The small-town theater was an endangered species before the pandemic.
But in 2020, the coronavirus and state-ordered shutdowns that followed meant closing theaters completely—for months at a time.
Chad Timmerman heads the committee that runs the Town Theatre, a movie house purchased by the Optimists Club of Chillicothe 10 years ago.
Located some 18 miles north of Peoria, Chillicothe is a town of 6,000 people with a theater, rebuilt after a fire in the 1940s, that has two screens and can accommodate 150 and 90 movie-goers, respectively.
That theater was closed about 80 percent of the time in 2020 and is closed at present, he said.
“I do worry about the small-town theaters,” said Timmerman, adding his organization has been forced to cut expenses to stay afloat.
“Our plan is to open doors again on Feb. 5. We follow the protocol that’s mandated by the state. We ask that those attending practice social distancing. Masks are definitely mandatory—for employees, as well. We do have the fiberglass shields in front of the employees,” he said.
Timmerman said the pandemic has added even more pressure to a business that already had plenty of challenges. “It’s been rough. The movie makers have been kind of tough on us, now covering streaming just as quickly as releasing a film to the theaters. That makes it more difficult for an individual who wants to go out and watch a movie,” he said.
“Now moving forward, this year, it’s going to be difficult. There are not a lot of great movies coming out. We’ve got ‘Cinderella’ coming here relatively soon that we hope will bring in good numbers, but (during 2020) we’ve had to bring in old movies, old hits, if you will—‘Ferris Buehler’s Day Off’—things of that nature, to support the theater because we couldn’t afford the costs of the (new) movies producers were charging,” said Timmerman.
“Now our focus is we want to look ahead at what those new releases are. Instead of releasing them at the exact time that everyone else is we might delay a week or two to avoid that minimum cost expense from those production agencies,” he said.
Meanwhile, work at the theater goes on.
“There’s constant maintenance done to the theater. You can tell, it’s an old theater. We’ve got patrons from the community who have supported us giving us free labor for things like roofing repairs. We were talking to the roofing contractor, Andy Boyle, and he was commenting that the theater has roots that are important to him. He told us: ‘I feel really good about supporting it. I had my first kiss in that theater.’ You’ve got that type of nostalgia,” said Timmerman.
With so many films being streamed nowadays, getting people back into the movie habit won’t be easy, said Timmerman.
“We don’t expect our numbers to be what they used to be, but I think we’ll get there at some point,” he said.
Meanwhile, there’s always popcorn. “We’re doing Popcorn Fridays. It’s something one of our board members thought up. Just because we can’t open the doors doesn’t mean we can’t deliver popcorn to people driving down the street. We do this (in front of the theater) most Fridays from 5 to 7 p.m.,” said Timmerman.
“We charge $5 for a large popcorn. We started doing it last year. It’s been hit-and-miss. We’ve had some great nights—in excess of $500. Other nights we might get less than $100,” he said.
You can look for members of the Chillcothe Optimists Club to be in front of the Town Theater this Friday, selling popcorn to folks they hope will return when the movies start again.
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