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Olympic Theatre fans race to beat digital transition

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By John Wolcott
HBJ Freelance Writer
Published: Monday, January 28, 2013, 3:34 p.m.
ARLINGTON — The Olympic Theatre’s challenge of finding funds to install digital equipment as film copies of the latest movies rapidly disappear is reminiscent of those old weekly movie serials run in theaters decades ago, where each week brings a new installment with a cliff-hanger ending.
The owner of Arlington’s 73-year-old, one-screen downtown movie theater, Norma Pappas, is figuratively tied to the railroad tracks as the digital-age equivalent of a smoking, black locomotive roars down the tracks toward her.
Each week a new segment of the Lash Larue or Gene Autry serial would bring a new exciting chapter, always ending with another alarming scene to bring the audience back again the next week.
But, without $30,000 — and likely even more — she’s finding it impossible to avoid the oncoming train.
That’s where the weekly movie serial ending is heading for her — unless help arrives, and fast.
She’s run the theatre practically single-handed, night after night, for more than 35 years. It attracts people from Arlington and outlying communities, particularly families and seniors. Pappas hires high school students to help out. People appreciate the low ticket prices, compared to today’s multiplex theaters, and the reasonably priced popcorn, candy and drinks, old-fashioned plush seats and movies often as fresh as they’d find in competing mega-screen cinemas.
That era will end soon if the Olympic Theatre doesn’t make the digital leap.
From the movie studios’ perspective, digital copies are simpler to distribute, much cheaper to process and offer a sharper picture. Film is a nostalgic part of Americana, but there’s no financial incentive for the studios to make a few film copies to sustain the thousands of small theaters across the country.
Digital movies will win and the Olympic’s screen will go dark without help.
Although Pappas doesn’t want sympathy or handouts, the community is trying to raise funds for the digital equipment her theater needs. Fundraisers worked to save the Concrete Theatre in east Skagit County and Oak Harbor’s Blue Fox Drive-In.
William Frankhouser, a local photographer and website designer who holds meetings with other residents regularly at The Local Scoop on Olympic Avenue, has created Save the Olympic Theatre pages on Facebook and at where people can make donations.
So far, donors have pledged more than $2,200 toward the $30,000 goal that would buy a lower-end digital projector that might be enough to keep the theater open, a goal supported by many residents in north Snohomish County, Frankhouser said.
If the cost turns out to be higher to get a better projector, the fundraising would continue, he said.
He also has plans for a local band’s fundraising concert, selling $5 Save the Olympic Theatre bumper stickers and other community events.
The problem, of course, is that digital train coming down the tracks.
“I’m already finding I can’t get film movies of many of the titles coming out,” said Pappas, “and ones I am getting have been passed around and have some streaks in them. Help will have to come soon if we keep going. I can’t keep this up on my own much longer and without being able to use digital movies, we’ll be out of business.”
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