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Can the Sands Theatre survive digital conversion?

Can the Sands Theatre survive digital conversion?
Anthony Camera

Small-town boy Joe Machetta loved Las Vegas. "I used to gamble with Dino; he always liked the number-one chair. I always sat in the middle, with the rest of the guys on the other side; Dino always had three or four gals around him all the time," Machetta says, crediting his "personality" for bringing him to the attention of Dean Martin and other members of the Rat Pack.

"I spent a lot of time at the Sands in Las Vegas. It was a good relationship. In those days, I was able to travel a lot more than I can now," the eighty-year-old Machetta adds. "Now I seem to be so committed I can't go anywhere."

He's committed to the single-screen movie house in Brush that he bought back in 1958 and renamed the Sands Theatre, in honor of his favorite hangout on the Strip, bringing a little bit of Vegas glitz to the plains of northeastern Colorado. He had a grand, V-shaped neon sign made for the theater in a style that faintly resembled the Sin City institution's marquee in its heyday, and placed a poster of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop in the theater's cramped but congenial lobby.

Although its namesake was demolished long ago, Machetta's Sands Theatre is still in the picture...for now.

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A century ago, motion-picture houses started popping up in towns across Colorado. Brush got its theater in 1916, when the Emerson opened on Clayton Street, the main drag. It started out booking vaudeville shows, then began showing movies.

Even tiny Aguilar, between Walsenburg and Trinidad, had a motion-picture house: the Ute Theatre, which was owned by Joe Machetta's grandparents. "I grew up in the theater business," he says. "I started out working at the Ute. I used to help out at the concession stand, just filling bags of popcorn and selling them for ten cents a bag. In those days, prices were a lot different than they are today."

Machetta joined the Navy in 1955 and went to Korea, then served on a minesweeper. When he got out, in 1957, he heard that the Emerson was for sale — and jumped at the chance to get back into doing what he knew best. He bought the theater, changed the name, and reopened it in April 1958.

"The first film I showed was The Hard Man, with Guy Madison. I ran double features; I ran it with another one called Going Steady, and that was with Molly Bee. I played a lot of double features in those days," says Machetta.

Admission was a whopping sixty cents for adults and a quarter for kids. "The price for the actual film at that time was $12.50, $15 or $25 for the top films," he recalls of those early days. "If there was a big feature, you paid a percentage, but that was very seldom that we had a percentage feature."

Running the theater took all of Machetta's time and attention; there was no more room for trips to Vegas.

"I think part of the reason I was able to exist all of these years is because I've kept my prices down and held on to a lot of my customers, because they would wait until I got a picture," says Machetta. "Right now, my adult price is $5; it's $4 for seniors and $3 for kids under twelve. Every Monday night I have a $2.50 charge for movies. That's one of my best nights of the week."

In 2005, the Sands was added to the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties; it is the only structure in Morgan County to hold the honor. Machetta says it took two years of research to get that designation, including many trips to the neighboring Fort Morgan Museum to gather all of the appropriate documentation on the Sands and its past life as the Emerson. Machetta is now working on securing a national historic designation for the building; he's already been turned down once. But he remains undeterred; a few more details on the origin of the theater's doors, and he'll be ready to apply again.

The Sands certainly looks historic, much as it did more than five decades ago, right after Machetta took over. To the left sits a ticket booth with a glass partition and a stool stationed by the tall countertop. To the right, just a few feet away, a concession stand boasts a row of multi-colored lights shining along the customer side of the counter. A 1940s Manley popcorn machine is the snack bar's centerpiece, all chromed-out metal and curved glass, with the words "Pop Corn fresh hot" in a racing font. This time warp of a contraption still pushes out popcorn every day.

But the most popular snack is the Pickle Jube, a local delicacy you can only find at the Sands. Years ago, a couple of girls noticed that Machetta would throw out the juice after all the pickles in a jar had been sold. They told him he should make popsicles out of the seasoned water, so he did, freezing the juice and selling it in a shot glass for 25 cents a pop. Though Machetta makes dozens before each show, he still has a hard time keeping Pickle Jubes in stock.

 

While the Sands hasn't changed much physically, time hasn't stood still for this theater — or any of America's small-town theaters. The future is barreling toward them, threatening their very existence.

As cinema goes digital, the longtime standard of 35-millimeter projection is becoming obsolete. The Sands has a pair of immaculate Super Simplex 35-millimeter projectors — Machetta estimates they're from the late '30s or early '40s — that still run smoothly. But while most major studios are still making 35mm prints, they're becoming harder and harder to find. Soon they'll disappear altogether. Unless theaters invest in expensive new equipment — digital cinema projection costs upwards of $50,000 per projector — there will simply be no more movies for them to show.

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The Sands isn't the only theater on a collision course with technology. Small-town movie houses that managed to survive the rise of the multiplexes, fended off competition from Blockbuster and then fought off Netflix are finding it almost impossible to come up with the cash for the digital conversion.

But those theaters don't have the backing of Brush, population 5,500. When residents learned of Machetta's new challenge, it became their challenge, too.

Machetta wasn't about to ask for a handout; he's always been one to lend a hand in his adopted community. "He was reluctant, as any person or private business owner might be — he felt like it was charity," says Gregg Mullen, an insurance agent whose office sits next to the Sands. He and Machetta have become great friends over the years; just about anyone who walks through the theater's doors becomes a friend. And they all wanted to help.

"I said, 'Joe, I know there are a lot of people out there who I know would be willing to donate or do things, because they feel like a lot of us do about the Sands,'" says Mullen. "Joe and I talked again, and he agreed to let us see what we could do. A committee was formed, and we started meeting to brainstorm ways we could raise funds to help with this."

The Brush Chamber of Commerce spearheaded the project, creating a "Save Our Sands" Facebook page that tracked every fundraising event people in Brush put on for the theater. The chamber also approached Downtown Colorado Inc., a two-person nonprofit founded in 1982 to help main streets and town centers in small communities across the state, which has been working with Brush since it joined DCI's Main Street program in 2001.

At an event in Brush highlighting the Sands in April 2012, DCI executive director Katherine Correll first heard about the challenges of converting to the digital format. After meeting with various groups, in late 2012 DCI started Save Our Screens to help not just the Sands, but other rural theaters, too, offering a Rural Digital Theater Conversion Grant to qualifying venues (see story, below). With funding through the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, the Colorado Small Business Development Center Network, the Denver Film Society, and the Gates and Boettcher foundations, the grants provide anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 to help a theater make the technological change. But before a theater can apply, it must raise at least $10,000 on its own.

And since projectors can cost many times that, the people of Brush set a Save Our Sands goal of $40,000. The Brush Fire Department served a chili and cinnamon-roll dinner outside the Sands when the theater was showing Robocop; local shops Bing and Me and All About U hosted a fashion-show fundraiser. Those two events alone netted close to $6,000. Local high-schoolers from the Future Business Leaders of America set up a "date night" party and raised over $4,000. A former resident of Brush sent $750 and a heartfelt letter, sharing fond memories of the Sands and talking about how kind Machetta had been to her when she was a child. An anonymous donor gave the theater $5,000. There was no doubt that Brush loved the Sands. But they loved Joe Machetta, too.

"The response to fundraising for the Sands is in large part because of Joe. I think people would rally to keep it open anyway, but people love Joe in this community," Mullen says. "He's been kind of like another parent to kids. If they would come to the theater and they didn't have a note from their mom or dad that they could get in the movie, then he wouldn't let them in. I know he's actually called parents before to let them know that their child wanted to see a rated-R movie and asked if that's all right." He shares this anecdote with a laugh. "People feel close to him."

 

Ron Prasher, who has been the executive director of the Brush Chamber of Commerce for fourteen years, and was the principal of Brush High School for 27 years before that; he has known Machetta since 1970. "The people really support him; I don't know anybody who doesn't like Joe," Prasher says. "There's got to be somebody, but I don't know who it would be. He's been a star within this downtown for fifty, sixty years. That's why the whole idea of saving the Sands goes even beyond just the theater; it's about Joe. The people respect him and care for him."

And they care about what he's done for Brush. "Movie theaters in little towns are a big deal," Mullen notes. "There aren't a lot of entertainment options in rural America, so they've been a big deal for years. A much bigger deal decades ago, of course, when the farmers and ranchers would come to town on a Saturday and do their shopping and then maybe go to a movie. Theaters have always been an anchor in these little towns. A community kind of takes ownership of it in a way; they talk about the movie theater in a town like 'our theater.' There are probably hundreds of people who have memories of the Sands Theatre and Joe, who's been in the theater for over fifty years himself — and it just touches everybody.

"To have the Sands Theatre here as that entertainment option is still a good thing; it's an anchor in our downtown. And it's historic — it's going to be a hundred years old in 2016. It is a shame to think that it could have been closed and gone."

But to the residents of Brush, which was just named a finalist in the National Civic League's All-American City contest, losing their theater was unthinkable. By the end of April, they'd raised $43,000 to save the Sands. Downtown Colorado added another $20,000 to the fund with a conversion grant.

"When I first started working with the town of Brush in 2006, they were dealing with flooding from sewer lines and being on a hundred-year floodplain," remembers Correll. "They came together as a community, got a facade grant and fixed up all of these historic buildings. It is one of those rare communities where it seems like the people who grow up there stay there."

And the Sands is at its heart. "When you think about it, that theater is not just a business; it's a gathering place, it's a cultural activity, it's the thing that keeps the kids and families there on Saturday night instead of driving to the next biggest town," she says.

"It is really an important cultural piece of all of our communities in Colorado — even looking in Denver at the Mayan Theatre or the Esquire, some of these older theaters. They really do play an important role in our communities. But in these smaller, rural areas, it is the thing to do. It is the thing, and they only have that one thing. It's like losing the post office or the grocery store; it is key to the survival of that community."

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Outside the Sands, the wind whips dust across the newly paved street. The paving project hurt business last year, but the theater was still open every day. "People had a hard time getting into the theater, and I lost a lot of customers because they didn't want to walk through all of the mess," Machetta remembers. "I still haven't gotten a lot of them back. It has been a struggle."

But not as big of a struggle as dealing with digital conversion.

The Saturday matinee has ended, and Machetta is in the projection booth at the top of a rather grand staircase, looking at his set of pristinely preserved Super Simplex 35-millimeter projectors. "These projectors are marvelous," he says. "That's what's so scary about digital; they're telling me the lifetime on the new projectors is between five and six years. It's unbelievable."

Machetta often runs these projectors himself — just as he has for more than five decades. "Right now I have two projectors, because you have to go back and forth with the reels," he says. "They were smaller reels at one time — 2,000-foot reels. You'd have to change the reels about every twenty minutes from one projector to the other. Then they increased the size to 6,000-foot reels when they went to polyester film. So generally, on a two-hour picture, you only have to do a one-time changeover. I do a lot of it myself still. I just love the film."

 

He definitely loves the polyester film more than he did the highly flammable nitrate film it replaced. "You could not smoke in the booth," Machetta recalls. "A flame would just burn up all that film on the reel, so we had to enclose the film in metal bins. These 2,000-foot reels had to be enclosed. Then when they went to polyester film and came out with new lamp houses, you didn't have to worry about the flammable stuff. It's a stronger film — a lot easier to work with than nitrate, which was thin.

"We used to burn positive and negative carbons that would have flames inside of the lamp house, so you had to watch them pretty closely all the time. Gosh, when you strike the carbons and they burn together, you can't allow them to drift apart, or they'll go out and you lose your picture. Then you have to strike them again."

While he doesn't miss that part of the process, he knows he'll miss the Super Simplex projectors when the single digital cinema projector is installed, for a total cost ot $60,000. That equipment is square and much more efficient-looking than its predecessors; there will be no reels to place in the magazine, no more movement of the film to catch in the shutter. Nothing flammable.

And the new projector will make it possible for Machetta to show any film that's playing at the multiplexes in nearby Fort Morgan or Sterling. He'll be able to offer the patrons of the Sands the blockbuster movies they've been missing since the movie industry started eliminating 35mm prints, leaving single-screen rural movie houses in the dust.

Peering out from the projection room, Machetta looks down at the auditorium below. Years ago, he added a stage and a curtain so that he could make a film's unveiling more breathtaking. He remembers figuring out how to bend the curtain's track into an arch, creating an even bigger dramatic effect when the drapery was yanked open and the movie started rolling.

For almost sixty years, Machetta has kept things rolling at the Sands, sharing his love of movies with the people of Brush. And thanks to those same people, Machetta and the Sands are ready to roll into the digital age — and the theater's next century.

Brush residents helped raise funds to save the Sands.
Anthony Camera

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