with their silver screens brought us the world, at least the world as Hollywood thought we ought to see it, and they were, operated by some interesting people, our friends and neighbors for the most part. We loved the glamorous actors and actresses and the funny men and women who touched our emotions in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. In their heyday movie theatres were at the center of the community because of the romance, drama, comedy, and yes, even the newsreels that unwound before our wide-open eyes. Television was only a distant possibility until shortly after World War II, when its value as an advertising medium was found worthy of exploitation. There is more to be said about Perry theatres and the people who ran them. Space will not permit a detailed review, but let's think about some of them.

We have dealt with these past in the columns because—face it—that is where Perry's movie life lies. Now and then talk is heard about the chances of opening a new movie theatre here, but what are the realistic chances of that happening? The trend in large cities is to build megaplex theatres with 25 scenes or more, and the old standard single-screen film houses are disappearing. Competition among theatre operators for first-run films is fierce, and small-market communities like Perry are, for the most part, far down the priority list for distribution of the hot new movies. The cost of shooting a major film is staggering these days. Studios look for the fast buck to recapture their investment quickly, and they know where they can expect to do well in a hurry. It's not in small towns with single screens to lure the audience.

So, the small dollar potential makes it unlikely that Perry could compete for first-run films. Would we pay theatre prices to see moves that can be rented in most video stores? Would art films be commercially successful? If a small theatre were to open here featuring those types of movies, the answer to those questions might be in the affirmative. But teen-agers are a major part of the nation's movie audiences at every theatre, and our local young people complain about the lack of things to do here now. Would they bring their dates to a theatre that did not offer the coolest current films?

Those are some of the questions that a prospective Perry theatre operator would have to consider before investing in a film house here. I recently had a conversation with two gentlemen who operated projectors in large movie houses in the late 1930s. They are scornful of today's automated multi-screen theatres with their Spartan furnishings, popcorn-littered seating areas and floors sticky with dried soft drinks. They, like most of those who used to be in the audiences of Perry, Roxy, Annex and Chief Drive-In Theatres fondly remember the days when movies brought us good, clean entertainments in friendly surroundings. Both of those gentlemen saw only a remote possibility that the sumptuous movie theatres of the past could make a comeback, but that is not likely to happen soon. Oklahoma City is preparing to welcome a 26-screen theatre as part of the Bricktown revitalization program. A similar multi-screen theatre is operating near Remington Park on the north sides of the big city. Such developments are spreading in metropolises around the country. For diehard fans like us, that is a sad thing to contemplate.

Perry Theatre People from the 1930s are shown in this photo made by portraitist Barney Enright at his studio in Nelson's South Side Pharmacy. From the left are Chet Moore, film projectionist at the Annex Theatre; Ted Kimball, projectionist at the Roxy Theatre; and Henry Tate, owner of the Annex. The three had been fishing earlier this day and each brought home a nice string, good enough that they decided to have their picture taken. They shed their fishing garb, bathed and put on this attire so Mr. Enright could record their catch with this shot. Mr Kimballs' daughter, Carolyn Nichols, provided this picture. She well remembers childhood days spent watching movies from the Roxy projection booth as her father threaded the film with the latest Hollywood offerings. The photo is undated.