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The Williams Cinema logo

"Williams Cinema: Dealing With the Ups and Downs"
By Pat Upton of the World Staff

(Reprinted courtesy of Scott Nelson,
Tulsa World Web Editor, 9/6/2004)

In showbiz vernacular, the Williams Cinema is a trouper -- a new breed of showbaby born in a decades-old trunk.

Having had enough bad breaks during the past eight years to lame a cast of thousands, the Cinema now functions as Tulsa's only specialty film "art theater."

It is the largest and only big-screen single theater in Tuba, rivaled in screen dimension only by one of the Boman Twin's theaters. Except for Oklahoma City's Bijou Theater, the Cinema is Oklahoma`s only other consistent showplace of foreign and specialty films.

Robin Amos

Robin Amos, Williams Cinema manager, readies the theater's concession area.
(World Staff Photos by Steve Crane)

Located at First and Main streets. the Cinema is on the same spot once occupied by the by-gone showplace, the Lyric Theater. Built in 1901 inside the then 10-year-old Lynch Building, the Lyric was a vaudeville theater and Tulsa's first film theater.

The marquee then might tout variety acts that criss-crossed the country, with headliners such as Will ("Oklahoma's Favorite Son") Rogers, Eva ("The 'I Don't Care' Girl") Tanguay, or perhaps the most famous of blackface artists, Tom ("Ham Tree") Heath.

Today, electronic faces of a "Star Wars" era flash on the screen from sophisticated sound projectors on 35mm film in Dolby stereo.

For all of the Cinema's friendly, smooth-as-silk countenance, it has traveled a rocky road to whatever success it has achieved.

The Cinema debuted in September 1978 and, although owned by Williams Realty, it was run by four different operators within its first four years of existence.

Finally, Williams Realty officials decided to operate the Cinema.

When it first opened, the Cinema was part of a "chorus line" of businesses owned by Williams Realty and housed at the Williams Center.

The Williams Center itself was a combination northside-downtown development inspired by a national trend toward downtown mall renovation. Optimistic city planners and businessmen had hoped it would knock Tulsans dead.

It was also hoped that the Williams Center would revive downtown as a shopping center, a quality lost when Tulsa enperienced "urban spread" toward the east and south. In the process, Tulsa also lost some of its historic showplaces -- ironically, many of them movie theaters -- like the Rialto, Majestic, and the grandiose Orpheum and Ritz.

But with downtown's new look came new problems. Increased downtown crime tarnished the grand renovation scheme for years and kept away fearful shoppers and moviegoers.

City leaders responded with a police crackdown and continued security measures created the safer environment the area now has.

Parking concepts changed from plentiful and inexpensive meters to lots, which can charge nearly $1 for 15 minutes and from $3 to $5 a day.

The de-emphasis on meters is still harped upon as being partly responsible for driving away shopping business from downtown proper to city malls.

However, the Williams Center and Cinema are surrounded on the south, east, and west with lot parking that is plentiful and free weekday evenings and weekends.

But eight years after the Cinema's opening, the general public still seems to cite the old gripes as reasons for staying away from downtown -- and the Cinema according to Ann Pellegrino, the Cinema's general manager.

Ann Pellegrino

Taking a look at some of the Cinema's film stock before show time is Ann Pellegrino, the theater's general manager.

However, Ms. Pellegrino adds, one of the Cinema's most signficant blows has been the lack of downtown residential developments. Originally included in the downtown renovation plans, residential developments were supposed to provide the Cinema with built-in "neighborhood audiences."

But the developments never materialized.

Without a residential area from which to draw a substantial moviegoing clientele, the Cinema hasn't become the cinematic attraction that multiple theater complexes are, Ms. Pellegrino said.

And, in the public's mind, downtown Tulsa has largely remained a business district.

"The largest percentage of theatergoers are young and people go to movies in theaters near their neighborhoods," said Ms. Pellegrino, who also manages The Ice and Picnic at the Williams Center. "Kids come to the ice rink because it is the only one in Tulsa. But they don't have to come downtown to go to a movie."

While the Cinema has perhaps the most eclectic film schedule in the city, it generally doesn't draw kids, which are categorically the most frequent filmgoers. The majority of regular Cinema patrons fall in the 20-55 age range.

Part of the problem is that the Cinema can't afford to bring films to Tulsa before other theaters, like United Artists and General Cinema theater chains, unless they are exclusive.

But the downtown location makes distributors hesitant to rent first-run movies exclusively to the Cinema, Ms. Pellegrino said.

So youngsters generally have already seen many of the Cinema's mainstream films such as "Back to the Future," "Rambo, Part II," "Star Wars," and "War Games."

The Cinema mural

     The Cinema's mural

Even so, the Cinema's reputation rests with its specialty films consisting mostly of foreign films.

Many are recent award-winners like "El Norte," "Muddy River," and "Another Country."

Others are quirky cult and avant-garde fare like "Liquid Sky," "Eraserhead," "Brother From Another Planet," "Enormous Changes At the Last Minute," "A Boy and His Dog," "Le Dernier Combat," and "Subway."

"I think it's just the people in Tulsa," Ms. Pellegrino said. "People say they love the theater. But then I ask them when was the last time they were there, and they say maybe six months or a year ago, or that they don't go to movies or that they keep forgetting the Cinema is here. I think Tulsa is going through an art dark age.

"We're very proud of the Cinema here. It's clean, our employees are courteous and hardworking, and we have a quality product. But it's hard to deal with the fact that the population doesn't support the Cinema. Having to keep saying that also seems to reinforce people's idea that no one goes to the Cinema."

Since the demise in 1981 of Tulsa's near-legendary, 917-seat Continental Theater, the Cinema has been somewhat of an awing oddity. It has a spacious seating capacity of 720, a first-class decor (by today's standards), and a film schedule that mixes second-run features with weekly one-time specialty showings.

There is even a nearly 200-member Cinema Society which, every six weeks or so, gathers for a one-time showing of rarely seen films, such as the "lost" Gloria Swanson film, "Queen Kelly" and Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" (considered the greatest propaganda film of all time).

The Cinema has been able to capitalize on the impetuosity and derring-do of Tulsa's chain theaters that have played first-run movies of top-ranking status such as "Stop Making Sense," "Kiss of the Spiderwoman," and "The Trip to Bountiful."

"In a sense, the chain theaters did us a favor and cracked the ice with the public by first bringing in those films," said David Kimball, a six-year Cinema employee and manager who left last month to manage art specialty theaters in Santa Fe, N.M.

"Because of their cost, the Cinema couldn't afford them first," he said. "But once they played Tulsa, and all to dismal first-time results I might add, they were made affordable as sub-run fare. Wa ran them all and had great success."

Occasionally, first-run foreign or specialty fare is featured for a week or two. A few times it didn't work, as with "Stranger Than Paradise" and the recent 1985 Academy Award-winning "The Official Story."

But the successes are many, such as "The Brother From Another Planet" (in which former Tulsan Chip Mitchell appeared), "A Sunday In The Country," "Diva," "My Dinner With Andre," "One From The Heart," and the most recent, "Smooth Talk" starring another former Tulsan, Mary Kay Place.

Over the years, Cinema ticket prices have been competitive. Since 1982 admission has been $2. Two months ago it went up to $2.50. Also, popcorn is free on Wednesdays and ladies receive half-price tickets on Mondays.

The Cinema also maintains a special status where concessions are concerned, offering tea and alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine coolers.

But for all of the Cinema's attributes, the possibility that it may go under is a constant concern.

"It's true that we never really know six months at a time whether we will still be here." Ms. Pellegrino said.

"It's a constant struggle to improve the financial picture of the theater. You expect that for a certain amount of time...until the theater gets established," she continued. And it's getting better all the time."

Ms. Pellegrino said during the past few years, various changes have been considered for the theater, including establishing a table-and-chair restaurant setting at the front of the theater or a dinner theater environment.

"But we don't really want to change, in a way," she said. "Our salvation is that we're a little different."

One of the most encouraging suggestions considered is to suspend the Cinema's huge screen which would give patrons different perspectives of the screen's action throughout the theater.

Seeing the silver lining around the many potential clouds, Ms. Pellegrino insists, as she has for the past eight years, that business at the Cinema will continue as usual.

"In light of Tulsa's sagging economy," she said, "I don't know how long the Cinema can keep going. I mean, no one at Williams Realty wants to see the theater go. They're all very supportive. Realistically, if something better comes along, then the Cinema will be gone. But for now, it will be business as usual. We're not going anywhere...except to the movies."

Copyright © 1986, World Publishing Co. All rights reserved
(From the Tulsa World, not an endorsement)

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