The Reel Deal Theater Is Closing

By Jim O’Donnell and the Deal Family:

The first time I cried was up in the projection room several weeks ago. I was up there doing some routine stuff with the hum of the projectors keeping me company.

Our big feature digital projectors are normally kept on stand-by, day and night, waiting to be brought to life for our next showing. They never had to wait long to deliver their magic to our patrons as we’ve been open every showtime, 365 days a year for the past 16 years.

We opened in December of 2003; it was Xmas and we opened with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I remember looking down from the projection booth to a packed theater praying everything would work. We had just finished installation and testing the previous day. Then, downstairs at the concession stand I saw the line for the next showing snake down the sidewalk spilling onto Central Avenue.

Now, as I became aware of their humming, I thought I might as well shut them down – save some energy. I went to each of the four and turned off the breakers. After the last system was shut down, the quiet was deafening. No exhaust fans, no sound system, no servers, no projection.

As I looked through the portals to the vacant auditoriums, I thought of all the great films we’ve shown to packed audiences. I thought of all the great PEEC events and the Bathtub Row events. I thought of Clara, hugging each patron as she tore their tickets. That’s when I cried.

The theater was built by our patriarch Bill Deal, who is not long from his 95th birthday. He built it for the community – the community that gave him so much since 1950.

He wanted to give back, so we built it, and they came. For the first several years, it was hard to get through the packed lobby. The lines frequently spilled out of the doors. The teenagers packed the arcade. The town responded.

We first noticed the slow-down in attendance about 2007 – the year Netflix started streaming their films. Until that point, if you wanted a DVD from them, you had to order it through snail mail. This was only the beginning. Now, you can watch a movie anywhere, including your cell phone. We have so many portals from which to choose films, I can’t name them all.

But that’s all right, we told ourselves. They can’t compete with the experience of the big screen, the sound system, the popcorn – the energy created when everyone in the theater laughs or cries. So we thought…

Still we were OK, employing dozens of school kids and putting every cent back into the theater. But that was fine. Bill Deal had not built it to get rich – he built it for the community. Patrons still came for the blockbusters and Summer at the Movies sponsored by LANB. You came at Thanksgiving, Xmas, and to the summer blockbusters, but the smaller films, some of them the best, were now sparsely attended, and winter after the holidays was lonely in those big auditoriums.

The Arcade grew deserted, due to the amazing, hi-definition video games kids could play in the comfort of their home on the big inexpensive flat screens. But our big HVAC systems still ran every showtime, the kettle still popped fresh popcorn before every showtime, and the theater was fully staffed making sure those projectors came to life for every showing, if there was one, or one-hundred patrons seated. Many of you can attest to this.

Initially, I wanted to blame our closing solely on COVID. But that’s not entirely fair. Certainly, it’s a big factor, but change, one of the few constant things in life, is also to blame.

When theaters do eventually reopen, it will be at 25 percent capacity with so many precautions in place, the business will no longer be viable. Some of the blockbusters have already gone directly to your TV and I’m afraid many will follow. Some theaters in larger population centers will still be there to some degree and some will close, perhaps creating more opportunity for the ones still in business. Maybe the ma and pa one-screen’s or duplexes that show films well after their release will still be around. I hope so.

I do not disagree with the COVID precautions. A movie theater is no place to be during a pandemic. Perhaps when a viable vaccine is available, theaters might make a comeback of sorts, but we don’t have the ability to wait for that. Maybe Drive-ins will make a comeback.

When the realization hit, we tried to sell the theater at 1/3 of the cost to other theater operators but they are having their own financial woes. I sent them our financials and even thought we had some serious interest, but they eventually declined. Even AMC Theaters, the biggest in the world has filed for bankruptcy.

Many good people have offered some sort of fundraising assistance, but that would only be a band aid and hold us for a while longer. What would we say to them when we had to write this letter all over again?

My wife Katie, who has worked with Jean at PAC-8 to create the best pre-show in the business, will be out of work also. Most of the actors in their ads were locals. Some of the ads were poignant, some were hilarious like the one Kelly Myers did with her rap songs.

Mary Anne Beard, my sister-in-law and LLC managing partner, has also been with the theater since before day one, updating our website and dealing with stacks of paperwork while scheduling special events for all the school kids and Labs.

Our sweet Clara, our longest employee, who has been with us for over 11 years will be moving to Oregon to be with her family.

Maria Dominquez, our longtime, extremely dedicated, manager, who has also been with us over 10 years, will be sorely missed.

Cy Jakubowski and David Moss, who worked in the background, up on the roof, and inside the intricate maze of our servers and projectors were invaluable.

The Deal family and myself would like to take this moment to thank all the wonderful kids who worked for us over the years, most from LAHS. As all our patrons know, you were always polite and diligent in your duties. You were the face of our theater. I hope it’s one of those memories that you pass on to your kids and grandkids.

Lastly, we want to thank all of you who supported us through the years. You were all patient and understanding during some of our craziest events and films. I can’t remember an unkind word from any of you.

Bill Deal is mostly at home in his big chair these days. Mary Anne, Katie, and I, see him daily, and have continually discussed new ideas and solutions for the theater, but came up with the same answers every time.

Finally, the other night, he said, “Well, it’s been a good run.”

We are so very sorry…

Sincerely,

Jim O’Donnell and the Deal Family

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