Little theater still a big show

A smiling Mickey Rooney in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” filled the big screen the night the Olympic Theatre welcomed its first audience.

It was April 7, 1939

, a banner year for the film industry, the same year that saw the releases of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind.”

The owners of the Olympic boasted that the new $30,000 theater was constructed by local craftsmen, featured the latest in sound equipment and had seating for 371.

“The Olympic will offer people of this community a fully modern place of amusement,” declared a headline in the Arlington Times a week before opening night.

Seventy-two years later, the Olympic is one of the region’s oldest almost-continuously operating cinemas and one of only two single-screen theaters left in Snohomish County.

But unlike the busy, upscale Edmonds Theater, the Olympic’s audience is mostly young families happy to take advantage of the theater’s low ticket prices.

* * *

It’s just about show time and Norma Pappas scrambles up the red-carpeted stairs to the projection room, just as she’s done nearly every night for the past 34 years.

Romeo, the theater cat, a stray she picked up on the sidewalk outside about a year ago, is put in a walk-in closet for a nap.

Pappas, 58, has her dad’s Greek last name, but she’s mostly English-Irish. Her wavy, long red-blond hair, now starting to gray, hangs past her waist. At 5 feet even, she needs a stool to look out the projection room window to see the movie screen.

“I learned the basics from my Dad. It was his love,” she said. “I promised I would help.”

The late Dick Pappas, who had been involved in movie theaters throughout his life, bought the Olympic in 1977. He replaced much of the theater’s equipment, including projector, lamps, a new roof and larger theater seats, which came from the Northgate theater in Seattle when it was torn down.

His daughter had wanted to go to art school, but Norma acquiesced and joined him in the venture. For a few years her father let her run a little camera shop called Snapshot in the front of the theater. Long gone, the space now is her office, piled high with supplies and paperwork.

Upstairs, surrounded by shelves, antique film metal reels, old movie posters, a film splicer and a refrigerator from the 1950s, Norma Pappas spends hours each Thursday splicing together movie previews that she scrounges from friends at other theaters.

“The coming attractions are important to people,” Pappas said. “Then I run one Coke commercial along with the silence-your-cell-phone stuff.”

The featured film is wound up on a rotating platter as wide as Pappas is tall. It works a little like an old 8-track tape cartridge — the system makes it possible to project a film multiple times without needing to rewind it.

With her delicate fingers, Pappas carefully threads the film on its pathway to the projector and back to the take-up platter.

“This is the most difficult part of the job,” she said. “You have to be very careful. No costly mistakes. Thanks goodness for me, it’s like driving a car. I just do it.”

Pappas’s 19-year-old employee Samantha Prunier runs upstairs to report that the tickets have been sold and the popcorn’s been served.

Prunier, a community college student, has worked part time for Pappas for several years.

“The Olympic is a good place to know the people of Arlington,” Prunier said. “Most everybody’s been here at one time or another.”

The house lights go down and the stage curtains open to reveal the screen. Pappas adjusts the sound, starts the projector and does a quick focus check.

Three people are in the audience.

* * *

It’s tough to run a little movie theater in a place like downtown Arlington.

The Olympic isn’t located near a shopping mall or a freeway.

The original Olympic owners ran the theater through the 1950s and the advent of TV. Another owner exhibited X-rated movies there for awhile in the 1960s. The Olympic housed a church after that and then it was resurrected as a movie theater for a few years before Dick Pappas finally bought it in the late 70s. Since then, videos and DVDs have taken a hit on the movie theater’s business.

“At one time there were a dozen video rental places in Arlington alone,” Norma Pappas said. “We survived that, but it wasn’t easy.”

Though Pappas has employed a lot of high school kids, she is mostly a one-woman show: projectionist, bookkeeper, publicist, film courier, carpet cleaner, popcorn-and-soda seller.

She buys extra insurance on her car for transporting the movies, barely pays the bills and manages to also care for her elderly stepmother and her horses. It’s been years since she’s visited her mother’s side of the family in Arizona. She has good friends, but doesn’t see them much unless they come to the movies.

None of the kids who worked at the theater over the years ever stay around long enough to learn how to run the Olympic’s old projector.

“And I admit I’m very particular,” Pappas said. “So I just don’t take time off. If I am sick or hurt, there is no movie.”

Pappas can’t afford the equipment to show the new 3-D movies, and she doesn’t often get the first-run, award-winning films. The studios want their movies to make money and single-screen theaters don’t bring in the big bucks.

It’s been an especially rough economic time, but last year was better than the year before, said Pappas, mostly because of one movie: “Toy Story 3.”

It was a hit in Arlington, and not just for children. The weeks it played on Olympic Avenue, the theater had a few nearly full houses.

* * *

If you’re a teenager or an adult, it costs $6.50 to see a flick at the Olympic. It’s $5 for seniors and children, and all tickets to see the weekend matinee shows cost $4 each.

In the lobby, the Manley popcorn maker, circa 1950, is a relic from the old Whitehorse store upriver.

Most people make a stop at the 1930s art deco water fountain on the wall (just because it’s so beautiful) before heading through thick curtains into the long, sloped theater. There’s plenty of room to spread out.

That’s not the case during Christmas break when Pappas teams up with the city’s recreation department to present free movies for the kids of Arlington. It’s a tradition that packs ’em in, Pappas said.

Recreation director Sarah Higgins said the free matinees in December are good for the city and for Pappas.

“The free shows are a great opportunity for people to see this great old downtown theater and maybe come back again,” Higgins said. “Norma donates her time and the theater. She’s good for the community and easy to work with.”

Longtime theater customer and friend Kathy Vandergon Firnstahl agrees.

“Norma is a hard worker who gives this town old-fashioned good service,” Firnstahl said. “She might make more money with the shoot-em-ups, but she is committed to a family-oriented audience.”

Pappas is unsure what the future holds for the Olympic Theatre.

“I am slowing down. The best thing might be that people would form a foundation like the Lincoln Theater in Mount Vernon and keep it running,” she said. “We’ll lose this old gem if people don’t support it.”

But why wouldn’t they? she wonders.

“It’s bargain entertainment,” Pappas said. “The big screen and the ambiance of the theater takes you away on an escape. You can’t replicate it. You laugh, you cry, you might applaud.”

* * *

Now that the movie is going, Pappas descends from the projection room and plops down at the back of the theater. It’s a good night to sit and watch.

“I’ve seen so many movies,” she said. “When you hear them night after night, you get to know them well.”

Some of her favorites include “Medicine Man” with Sean Connery, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with Harrison Ford and “Hidalgo” — “a great horse movie” — with Viggo Mortensen.

“I love the movies,” Pappas said. “I just hope the community appreciates that the Olympic is still here.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

Now playing

Through Thursday, the feature is “The King’s Speech” with Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.

Shows are at 2, 4:45 and 7:30 p.m. today, and 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Tuesday is 2-for-1 admission. Coming soon is Johnny Depp as the voice of “Rango.”

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