Customs house STORIES FROM 'THE CHRONICLE'

Keeper of the Last Picture Show


Eric Faden
Eric Faden in front of the Campus
(Chronicle Photograph by Lawrence Biemiller)
By Lawrence Biemiller

Lewisburg, Pa. -- In the evenings, Eric Faden's living-room windows glow green at the edges from the neon lights of the marquee outside. From almost any seat in the room you can see the tops of giant, polished-aluminum letters -- an S, a U, a stylish, Art Deco P. Together, the letters spell out -- backwards, of course -- CAMPUS, which is the name of the 1941 movie theater that Mr. Faden bought last summer. Indeed, they spell it twice as they sweep above the sidewalk in a broad semicircle: once for people heading north on Market Street, and again for those going south. The neon in both A's is dark.

A Beautiful Mind is unspooling in the projection booth on the far side of the kitchen wall as Mr. Faden pulls homemade pizzas out of the oven for his guests. He is sporting two-tone wingtips that complement a ready, cartoon-sized smile. Now 33, he is in his second year of teaching film courses at Bucknell University, where he is an assistant professor of English. But almost everyone in Lewisburg knows him as the guy who bought the aging Campus when the family that had run it for 60 years decided to sell. The guy who started right in on long-overdue renovations, who after that brought a two-week Library of Congress film-preservation festival to town, with 37 movies and an appearance by a genuine, old-fashioned movie star, Janet Leigh. The guy who made an apartment out of the big empty space above the lobby. The guy who shows people the theater's original murals and says, "You can see why it's hard to walk away from something like this -- you can't let it become a parking lot."

The story sounds so much like a screenplay that it's tempting to wonder who would play Mr. Faden. But so far it's a story that doesn't have an ending. He has gotten plenty of good publicity, and he has a business plan that he assembled with a lot of help from Bucknell's Small Business Development Center, but the movie business is not an easy one. It's anybody's guess whether he can keep a single-screen, small-town movie house alive in an age of multiplexes, Blockbuster, and HBO. "It's hard to make money, really hard," he says. He doesn't have to turn a profit -- he's not giving up his day job -- but he does need to make enough to cover the mortgage. Meanwhile, the multiplex at the mall in nearby Selinsgrove is adding screens: It will soon have nine.

The Campus Theatre opened for business on January 17, 1941. It has a curved, ceramic-tile facade in Bucknell's colors, orange and blue. The wooden doors between the outer and inner lobbies are inlaid with Deco figures that include a football player and a bison, Bucknell's mascot. The neon lights mounted on the walls of the theater itself are orange and blue, as are the seats. Love Thy Neighbor, a musical starring Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and Mary Martin, was the first feature, Mr. Faden says during a tour that winds from the brushed-aluminum box office to the projection booth. Admission was a quarter. Nettie Meachum, who took the first ticket, is still an employee -- she takes tickets two or three nights a week.

In the 1940s, Mr. Faden says, the United States had some 7,000 single-screen movie theaters, including a second Lewisburg movie house, the Roxy. It was owned by the same family, the Stiefels. Now there are a mere 300 one-screen theaters, he says. But he had never thought of buying one himself. Sure, he had run the film series at the University of Florida for three years while he was a graduate student, and had worked on a couple of films in Los Angeles. And he had written his Ph.D. dissertation about the rate of adoption of new technologies in the film industry. But own a movie theater?

In May 2000, shortly after Bucknell hired him, Mr. Faden visited Lewisburg to find a house, only to be outbid for a place on Seventh Street. When his real-estate agent learned about his interest in films, she insisted that he look at the Campus. "I just went in to see it," he says now. But the marquee and the murals and even the Art Deco exit signs impressed him. A staircase that the agent thought led to the projection booth took them instead to a dilapidated space above the lobby, and the agent had the presence of mind to say that it would make a great apartment. Mr. Faden says he tossed and turned, and finally called the agent to ask for more details.

Planning and negotiating the sale and the renovations took a year. Bucknell, Mr. Faden says, was amazingly helpful, providing a small grant in addition to reams of advice. The seller was Jacqueline Stiefel, who said she would not turn over the property to anyone who didn't plan on keeping the theater open. But even after Mr. Faden happened along, the negotiations went slowly.

Mr. Faden's renovations cut out about 200 of the original 700 seats. In their place are tables and chairs for patrons who want to buy dinner from the new cafe in the lobby, either before or during the show. There are also overstuffed sofas for customers seeking to lounge. Mr. Faden brought in a real popcorn popper -- the theater had been reheating popcorn made elsewhere and purchased in bulk -- and he bought an ice machine to end the theater's unpopular practice of selling warm sodas.

But much of what Mr. Faden has done the public will never see. The theater's plumbing and wiring had to be brought up to code, and problems cropped up often. "I was pretty mentally beat up," he says. Also unseen is the computer system he installed to replace the old handwritten ticket reports. Meanwhile, a Bucknell junior named Jim Hepburn has cataloged hundreds of movie posters, dating back to the 1950s, that were stored in the basement, and he'll start in this spring on the theater's collection of trailers, also dating to the '50s. A graduate student from the University of Florida, Denise Cummings, is studying cartons full of box-office records and other information. Mr. Faden's next project, when he can afford it, will be to refurbish the battered marquee.

The initial renovations were finished just in time for the October opening of the well-attended Library of Congress film festival, which Mr. Faden had agreed to hold at the Campus after a chance meeting at a conference with the head of the library's motion-picture division. Mr. Faden knew it would be a good way to call attention to the theater and its new lease on life. Janet Leigh's presence certainly helped -- she introduced the 1958 Orson Welles film Touch of Evil, in which she starred with Charlton Heston. Another highlight was a two-day appearance by a 20-piece silent-film orchestra led by Rick Benjamin, a Lewisburg resident with a national reputation for accompanying old movies. Mr. Faden himself played the ambulance siren in a 1928 Harold Lloyd comedy called Safety Last.

Now that things have calmed down, Mr. Faden and the theater's new manager, Mary Bannon, are trying to figure out what mix of films makes the most sense in a town with a population of about 7,900. Ms. Bannon, an adjunct instructor of film and screenwriting at Susquehanna University, says they've discovered that "Bucknell students don't see as many movies as we thought," so trying to cater to their tastes isn't as important as catering to the town's: A Beautiful Mind, based on the life of the Princeton University mathematician John F. Nash, Jr., is doing as well at the Campus as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Harry Potter's run here illustrates some of the difficulties that a small-town, one-screen theater faces. Ms. Bannon says the terms under which Paramount released the movie were not negotiable -- the minimum run was six weeks, with the studio collecting 70 percent of ticket sales in the first two weeks, 60 percent in the second two, and 50 percent after that. But six weeks is too long for almost any film to fill the Campus night after night, especially if that film is also playing in nearby Watsontown and in Selinsgrove. After five weeks and a lot of begging, the studio let Ms. Bannon replace the tale of the boy wizard with another Paramount movie, The Majestic -- which happens to be about the renovation of a small-town movie theater.

Mr. Faden notes that he can end up making just as much money off a little-known art film as off a Harry Potter, because the art film might play for a single week, and the distributor might collect only 35 percent of the box-office take. Ms. Bannon is looking forward to a month of independent films in February, and is thinking about running children's movies on Saturday afternoons. Meanwhile, there's a staff of 10 part-time employees to pay, along with expenses like the electric bill -- for the 3,000-watt Xenon projector light, the blue-and-orange neon in the theater, the giant green letters outside Mr. Faden's windows.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," he says later that evening. The dinner dishes have been cleared, and he has slipped downstairs and into the back of the darkened theater. Russell Crowe's face looms on the screen -- he plays John Nash -- and silvery light glints off stars and ribbons in the murals. Mr. Faden says that over the years a number of architects visited the long, narrow theater with an eye to carving it up. "Anyone with any sense would split this into two screens," he whispers, looking out over the long rows of seats, mostly empty. "But that would ruin exactly what's worth preserving."

The Campus Theatre's Web site is http://www.thecampustheatre.com/

Copyright © 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published January 25, 2002.