“You mean to tell me my uncle actually charged people to go in there? And people actually paid?” –Matt Spenser (Bill Travers) upon first seeing the condition of the Bijou Kinema, in The Smallest Show on Earth...
They also inherit three elderly employees who have long been part of the Bijou’s checkered history—Mrs. Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford), the cashier who was once also the cinema organist during the silent era; Mr. Quill (Peter Sellers), the projectionist with a more-than-slight penchant for Dewar’s White Label; and Old Tom (Bernard Miles), the janitor who only wants a uniform commensurate with his position and who dutifully provides a fiery solution when negotiations with the magnate hit a snag. These three comprise what passes for the barely beating heart of the Bijou, and if Dearden’s movie seems to end just as the third act is set to begin, it remains a sweet-tempered testament to the blinkered spirits of the Bijou staff, as well as to the fleeting pleasures of nostalgia and the long-lost palaces where past generations learned to love the movies.
The theater, under new management now twice removed from Bob and Norene Alger, more or less limped into the digital age. Shows were now weekends only, and the theater, which opened in 1940 (see photos above), was beginning to show the effects of a lack of cosmetic upkeep. A ghastly stage had been installed in the mid ‘80s, ostensibly in a move to establish a community theater presence which never took hold, obliterating the first four or five rows of original seats. What seats remained were the original 1940 editions and as butt-numbing as ever; the marquee lights were spotty, every other bulb either burnt out or screwed into a socket that had long since failed to carry current; the façade of the theater was tattered and badly in need of a paint job; and the marquee itself was warped, rickety and weather-beaten, its ability to hold up plastic letters routinely challenged by a stiff breeze. With the cost of keeping the theater open for just three days a week becoming increasingly indomitable, it seemed the writing was on the wall, and it probably had been for at least the first 10 years of the 21st century.
Much like how the storm that destroyed the drive-in screen in 1981 had presented the Algers a convenient exeunt from the drive-in business, big studio threats to stop providing 35mm prints to theaters, thus forcing small-town operations like the Alger to upgrade to digital equipment in order to stay in business, were the rationale current management needed to call theatrical exhibition in Lakeview, Oregon a permanent day. After several attempts to communicate with the current owners and brainstorm ideas for keeping the theater alive—a theater in nearby Alturas, California, had successfully navigated a crowd-funding campaign to upgrade their theater and make it a community-operated business—I stopped receiving replies to my e-mails, and it became clear that, in response to deteriorating attendance, the owners weren’t really interested in rallying an effort to come up with the money to keep the doors open.
Last year I got a message from a friend still living in Oregon who said she’d heard that the Alger was about to be purchased by a new owner, given a digital upgrade and a paint job, and reopened. Did I dream this? If it were true, it would be an unlikely deus ex machina, given the history of this theater, and given the economic straits in which the town is currently mired. It’s the sort of dream of the past and its familiar faces that I wake up from all the time. But no, I didn’t dream it. The message was real. And whether or not the resurrection of the Alger makes the transition from rumor to reality—and the town’s active interest in making it happen cannot be overemphasized-- is a story I have been following closely and will continue to keep my eye on.
When I see the empty shell of that theater, standing abandoned and ignored at the edge of my hometown, I don’t feel like a piece of me is lost. No, I know right where that piece is at. It’s still inside those doors, in communion with the dusty old red curtain, the forever dimmed house lights running the edges of the auditorium at the ceiling level, the mysterious projection room, from whence all those amazing sights and sounds emerged, the tidy confines of the snack bar, watched over by the old Thornton’s Drug clock on the wall, its timekeeping partner, the one bearing the Lincecum Signs ad, still perched in the auditorium above the door to the back of the screen, stage left. Yep, I’m still in there, sitting in those worn-down seats, waiting for the next movie to start. By a great stroke of fortune, maybe someday it will.