The County Theater in Doylestown is revisiting Tinseltown’s glory days with the ‘Hollywood Summer Nights’ series, which runs through Labor Day.
By: Matt Smith
If the dictatorial apes and clawing velociraptors overrunning the multiplexes have you terrified, throw down your popcorn and Junior Mints and run screaming for your life. The County Theater promises movie lovers an escape.
The County, the lone art house in Bucks and oasis for film buffs with its first-run independent films, is supplementing its regular offerings with the Hollywood Summer Nights series, featuring benchmark movies from Tinseltown’s glory days.
The re-opening and subsequent refurbishing of the County Theater has helped spur the revitalization of downtown Doylestown. In addition to offering first-run independent films, the theater presents special programs, lectures and a film discussion group.
Upcoming cinematic time-machine trips include the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights, with the moors of pre-Victorian England in all their haunting beauty; the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant; and a kitschy sci-fi flick, When Worlds Collide.
The community-owned theater, thriving in downtown Doylestown since the Closely Watched Films movie club re-opened it as a non-profit in early 1993, is a great way to escape the sticky summer weather. In fact, when it opened in 1938, the County was known for the chill of its modern air conditioning. The air was on full-blast during a recent afternoon visit.
Sitting on a bench in the lobby of the art deco relic, Jim Sanders, director of outreach and development, says keeping things running smoothly means more than taking tickets and mopping up the occasional soda spill.
In addition to presenting a wide array of independent and classic movies, the theater sponsors a thriving film discussion group, shows kid’s movies during the school year and maintains a member roll of 3,600 people. The "labor-intensive" operation requires four full-time administrators and 11 part-timers.
Unlike the chains, which show the standard major-studio selections year-round, a great deal of planning goes into presenting a series like Summer Nights, especially when attempting to screen half-century-old films in their original 35 mm format.
Scheduling for the first half of the series, which ran Memorial Day through Fourth of July, took place in February, and the second half in late May and early June.
Mr. Sanders says a number of factors go into the lead time patrons’ requests, film availability and quality. The search for prints has gotten easier over the years, thanks to the efforts of film preservationists, but the County reviews each film using rigid standards.
"When we build a film, we pre-screen it for ourselves to check its quality," says Mr. Sanders, who notes that human splicing errors can slowly make entire scenes disappear from a reel. "If it doesn’t measure up, we ask for a new print."
This year, the County’s executive director, John Toner, procured films like Nashville and Lost Horizon for the series’ first half. The latter portion got underway this month with two film noir classics, Gilda and Laura, and will also include a thinner Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as Sabrina (Humphrey Bogart, not Harrison Ford) and the epic Doctor Zhivago.
Mr. Sanders says the theater is already getting geared up for its Cinematheque series in the fall, which will focus on forgotten classics and experimental independent releases of a recent vintage.
He also is excited about Delving into Hitchcock, a lecture series on Alfred Hitchcock featuring film historian Warren Day, who interviewed the famed director over two days in 1969. The County will show two Hitchcock thrillers, Strangers on a Train and Rear Window.
Mr. Sanders says the theater’s new video projection system will make more lecture series possible and allow them to present films shot on digital equipment by indie filmmakers.
Having already restored the neon tower and marquee and installed new seats and Dolby Digital sound in the past few years, Mr. Sanders is setting his sights on adding handicapped-accessible rest rooms in the first-floor lobby. Like all old-time movie houses, the rest rooms are on the second floor.
"We put it all back into the theater," he says.
Although 98 percent of similar downtown theaters no longer show movies or have been leveled, Mr. Sanders says he regularly gets calls from movie buffs making last-ditch efforts to rescue their hometown theater from a similar fate.
"We get a lot of calls from people trying to save theaters from the wrecking ball," says Mr. Sanders, noting the County has provided advice to success stories like Phoenixville’s Colonial Theater (of The Blob fame). "We look at ourselves as creating a model that others can follow."
If other towns want to re-create the County’s success, Mr. Sanders says it takes a great deal of organization and community support.
"The commitment has to be there. There have to be a lot of people that really want it. If you’ve got the passion, they will follow."
Hollywood Summer Nights runs at the County Theater, 20 E. State St., Doylestown, through Sept. 3. Films include Bringing Up Baby, July 25-26, July 29-30; Wuthering Heights, Aug. 1-2, 5-6; A Streetcar Named Desire, Aug. 12-13, 15; Sabrina, Aug. 15-16, 19-20; When Worlds Collide, Aug. 22, 26-27; Doctor Zhivago, Aug. 29-30, Sept. 2-3.
The Cinematheque series will begin Sept. 12. Delving into Hitchcock will take place Oct. 10, 15, 22, 24. For information and show times, call (215) 345-6789. On the Web: www.countytheater.org