Community

Orchard Theater may reopen using nonprofit model

The Historic Orchard Theater closed on Dec. 30, but it may reopen as a non-profit corporation, said Jeff Brein the theater’s owner.

“We decided that three years was probably enough to test the (for-profit) concept,” he said.

“We probably held onto it a year longer than we should have,” he said, “hoping to tweak it and move things around, but it wasn’t in the cards in its present incarnation.”

The current business model just seemed unsustainable.

“The numbers just weren’t there to keep it going,” he said. “After three years of running the theater at a loss and not really seeing any reasonable prospects for turning around, we decided to close.”

The city of Port Orchard initially welcomed the theater, said Kahlen Burgwin, the theater’s manager and only full-time employee.

But about one year in, attendance started declining.

“The place didn’t fail from lack of support from the company,” he said. “Looking at it on paper, I’m kind of surprised we were open as long as we were.”

And it wasn’t the customers’ fault.

“Of our attendance, regular customers represented probably 75 percent,” he said. “A lot of people in town really tried to make it work.”

Burgwin said he’ll miss working at the theater.

“Every day it’s mostly the same people,” he said. “It’s a fun work environment.”

One of those customers, James Kelsey, started a group, informally dubbed “The REEL Friends,” to support the theater and local restaurants.

Kelsey blames the people of Port Orchard the theater’s demise.

“They killed it,” he said.

The theater had a great product, he said. People just didn’t buy it.

“The Orchard’s shown the right movies,” he said. “They’ve shown movies like Prescious, Hurt Locker and Slumdog Millionaire.”

And they showed them before the bigger theaters.

Bigger theaters didn’t pick up many of those movies, Kelsey explained, until they’d won awards.

“After they won the Oscars, there were lines around the building at the bigger theaters,” he said. “But when they played at the Orchard, no one saw them.”

And people never even realized, Kelsey said, that those movies had shown, long before, in downtown Port Orchard.

But Brein gave Port Orchard residents a little more credit.

“The community embraced it,” he said. “There were large groups of supporters, but the total never made it profitable for us.”

“I don’t think that it was because of any extenuating circumstance,” Brein said. “We just misjudged the number of older movie-goers who would make the trek to Downtown Port Orchard to see a movie.”

Brein added that it was “a bit of a gamble” to open a theater 822 Bay St., when the previous movie house at that location had limped along for years until it eventually died.

And several theaters had come and gone before that at the same location.

Movies first started showing there in 1924, when the Knights of Pythias met upstairs and rented out the downstairs as a theater.

They closed the building in 1962, and the rooms stood empty until 1980, when it reopened as the Plaza Twin Cinema, run by a group of investors.

In 1996, the group disbanded, but a group member, Bob Geiger, a local pharmacist and longtime city councilman, bought it.

It limped along showing second-run films until 2005, when it closed its doors again.

Brein bought the theater in 2007 and spent about $50,000 to fix it up.

For now, the theater’s officially closed.

“We are committed to trying to do our best to trying to figure out a way of getting the theater reopened or sold,” said Brein, “although I’m more interested in getting it reopened.”

“A possible model is to do something similar to what the Grand in Tacoma has done,” he said, “a nonprofit entity.

“Having volunteers instead of paid staff,” Brein explained, “and allows us to qualify for grants that are available nationally grants that are cultural arts-type grants.”

“I can tell you from experience,” he said, “that the for-profit model does not work. It was a second-run theater, and that concept didn’t work. The only other concept is to go first run and then you have to basically play what the Regal Cinema basically doesn’t want to play.”

But, Brein added, that Mayor Lary Coppola, the City Council and the theater’s landlord seem eager to prevent the theater from permanently closing its doors.

“I think that the city is certainly willing to do what they can to help get the theater reopened,” he said.

If you’d like to help the theater, e-mail Brein at qbprez@aol.com.

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