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Chris Hicks: Theater that ran old films holds grand memories

SHARE Chris Hicks: Theater that ran old films holds grand memories
Art Proctor

Art Proctor

With the changing of the guard at the Avalon Theatre — from a classic-retro movie house to a venue for punk- and hard-core rock concerts — you'll pardon me if I'm in a nostalgic mood.

Art Proctor, who ran the theater for 43 years, was the Salt Lake Valley's patron saint of old movies. And the Avalon — and for shorter periods under Art's aegis, the now-defunct Blue Mouse and Vista theaters — were grand revival houses back in the day.

Art began showing older movies long before home video. If you wanted to see a classic film without cuts or commercial interruptions, you had to go to the 600-seat Avalon Theatre, at 3605 S. State.

When I moved to Salt Lake City in the late 1970s, I quickly became a regular, and I got to know Art casually. Then in 1980, when he opened his video store adjacent to the theater — also specializing in classics — we talked more often and became friends. (Quite a few years later, my family and I moved into Art's neighborhood — without knowing it until we saw each other at church one Sunday — and our wives also became friends.)

Now Art's, retiring. Well, sort of.

He has sold the Avalon and is taking a well-deserved vacation. But he hopes to come back after that and open another small video store with the more than 5,000 VHS tapes he still has (along with a couple of hundred DVDs) — all of them older/classic films.

Most of the tapes are out of print and not on DVD, so it is his hope that the market for renting these rare movies remains viable.

When Art opened the Avalon Theatre in 1963, it was a first-run house (his first film was "Taras Bulba," starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis).

He loved movies, especially the classics. But this was the 1960s, and stronger "adult" content was gradually starting to creep into films.

Over the next decade, violence, sex, nudity and foul language became more pervasive and more graphic, and Art wasn't happy with the direction cinema was taking.

He also began to feel that there weren't enough movies being made for adults, as Hollywood started to gear its product to the youngest common denominator.

So, in late 1973, Art decided to try an experiment. He brought in a black-and-white double-bill: the 1935 "Mutiny on the Bounty," and the 1936 drama "San Francisco," with that great climactic re-creation of the 1906 earthquake.

Art was smart enough to use radio advertising to let people know what he was doing, as well as his regular newspaper ads. And word-of-mouth helped fill the theater.

"It was a full house," Art said. "We had to turn people away. It broke my heart to say, 'You'll have to come back another night.' "

It wasn't that he didn't think the ploy would be successful. "I just knew that people would come." But he had no idea just how successful.

The audience ebbed and flowed, depending on the films, but the Avalon gained a strong reputation as the go-to place for golden oldies.

The Avalon's slogan in newspaper ads says it all: "Good movies like good books never grow old."

Through good times and bad, Art stayed true to his convictions, and the result is that many, many people have their own Avalon memories today, favorite films they shared with friends and loved ones.

Sadly, the theater is now a relic of a bygone era. But every time I drive by the Avalon, and some punk group I never heard of on the marquee, I'll remember all the great old movies I saw on the big screen . . . thanks to Art.

And, of course, I'm not alone.

I often hear from people who share their memories of favorite movies they saw at the Avalon — from Hitchcock to Eddy & MacDonald to Danny Kaye to Cary Grant to. . . . Well, you name it.

Art was doing so well in the mid-1970s, that he took over the Blue Mouse downtown (with only 100 seats) to show even more old movies — emphasizing Humphrey Bogart, the Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello and W.C. Fields, to satisfy a burgeoning interest in vintage films by University of Utah students.

"I wanted to run those movies at the Avalon, but we were just too booked," Art said.

Later, he saw the future in home video and emphasized classic titles when he opened the Avalon Video Store. In the late 1980s, however, when sell-through tapes gained momentum and such cable channels as AMC and TCM began showing old films without commercials, business began to drop off.

In the '90s, he pulled 100 seats out of the Avalon and added a stage, booking then-popular comic hypnotists on weekends to supplement the theater's business.

Art was still running the occasional "new" family-friendly movie even then, though they were becoming harder to find. But sometimes, as with "The Secret of Roan Inish" in 1994, he'd strike box-office gold. Word of mouth kept that one alive for 13 weeks!

Such occasions would remind Art of the old days, back when a double-bill like "Wuthering Heights" (1939) and "Hans Christian Andersen" (1952) would bring in grosses that were comparable to first-run earnings.

He also surprised himself when he revived 3-D movies. A double-bill of "It Came From Outer Space" and "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" was so popular that he ran out of 3-D glasses and had to scrounge up more.

In the summers, musicals bolstered business for several years. " 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers' and 'Show Boat' always did well," Art said.

On Wednesday, Art, his wife Nancy, and daughters Natalie McCandless and Tracey Grow were packing boxes of videos. "We've been doing it all week," Art said.

Nancy told me it's been a bittersweet experience, akin to rifling through memories from four decades.

Natalie describes her mother as "an entertainment widow," because Art had to spend so much time at the theater.

But the family often joined him, and Natalie remembers how, in the early days especially, the movie prints provided by studios would often arrive in very poor condition.

There were no film-preservation efforts back then, she said. "We hand-repaired sprocket holes just to get them to run through the 16mm projector."

E-mail: hicks@desnews.com