Arlington’s Olympic Theatre faces unclear future

ARLINGTON — People here are organizing to form a nonprofit group that would keep the aging downtown Olympic Theatre open and showing movies.

Norma Pappas, owner of the 73-year-old, single-screen theater, has no plans and no money to make the switch from film to digital that motion picture studios plan to require of theater owners next year.

Without the $50,000 conversion to digital, Arlington’s only movie theater could be reduced to screening an occasional older flick or just shutting down.

However, people want to raise the money to keep the Olympic open, said Save the Olympic Theatre campaign organizer Bryan Terry.

“I hate it when I see these mom-and-pop theaters turned into churches or whatever,” Terry said. “I do not want to see this happen in Arlington. Some of us are willing to do just about anything to keep the movies playing here.”

Terry and William Frankhouser set up a Facebook page to alert people to their cause. They expect several business owners, volunteers, community leaders and former theater employees to show up at the Save the Olympic Theatre meeting Tuesday at the Local Scoop restaurant down the street from the theater.

“We plan to talk about forming a foundation to preserve the theater and then discuss various fundraising opportunities,” Terry said.

Pappas plans to attend, too, after she starts the 35 mm film projector for the 5 p.m. showing of “ParaNorman.”

“Switching to digital is a humongous expenditure and there is no way I can afford it,” Pappas said. “Perhaps a nonprofit foundation could take it over, or I could sell it to someone with the money to do the conversion. I cannot take a handout from the community to facilitate the change, however.”

Pappas admits that she harbors bitter feelings toward the movie studios.

“It wouldn’t be that difficult to keep us in film for first-run movies,” Pappas said. “It’s really ridiculous to take away small-town theaters that have been around forever. It’s all about their profit. They don’t care about the little guy.”

Other small theaters in the region have converted to digital or have plans in the works.

The Edmonds Theater made the switch in April, employee Rachelle Brown said. “The owners planned for the switch and saved up for it,” Brown said.

In Concrete, theater owners Valerie Stafford and Fred West got the support of their community to start a fundraising campaign. While they won’t relinquish ownership of the Concrete Theatre, Stafford and West got people in their little town to agree to “buy” seats in the old movie house at $300 a pop. Concrete Theater also offers fitness and children’s theater classes along with live performances.

“This is a really tough time for little independent theaters,” Stafford said. “But the community support for staying open in Concrete has been overwhelming, and we’re determined to make the digital leap.”

In Arlington though, Pappas, 59, has just about had enough of running the theater for the past 35 years. Though Pappas has employed a lot of high school kids through the years, she is mostly a one-woman show: projectionist, bookkeeper, publicist, film courier, carpet cleaner, popcorn-and-soda seller.

The Olympic Theatre, with 371 seats, opened in 1939 at a cost of $30,000.

The original owners ran it through the 1950s and the advent of TV. Another owner exhibited X-rated movies there for a while in the 1960s. The Olympic housed a church after that and then it was resurrected as a movie theater for a few years before Norma’s father, the late Dick Pappas, bought it in the mid-70s.

The theater battled to stay in business as more multi-screen theaters were built, and as video and DVD rental stores took their toll.

“We survived that, but it wasn’t easy,” Norma Pappas said.

The Olympic remains one of the region’s oldest almost continuously operating cinemas and, with Edmonds, is one of two single-screen theaters left in Snohomish County.

Pappas charges $7 for general admission and $5.50 for children and seniors. The cost for a matinee is $4.50.

During Christmas break, Pappas teams up with the city’s recreation department to present free movies for the kids of Arlington. It’s a tradition that packs the house, Pappas said.

Recreation manager Sarah Lopez said the free matinees in December are good for the city and for Pappas.

“Arlington is small-town America. It would be heartbreaking to see our movie theater close, especially for those of us who have grown up here,” Lopez said.

“We want our downtown to stay alive and the Olympic Theatre is a big part of that.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427;

Save the theater

The first “Save the Olympic Theatre” meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Local Scoop restaurant, 434 N. Olympic Ave., Arlington.

More info:

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Bryan Terry’s first name. It has been corrected.

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