Arlington’s historic Olympic Theatre to close soon

ARLINGTON — The historic Olympic Theatre, one of the last single-screen movie theaters in Snohomish County, is closing.

Norma Pappas, 62, who has been running the theater mostly by herself for 37 years, said there is no definite closing date, but it is coming soon.

“As soon as we run out of movies on film,” she said. “It’s week to week right now.”

This week she is showing “Saving Mr. Banks.” On March 7, she has “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” lined up. Beyond that, she doesn’t know.

The movie theater industry is in the midst of a transition from film stock to digital projection. The Olympic has not made that switch because of the expense involved.

Pappas said she investigated one projector that would have cost her $60,000 to $70,000, prohibitively expensive for a small operation like the Olympic, which plays just one evening show five days a week, plus two weekend matinees.

The National Association of Theatrecq Owners, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., estimates that 37,000 of the 40,000 commercial screens in the U.S. have already made the conversion to digital. That amounts to 81 percent of all theaters.

The pressure is coming from the studios. The theater owners group vice president Patrick Corcoran said that the cost of putting a movie onto 35mm film and then shipping it can cost upwards of $2,000, for each print.

Shipping a digital version can be as cheap as $60, Corcoran said.

“In some case they’re shipping them by satellite,” he said, making it even cheaper to distribute a new movie.

As a result, studios have been pressuring theater owners to upgrade their projection equipment.

The Olympic Theatre is one of the last holdouts in a new era of movies, and for Pappas, the costs of staying in the business aren’t justifiable over the long-term.

Upstairs in the Olympic’s crowded projection booth, Pappas spliced together the print for “Saving Mr. Banks” by hand and wound the film onto the large platters to prepare for the evening show.

Pappas said she can’t get movies from Paramount Pictures any longer because they no longer print to film. Other studios might do limited runs on 35mm for new titles, but that number keeps shrinking. Even previews for upcoming films are hard to come by, she said.

Then when one of her projector lamps was failing last October, she couldn’t find a new one and ended up buying a used lamp.

Two weeks ago, she said, her print of “Frozen” had to be shipped from the East Coast, and it almost didn’t arrive because of the snow.

“That tells you how few films are left,” she said.

Opened on April 7, 1939, the Olympic operated until the 1960s as a small-town movie house. It had a run as an X-rated theater in the 1960s, then as a church in the 1970s.

Pappas’ father, Dick Pappas, bought the building in 1977, and Norma Pappas took over running it shortly afterward.

Until this year, this small cinema has survived numerous recessions, the arrival of the Interstate highway system (which bypassed downtown Arlington), the tenure of the VCR and the onslaught of shopping mall multiplexes that spelled the doom for many smaller and independent movie theaters across the United States.

Not that it’s been easy. The Olympic’s biggest competitor is the Regal Cinemas Marysville 14 multiplex nine miles away. Another multiplex is planned to open in the closer Smokey Point neighborhood in coming years.

In the years she’s run the Olympic, Pappas kept her focus on the needs of her core clientele: local families. That meant showing movies appropriate for everyone, lower ticket and concession prices ($4.75 for a large popcorn, tax included), and just one single advertisement for Coke before the feature film.

She hires local high school students to run the concession stand and ticket counter, but otherwise does everything herself, from projection to bookkeeping to cleaning up at the end of the night.

But even her low-margin operation can’t survive the end of the film era.

“There’s just no profit here,” she said.

There was hope that a local nonprofit group, the Olympic Theatre Foundation, could take over the Olympic.

Lisa Clarke, the group’s chairwoman, said they’d raised about $13,000 so far, and had an offer from a private party to donate $50,000 worth of digital projection equipment.

But Pappas isn’t willing to be a landlord and lease out the building. She wants to sell it outright.

“It’s my retirement,” she said. Pappas said she’s been talking to other groups. One, a local church, expressed interest in buying it and continuing to show movies in addition to church services, but she doesn’t have an agreement.

“It’s time for someone else to do this,” she said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165 or cwinters@heraldnet.com.

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