Jan. 13—LOWVILLE — Keeping a small, historic movie house open in the best of times can be a challenge, but doing so in a pandemic calls for a special kind of challenge jumping: innovation, with a nod to what has worked before.
Lowville Town Hall Theater owners Patrick and Patricia O'Brien are bringing back live stage performances, echoing the theater's early days as an opera house, hosting operas, musicals, concerts, vaudeville shows, silent films and USO showcases, and it may be the ticket the theater needs to get business back on track.
Before the Friday, Saturday and Sunday showings of the new movie "Sing 2," the Town Hall Theater will host hourlong mini concerts by local artists on the new stage built during the pandemic shutdown, Stage Bijou.
"On this day I believe I actually saw the Town Hall Theater smile," Mr. O'Brien wrote in a Facebook post Sunday, the day he prepared to change the marquee to announce the shows. "Perhaps she was reminiscing about where she's been, what she has seen and what she has survived? I see her looking confidently at a future where the promise of a life well lived, lives on."
From 6 to 7 p.m. Friday, Allison "AJ" Fullwood Fleming and Jasyn Griffin of the popular local rock band Kickstand, will perform an acoustic set for movie goers before "Sing 2" in 3D.
On Saturday, the well-known "acoustic/electric duo singing songs from six decades," Kasidee and Bill, will take the stage at 6 p.m. before the movie begins at 7 p.m.
Guitarist, singer and songwriter Rob Hirschey will entertain movie goers with both popular hits and some of his original favorites from 1 to 2 p.m. before the Sunday matinee of "Sing 2."
Mr. O'Brien said he did a trial run with a performance before a showing of "Spiderman: No Way Home" last month. It went well, he said, so he is eager to see the response from the public.
With COVID-19 positivity rates surging around the country, some of the films that were scheduled for release later this month have been postponed, so the O'Briens have decided to close for a month and return with "The Batman" release, slated for March 4.
When the theater reopens, Mr. O'Brien said he also hopes to continue the live performances to entice people back into the theater and eventually, to bring in some regional acts with certain movies and charge a bit of a premium for the double show.
For now, however, the free live music comes with the movie ticket.
This isn't the first time in the decades they have owned the theater that the O'Briens have found ways to innovate and stay competitive while maintaining the integrity of the historic space.
Keeping up with technological innovations is a necessary task that Mr. O'Brien has embraced with the relish of a lifelong learner.
"We've put in a new screen and a surround-sound system with speakers behind the screen. We put a digital projector in ... no more switching reels," he said.
Even before the digital system was installed in 2012, Mr. O'Brien had upgraded from the old reel-to-reel system to a "ladder" system that allowed him to splice together the two halves of a film that would arrive on two reels to make one continuous reel. That eliminated some of the tricky timing issues involved with switching out reels, making it possible for one person to easily operate the projector.
They have also embraced 3D and the extreme popularity of Marvel Entertainment movies, so things were going pretty well, Mr. O'Brien said.
At least, they were before the pandemic.
"Our business, before COVID, we looked at our numbers for 10 years and we never lost any business. It seemed like a rock, solid as a rock. We just had such a nice run of business. I could almost tell how many people (would come to each show)," he said. "And now, since COVID, one day we'll have quite a few people and the next day we'll have nobody. It's a different world."
Part of that different world was bringing in a new staff after the long shutdown that ended over the summer when the Town Hall began showing movies again.
"We have five young people right now. They're all high school kids and they're all juniors and seniors because we had to start all over," he said. "Everybody went off to college and found different jobs. Most stay with us from ninth grade until the time they go to college and right now, we hired juniors and seniors because we didn't have that experience base to know (the younger kids) could handle it."
Recruitment, however, has not been difficult. The theater's "help wanted" ads on social media always get a good response.
Other than selling tickets, one of the biggest challenges the theater owners have faced, like many businesses, has been about supply chain: Mr. O'Brien cannot get Twizzlers.
While chocolate has been readily available, other candies have become scarce. He said he is hopeful that will be different when the theater reopens again in March.
Popcorn cups have also been challenging for Mr. O'Brien to find, although he made a plan for that, too. He eventually found what he needed on eBay.
The theater had shut down like most theaters during the initial COVID surges, but started showing films again over the summer.
During the shutdown, Mr. O'Brien said he tried to make good use of the COVID-related down time.
He has given the theater a facelift with new paint on the exterior as well as the ceiling and walls inside the vestibules and screening room.
And he decided to build a new stage, named after a popular movie house, the Bijou, that was competitive with the Town Hall more than 100 years ago.
Originally built in 1899 with $25,000 of town funds by architects Leon H. Lempert & Son, the Town Hall Theater building was designed to double as an opera house and the municipal hall with town offices on the upper two floors.
The opera house featured a 26- by 64-foot stage, seating capacity of 1,000 and an orchestra pit — some aspects of which can still be seen in the basement, Mr. O'Brien said.
By about 1908, silent films joined vaudeville, theatre and opera on the stage but in 1914, competition from a new movie house on State Street, the Bijou Theatre, resulted in the Town Hall becoming nearly obsolete for films.
No documentation could be found about the impact of the last worldwide pandemic on the movie house, but it was still operating through the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Great Depression and World War I.
Talking films did make there way to the theater in 1926, when the Town Hall officially became a movie house, but the Bijou was still more popular.
During World War II, not many movies were shown in the house. Instead, the Town Hall hosted USO shows for soldiers at Pine Camp which would, in 1951, become Fort Drum. The town no longer used the offices upstairs for anything but storage.
As fate would have it, the Bijou, remodeled and renamed the Avalon in 1940, was destroyed by fire a few years later causing that theater's owner, Ernest J. Wolf, to purchase the Town Hall to make a go of it in 1946.
Mr. Wolf hired well-known Rochester architect, Michael J. DeAngelis, who designed more than 40 theaters in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia and Florida.
Although Mr. DeAngelis didn't make any changes to the upper floors or outside of the original building, the ground floor, both inside and out, was completely remodeled in 1949.
Mr. DeAngelis leveled the orchestra pit, shrunk the stage and installed a large dance floor in front of the first row of seats.
He also adorned the walls of the Town Hall with rows of white clay-and-plaster sculptures by New York City artist Oscar Glas, depicting frontier people striking a pose or working, with red lighting hidden between the sculptures and the walls. Two murals depict frontier scenes that glow lightly with fluorescence as the house lights dim and black lights hit "just right," Mr. O'Brien said.
All of the theater seats are original and the thought of replacing them with newer, high-backed models was quickly abandoned when he realized the low-grade slope of the old theater can't support the same high back chairs found in more modern theaters — no one would be able to see in front of them.
The style of the movie theater has been referred to as modern baroque — "If it's not baroque, then don't fix it. That's how I remember that," Mr. O'Brien said.
Much of the opulence, although muted with time, can still be seen throughout the Town Hall from the unique and graceful curves of the inset ceilings of the lobby and vestibule, the ceiling paint design over the acoustic tiles and the sweep of heavy drapes.
One of the vestibule antiques, a candy vending machine, is believed to have been there since the 1949 renovation. Others, like the distinctly carved organ or the golden ornate throne, have been acquired by the O'Briens over the years.
The throne has earned its own poem.
"Whether you visit for laughs or screams, sit upon our throne of dreams," Mr. O'Brien recited. "The wish that's cast in our special chair can be a wish that takes you anywhere."
Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien purchased the Town Hall Theater in 1990 from Nick and Rena Giannocous, who became the new owners in 1957 after the Wolf family.
"We're going to keep doing things to keep us relevant," Mr. O'Brien said. "It's easy to think during the pandemic that you're a sinking ship, but we think we're an icebreaker. We're going to survive this thing."
"Sing 2" is the sequel to the 2016 film "Sing," a computer-animated musical comedy in which human-like animals put on a singing competition to help koala Buster Moon, voiced by Matthew McConaughey, save his theater. In "Sing 2," Buster and his friends are trying to get a show produced. To do so, they must get a reclusive aging rock star, lion Clay Calloway voiced by Bono, to sign — and sing — on.
The voice cast includes Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Pharrell Williams, Halsey, Letitia Wright and many more.
If live music performances work for the O'Briens the way they did for Buster Moon, the Town Hall Theater is about to have a sequel.
Movie tickets go on sale 30 minutes before each concert begins at the Town Hall Theater box office, 5428 Shady Ave. For more information, call 315-376-2421 or go to www.lowvilletownhalltheater.com.