In Houlton, Maine, the Temple Theatre is currently on the market, if not exactly for sale. Its owner, Mike Hurley, says he has decided to give the Temple, and the building that houses it, to the winner of a 250-word essay contest who best describes why he or she wants to own and run the theater. You have to pay $100 to enter the contest. I also understand that if you win, you’ll have to set some money aside for taxes. Even though winning the Temple isn’t exactly Power Ball, the IRS will see the prize as a capital gain. To offset the fee and taxes, the winner can claim a bonus of $25,000.00 and optional consultation on the mysteries of movie theater management.
I wish Mike Hurley well. The Temple — converted to digital projection several years ago — has two screens and a total of 400 refurbished seats, a considerable investment. It’s obvious Mike really loves the place and wants to hand it off to just the right person. A committee of literary townsfolk stands ready to judge the essays (minimum 3500 applications or the whole shindig is no go). Although the original deadline was January 15, he’s extended it to the 30th to give procrastinators a little more leeway.
No, I am NOT thinking of entering this contest! I’ve done my time as a movie theater operator. Still, I understand the romance of the thing. Just the other day a friend who should know better (he worked for us while we were going broke at the St. George) dreamed aloud about buying a small cinema that just went dark in Virginia, where he lives. Of course I told him he was crazy, but all the same I understood. There is something so compelling about a blank marquee and an empty ticket-seller’s box suggesting rows and rows of darkened seats inside. Mike Hurley no doubt knows about this tidal pull. A citizen of Belfast, Maine — several hours’ drive from Houlton — he already owned Belfast’s Colonial, his childhood theater, when he fell in love (his words) with the Temple. He’s tired now of driving 152 miles, and the indispensable guy he hired to manage the place is retiring. Mike says the Temple “makes a ton of money in concession,” which sounds really familiar to me, if not entirely convincing.
What is it about contests that is so American? We are an optimistic people. Just Google “win” and see what you find. I was looking for “Name This Pony,” remembering Parade Magazine’s weekly essay contest I entered every seven days, as a child. I was hoping — my mother’s nightmare — that we could keep the pinto I had successfully named in our garage. No ponies available for naming these days, but I did find “win a pontoon boat.” And if you’re aching to win a bed-and-breakfast, the field is wide open As a writer (poet), I’m no stranger to publishing contests myself. It’s virtually the only way, excluding self publication, most poets bring out first books. Thousands of MFA students send away for the Yale Prize, The Brittingham Prize, the National Poetry Contest, the Gray Wolf Prize, yearly, paying anywhere from $15 to $30 for the privilege of submitting a manuscript. The winner is published from the proceeds. Creative writing is even less of a profit-center than movie theater ownership.
If only, back in the day, we could have held a win-the-theater contest! But we weren’t owners, just renters, which is to say sharecroppers. We could, perhaps, have held a great big popcorn-rich rent party every month. Wish I’d thought of that.