Bellows Falls Opera House offers classic entertainment

$5 gets you in; another $5 gets you popcorn, candy and soda

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BELLOWS FALLS — The Bellows Falls Opera House is a throwback, an anomaly, a rarity: A movie theater where you can truly see a movie on the big screen and not get fleeced by big city prices.

This summer's blockbuster Disney movie "The Lion King" has been the most popular film since the town of Rockingham got into the movie business more than 30 years ago.

"We broke all kinds of records with The Lion King," said Rick Angers, the Opera House manager.

The popularity of "The Lion King," a remake of Disney's popular animated feature, prompted the town to start Tuesday summer afternoon matinees for children. Angers said providing entertainment for children is the main mission of the town-owned and run theater in Rockingham Town Hall.

Angers is a full-time employee for the the town. The adults and children who sell the tickets, popcorn, soda and candy are also town employees. And the price of admission can't be beat: $5 per person, plus the famous Opera House "Triple Up," in which a medium popcorn, soda and candy are sold together for an additional $5.

The theater screens first-run shows as often as possible, Angers said, pointing to Disney's "The Lion King" as an example. But the theater has to follow the rules of the entertainment giant in exchange, and run the film for three weeks.

Bring the family

On a recent afternoon with temperatures flirting with 90 degrees, moms, dads and grandparents and their hordes of children sought the cool entertainment in the darkened theater.

The cheap price is a big attraction, but the full big screen is another big draw, said Angers, who previously worked for a commercial theater with multiple screens. Angers grew up in the Bellows Falls-Westminster area, and he knows many of the theatergoers — and their children.

He said just having one screen, albeit a nice big one, is in fact a financial hardship. Preliminary studies are evaluating whether the Lower Rockingham Theater, also known as the former Women's Club Room, can be used to run smaller-appeal movies.

Rockingham Town Manager Wendy Harrison said the town has made a conscious decision to run the movie theater as part of its overall town recreation plan, even if it requires a town subsidy to keep it open.

While the town has always owned the Opera House, it leased the theater to a private firm for decades, from the time of the silent movies to 1986, when the private operator suspended the shows. (The recreation department assumed operations in 1987.) Since 1927, when the Town Hall was rebuilt along with the Opera House, the operator had shown not just films, but traveling shows and revues.

The goal was to keep the movie house open in town and provide some thrifty entertainment for area residents.

The town makes it possible for a family of four to go to the movies for $20, Angers and Harrison both said.

And judging by recent visits to the Opera House, the $5 "Triple Up" is an extremely popular town benefit — even though mothers tell their children they can have popcorn and candy, but no soda.

"We sell a lot more water than we used to," said Angers, who oversees a part-time crew of 23 people, ages 16 to 65. The employees work three-hour shifts selling tickets and refreshments, then cleaning the theater.

Way cheaper than Poughkeepsie

According to social media, people love the theater, with appreciative posts about the modern seats with plenty of leg room, cleanliness and "a great and friendly staff."

One person said what he got for $10 — a ticket and a Triple Up — would have cost $30 in Poughkeepsie, New York. The theater was also praised for having a "great screen and sound."

On Fridays through Tuesdays, there are first-run movies, blockbusters or romantic comedies, such as "Yesterday," and Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood."

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, there are sponsored classic movies on the big screen. Recent showings were "Catch-22," sponsored by the Village Square Booksellers, and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," sponsored by Harrison, as a treat for her sister. Sponsors pay $250 for the honor of seeing a favorite old movie on the big screen. Upcoming classics include "Oliver," "Matewan" and "Erin Brockovich."

Angers said another mission of the Opera House is to offer Rockingham area residents a "starter job," getting their first experience applying for a job and working, albeit part-time.

Rachel Watson, 16, lives in Walpole, N.H., but her father Leroy Watson grew up in Bartonsville. She enjoys working behind the concession counter, talking to people and answering their questions about movies.

Judy Riendeau Smith, a retiree, said working at the movie theater in the town where she grew up is her "dream job."

"I'm a people person," said Smith, who during the Lion King matinee was busy filling popcorn orders, as Watson helped 4- and 5-year olds choose what candy they would like to eat that afternoon. Soda, Angers noted, is definitely on a downward turn in popularity.

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Even at $5 for the popular "Triple Up," the town makes money on concessions, slightly more than each ticket sale. The town makes $1.70 profit in concessions for every ticket sold, a town survey showed. For every $5 ticket, $2.83 goes to the movie distributor, and $2.17 to the town to pay for staffing and the expenses of running the theater itself.

One theater, many uses

According to a survey and analysis conducted by the Bellows Falls Opera House Policy Committee, 45 percent of the Opera House's customers are from neighboring New Hampshire. Twenty-seven percent are from the town of Rockingham and its villages of Bellows Falls and Saxtons River, and the remaining 26 percent hail from other Vermont towns.

In addition to ticket sales and concessions, the town sells advertising and sponsorships for classic movies. There is talk about adding the classic movie as a matinee, since many seniors in the Bellows Falls area would enjoy an afternoon in the theater.

After all, the Opera House is in the town hall, and the theater does its share of civic duty in addition to providing entertainment. During some special nights of the year, the main attraction is March Town Meeting, the Bellows Falls annual village meeting or special town meetings, where townspeople gather to debate budgets, policies and services.

The building also hosts live performances, whether a folksinger or a production from Main Street Arts. The organization from the nearby village of Saxtons River has packed the 553-seat theater in recent years with musical productions of "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Chicago" and "Sweeney Todd." This fall, Main Street Arts will present "The Secret Garden."

The town recently gave Main Street Arts permission to create a "maker space" in a vacant storefront for its costume shop, giving a visual boost to the downtown. Angers said "Eaglemania," a tribute band featuring the music of The Eagles, will take over the Opera House Sept. 19.

The 2004 to 2006 restoration returned the Opera House's original function as a theater. A wall erected under the proscenium arch by earlier tenants was removed, restoring the stage, said Richard Ewald of Westminster West, the town's former development director and historic preservation coordinator.

Ewald was development director in the early 2000s, when the town approved spending $3.8 million to renovate the town hall.

Ewald, who was also Rockingham's part-time historic preservation officer, said the goal was to return live performances to the Opera House, as well as continue its mission as a town-owned movie theater. In addition to the stage, the theater's balcony was restored and reopened. It had been walled off for storage, Ewald said.

During the million-dollar renovation, state-of-the-art movie sound, rigging and theatrical lighting equipment and systems were installed. Comfortable tapestry-covered seats (with less-than-historic cup-holders) were installed, Ewald noted, along with memorial plaques on each seat. The theater's historic wooden floors were restored. Historically accurate

colors were used on the walls, woodwork and drapes, Ewald said.

Ed Howard, the longtime theater manager before Angers, said in the 1980s and 1990s, the theater had to settle for second-run movies; the blockbusters arrived a month or two late to Bellows Falls.

More live entertainment?

Local artist and classic movie aficionado Charlie Hunter, who is chairman of the Bellows Falls Opera House Policy Review Committee, thinks the opera house could and should be used more for live performances — at least 24 performances a year, he said.

Hunter, who used to be a manager for musicians such as singer-songwriter Dar Williams, used to stage concerts at the Opera House himself, even before the renovation. He thinks live performances would have a greater economic impact on downtown Bellows Falls.

Hunter said a recent decision by Main Street Arts to hold two musicals a year is a step in the right direction at getting the Opera House filled and area restaurants benefiting from the added visits. He said the committee, which spent about a year researching the future and current use of the theater, presented a report to the Rockingham Select Board.

"It is important to work toward creating a policy that allows for a robust mix of movies and live events," one of the committee recommendations stated. "A partnership with local and area presenters as a channel for such bears investigation."

The report also stated that there was no job description for the Opera House manager's position, and that there was "no long-term strategic blueprint for the BFOH."

"There is no mission statement for the use of the BFOH we can find and we will work to craft such a statement," the recommendations included.

When the Opera House was first renovated, the town hired a part-time worker to bring musical promoters to the Opera House. That individual left, and her position was rolled into the manager's position.

While Harrison rejects the terms subsidy or deficit, she said the theater had a $48,900 difference between its revenues of $278,000 and its expenses of $327,000 in the fiscal year that just ended.

She said the town, while maintaining its $5 ticket charge and $5 concession package, hopes to substantially increase revenue in the coming year by selling more tickets and more popcorn, candy and drinks.

"The town is supporting it and the town wants it to remain financially accessible — that's why the ticket prices are still at $5 and the $5 'Triple Up.' I think that's important," Harrison said. "It's very special that a town hall has an Opera House in it," she said. "Many of them have disappeared. We still have entertainment and government — in one place!"

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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