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Lowville's Town Hall Theater a true gem in multiplex world


LOWVILLE — Now playing at the Town Hall Theater: true grit and determination.

The qualities, which come standard with paid admission, are pursued by the O'Brien family. On the last Wednesday of August, owner Patrick A. O'Brien was in the projection room preparing the theater's last showing of "The Other Guys." One floor down, daughter Katie D., 18, was prepping the concession stand while daughter Rachael E., 22, was in the ticket booth. Mr. O'Brien's wife, Patricia L., was ready to take tickets and to welcome guests.

Pride and community spirit are the stars of this operation; a single-screen, family-run theater in the days of giant cineplexes.

"This community has supported us very well over the years," said Mr. O'Brien, as he prepared the night's film. "But it's a challenge to keep a place like this going."

Mr. O'Brien purchased the theater 20 years ago from Nick and Rena Giannocous, who owned it for 33 years. Mr. O'Brien is hoping that with the temporary closure of the theaters at Salmon Run Mall to make room for an expanded operation, movie buffs will discover, or rediscover, this theater.

"Maybe we've got a new lease on life," Mr. O'Brien said.

Movies made their Lowville debut here in 1908, nearly a decade after the three-story brick building was built as a combination theater and office building.

The Bijou Theatre on State Street became the premiere movie hall in Lowville after it opened in 1914 and by the late 1930s the Town Hall had fallen into disuse. But, during World War II, its lobby was used as a USO center for servicemen stationed at Pine Camp. After the war, town officials used the theater largely as a storage area.

The Bijou Theater was renamed the Avalon after remodeling in 1940. It was destroyed by fire in the 1940s and the Town Hall became the focus of movies once again. It was remodeled in the late 1940s with the grand re-opening in 1949 featuring the film "Sorrowful Jones" starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball.

Mr. O'Brien said newcomers today are awestruck when they walk into the cavernous theater which holds 687 people and has a 17- by 34-foot screen. On the walls, six large clay and plaster sculptures depict north country settlers. Two murals that can inspire daydreams flank the screen. One shows three Indians crouched behind rocks beside a waterfall, peering down at a settler's log cabin. The other depicts a Daniel Boone-type character watching a paddleboat in the distance. The fluorescent-lighted murals and sculptures were created by Belgian-born artist Oscar Glas during the theater's renovation in the '40s.

The seats, with wooden arm rests, glow warmly in the dim light. Mr. O'Brien said they were made by the Heywood-Wakefield company and are original, although he has a "never-ending job" of replacing seat covers on them.

"I grew up coming here," Mrs. O'Brien said, as she took a break in one of the seats. "It was magical when you were a kid coming in to watch your first Disney movie."

Mr. O'Brien, who also grew up in the village, hopes he can cue up some more of that magic.

"We can get people in here to experience the home-town feel," he said, and recalled a recent episode that added to his confidence that he can do that.

He was at Sam's Club in Watertown, where a clerk told him she adored the Town Hall Theater.

"She said, 'I just love the family atmosphere,'" Mr. O'Brien said. "That's the kind of comment you get quite often about the theater."

He added, "New people come in here and say, 'This place is beautiful. I'm going to tell everybody.'"

He can give them reasons to visit that corporate theaters cannot. The theater has a digital projector and Mr. O'Brien often shows DVD movies that were locally made. For example, at 2 p.m. Sept. 18 the theater will present a free presentation by Dr. Manoj R. Vora of Lowville. It documents his attempt over the summer to summit Mount Everest. He was within a half mile of his goal when he had to abandon the attempt.

"We have a very good digital projector," Mr. O'Brien said. "Actually, it's the best I have ever seen short of the DCI-compliant projectors needed for cinema projection resolution equal to film."

Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) was created in 2002, and is a joint venture of top movie studios to ensure uniformity in the industry for the showing of digital films.

Mr. O'Brien has a growing list of advertisers for which he creates digital commercials on PowerPoint. Commercials that note benefits for individuals or families are aired free of charge. He also hopes to use digital technology to beam in live sporting and entertainment events.

About a dozen years ago, Mr. O'Brien began using the "platter system" in the projection room. Films are removed from the original reels and spliced together to make one long strip of film, which is then placed on a stainless steel "platter." The film winds through a series of pullies from platter to the projector and back to another platter. This system replaced a reel-to-reel Brenkert projector, which is still in the projection room, but which Mr. O'Brien would like to put in the lobby "under glass" if he had the room.

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Among the theater's unusual elements is the "crying room" upstairs near the projection room. The crying room contains a small couch mounted on a platform, where parents can take restless children and view movies through a window. A speaker, looking at least 50 years old, is mounted overhead.

The O'Briens, and their youngest daughter, made use of the crying room when they bought the theater two decades ago.

"But what you don't get up here is the communal experience — where the whole audience is reacting or laughing together," said Mr. O'Brien. "That is priceless."

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The O'Briens bought the theater mainly as a hobby 20 years ago.

"We both had jobs and knew we could run it on the weekends and keep our jobs," Mr. O'Brien said.

Mr. O'Brien worked in the paper industry from 1983 to 2009, when he began work as an energy consultant selling electricity. His wife is Lewis County's deputy treasurer.

They face challenges. Mr. O'Brien said it would be a $100,000 investment for a digital film system capable of showing DCI-compliant films. And, he noted, such equipment needs replacement about every five to 10 years.

"That's another challenge for a small theater like ours to keep up," he said.

The "astronomical" fuel bill to heat the old building takes a financial toll but there are savings in the summer compared to other theaters. The Town Hall Theater has no air conditioning and Mr. O'Brien credits its brick construction for keeping the inside cool.

"It's never gotten above 72 degrees in here," he said. "But the wintertime is what kills you. The brick holds the cold."

The family also faces a staffing challenge, as the O'Briens' two daughters left for college a few days ago. Daughter Katie is a freshmen and Rachael returned to college as a graduate student. "My daughters have been instrumental in our survival," Mr. O'Brien said.

The coming attraction of the new and improved Regal theaters at Salmon Run Mall is another competitive challenge they will face in the spring.

"That definitely will be a little case of nerves when that happens," Mrs. O'Brien said.

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A little while later, Mr. O'Brien went outside on the sidewalk and prepared to change the movie title on the marquee. He glanced up at the theater, which looks sharp with its light-brown brick and red highlights, thanks to a state Main Street matching-grant program in 2008 that was used to repair some structural issues. He noted that in the past two years, other theater work has included painting all of the seat backs, installing new stone steps and exit lighting, repairing the roof and painting the auditorium.

He greeted people as they lined up for tickets, which go for $5.75 for adults and $3.75 for children. All matinee tickets are $3.75.

"Hey — what happened?" he asked one boy who came up the sidewalk on crutches.

"I broke my toe playing soccer," the boy said.

Mr. O'Brien wished the boy luck as he hopped inside. The owner would soon follow, to turn off the lights, turn on the projector and, in his mind's eye, to picture his coming attractions.

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