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.
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.