Going Digital with the E-Team
by Mary Hooper
Even in these days of Netflix, pay-per-view, Hulu and streaming video, people still want to go to the movies.
After all, what's more fun—seeing "The Three Stooges" by yourself on a home screen or in a darkened theater with a bunch of friends, digging into a tub of buttered popcorn?
Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk. That's a rhetorical question.
One reason the Palace Theater in Kinsley, Edwards County, is surviving, even thriving, is because it just is more fun to go to the movies on a Friday or Saturday night than stay home and watch TV.
But the main reason the theater is going strong is a cadre of dedicated citizens known as the E-Team.
The theater recently began showing movies in digital format, having had to mothball its 35 mm projector. The Stooges movie was the last one shown in 35 mm. The first digital movie was "The Avengers" shown over the June 1 to 3 weekend. To celebrate the new equipment, all performances were free. Sponsor was the Edwards County Commission.
Going digital meant that the E-Team had to raise a cool $83,000 to buy the digital system and accessories, build a projection booth, upgrade the audio and pay for labor and installation. But they didn't have a choice if they wanted to keep showing current movies.
"Our booking agent informed us that the movie industry wasn't going to make 35 mm film available anymore. Everything was to go digital," said Mike Call, one of the E-Team's volunteer projectionists.
"It's a lot of money, but we thought, yeah, we can do this," said Debbie Call, who runs the concessions stand the evening her husband operates the projector.
The team kicked off its fund-raising on the Labor Day weekend of 2011 with a beer garden at the all-school reunion of Kinsley High School, according to E-Teamer Thyra Strate. Following the kick-off, the organization tirelessly catered lunches and dinners for numerous organizations, held an auction at the theater with donated items (including a horse trailer and meat packages), which raised several thousand, and accepted donations large and small from past and current Kinsley residents. One even left a sum to the equipment fund in her will.
This past May, the Mariah Fund of Dodge City announced the awarding of a $10,000 grant to the Palace Theater Association/E-Team to help underwrite the purchase and installation of the digital equipment.
Another winner in Kinsley was the National Foundation for Carnival Heritage, an organization which strives to preserve and promote the city's carnival history. The group also was awarded $10,000. The money will go towards improvements and repairs to buildings owned by the carnival group.
All told, the Mariah Fund disbursed $94,401 for nine projects in southwestern Kansas and $5,000 for scholarships and seminars.
The Mariah Fund is itself funded through a percentage of the gross gaming revenue of the Boot Hill Casino & Resort in Dodge City. The casino does not administer or manage the fund, according to the fund's website. Purpose of the fund is to promote projects of non-profit organizations which directly or indirectly enhance tourism in southwestern Kansas.
In just a few months, the E-Team raised $73,000, all from donations and fundraising events.
The Palace is said to be an outstanding example of shoebox theater architecture, so called because the theater is a rectangle, like a shoebox. The Palace is on the National Register of Historic Places.
"They used this architecture for theaters for a lot of years in small towns," said McCall.
Built in 1917, the Palace is ornamented in a style once common to movie palaces. Today's mall multiplex theaters are minimalist, with little if any adornment. In the early 20th century, though, movie theaters were akin to vaudeville and live theaters and featured lots of eye-pleasing architectural flourishes and furbelows.
The Palace has a teak floor, brass sconce lighting, brocade curtains, a black velveteen stage curtain, an ornate tin ceiling and a square proscenium arch gilded and trimmed in teal blue. The interior colors are red, green and cream.
Another point of pride to the E-Team is the hand-painted canvas fire screen, normally kept out of view above the stage in the flyway. Painted by an artist in Larned and installed in 1925, the screen depicts scenes of ancient Rome. Fortunately, the screen has never had to be used in case of fire but has often served as a backdrop for Kinsley High School class photos.
The Palace Theater looks much the same as it did 95 years ago, but some changes were inevitable and necessary.
A concessions stand was added to the lobby in the Fifties, the "crying room" for babies was converted to a ladies' restroom, the orchestra pit was covered with wooden flooring and painted black to make a space for a dinner theater and dance floor.
When the E-Team took over operation of the theater, members brought the interior and sound system up to date. They raised $18,000 through fundraisers and personal and corporate donations to buy a surround sound system and a perforated screen. (Most movie screens are perforated with tens of thousands of microscopic holes to allow sound from speakers behind the screen to come through to the audience.)
The theater's hard interior walls—plaster over brick and mortar—were not made for the newfangled sound system with its large speakers and woofer. There already were large framed panels, made to look like windows with curtains, along the side walls. These were not enough to absorb sound, so E-Teamers covered the rest of the walls with thick red fabric to prevent sound from bouncing around.
The seats, some of which were so worn that the springs were poking through the cushions, were taken out and replaced with newer seats donated by a theater in Wichita which was being remodeled. The newer seats have holders for drink cups, which no doubt helped boost sales at the concessions stand.
Now with the digital projector, the Palace is as current as any multiplex.
The projection booth, located in the balcony, houses the projector, which looks a bit like a small furnace. The booth, ten feet by ten feet, is kept at a temperature of between 64 and 85 degrees.
The digital projector is a far cry from reel-to-reel technology, says Call.
"All you do is plug it in, punch in a code and you have a movie. The soundtrack is on a CD. The new system's also capable of going 3-D."
The old system took the film from one huge platter-like spool, ran it through the projector and wrapped it around another spool beneath.
"It runs reel to reel," said Call. "You have to have the second reel spliced and ready to go as the first reel is running out. Most movies have two or even three reels. A projectionist really had to work in the old days when a movie might be six or seven reels long."
The electrical work was done by Naberhood Electric of Kinsley, and the equipment installation by Sonic Equipment Co. of Iola.
So who are the E-Team?
The E-Team "kind of evolved," according to president Bonita Werner.
In 1998, a group of Edwards County residents bought the Palace from the owner, who had gone into bankruptcy. The group called itself the Palace Theater Association and began showing classics such as "Ma and Pa Kettle" and Charlie Chan films. But the old movies weren't exactly packing 'em in.
In 2000, a group of moms and teens, determined to provide more current entertainment, formed a group with the catchy name of E-Team, for "entertainment and events in Edwards County." They went to the Palace Theater Association and asked if they might show new movies. The association agreed, and a partnership was formed between the groups. In 2008, the two organizations merged fully.
Today the E-Team has a roster of roughly 200 volunteers. The theater is a second-run movie house, showing some movies just a couple of weeks after release. Ticket prices are $5 for those 12 and older and $4 for ages 4 through 11. Children 3 and under are admitted free. The theater has a "date night" special on Saturday of two adult admissions, a $3 box of popcorn and two soft drinks for $13. The theater shows movies Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m.
The team's efforts have been more than worthwhile, says Werner. They've assured Kinsley of a solid downtown anchor, a family-oriented entertainment venue and an historic building.
"There is something to do here. Our town is not lost as time marches on," notes Werner.