Exactly that happened to Katie Troccoli, at the Majestic Theatre in Streator, Illinois, where she works as a real estate agent and theater owner. I find her story enormously compelling, in part because it reminds me of 1976, when, along with my husband and a group of friends, I learned (by doing) how to run (and, unfortunately, how not to run) a 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre, in Staten Island. Such is the life of those of us bitten by the bug of theater entrepreneurship. Here’s Katie’s story; as she says, it’s “Not glamorous or pretty.”
If theater management were swimming, I guess you sort-of jumped in and then learned how to keep afloat...
We met the projectionist Bill Sramek at the building at 5:30. The movie was Drag Me To Hell. It had been delivered to the Hardware Store next door. Bill put the 35mm film together. Jim took on the snack bar. I took the box office. We had to call my daughter and ask her how to make popcorn. (She had worked concession at the park pool as a lifeguard). I didn't know to write down the ticket or meter numbers so I’d know how many people went to which movie. We had people show up to protest the movie. [There are a lot of people who are religious in the area, and the title Drag Me To Hell sounded satanic to some of them!] That's how my career in theatre started...
We learned as we went....I did real estate by day (which was very depressing at the time, as the market had bombed and foreclosures were everywhere) and ran the theatre by night...Being in real estate, I'm not shy. I eventually started booking the films and basically learned all the ins and outs of the theatre business.
The whole family pitching in reminds me of 1976. My partners weren’t my actual family, but we were family in another sense, living in the same house just up the hill from the St. George. But we were dedicated entirely to our Quixotic project. I respect Katie all the more, for surviving the double-whammy of movie theater operation and a busted real estate market.
What was your first experience of the theater?
My first encounter with the Majestic was 1995 when a friend of a friend referred a [real estate] client for me to represent...who was interested in the [building’s] purchase. It was cold, dark, there were icicles hanging from the ceiling on both sides of the auditorium. I told the person who was viewing the property I wouldn't enter a building like this with someone I didn't know. It's too dangerous.
Icicles! That really would make a theater into a cave...I’ll never forget the day the arts council came to investigate giving our theater a grant; it was, alas, raining, and those perfect acoustics only made the drip, drip, drip from the dome seem more obvious. (We didn’t get the grant).
The Majestic, like so many American movie theaters, has had a rocky time of it in the last forty years. All those openings and closings. What was it like watching the rising and falling fortunes of the Majestic?
I am not from Streator. I live in Ottawa, IL...22 miles North, so I was not aware of the building until I got involved in the real estate transaction. I did watch Tim [the owner] open it (with different people as managers) and close it. He worked in the industry in Los Angeles. He would take his vacations at the Majestic, and invite my family to the building.
We got to be good friends. I picked him up at the airport, watched his son Ted, brought food and drink, helped him work on the building. I never planned on owning the building or running the theatre. The things I did were to help my friend. My husband and other friends also pitched in.
Business takes time to build, but Tim wanted it to happen immediately and be profitable. We did a few live shows in the Majestic together. We had Head East, The Lovin' Spoonful, and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Cathy Richardson, who played Janis Joplin on Broadway. We had fun, but didn't make any money. The press didn't cooperate: they ran a story after the event happened.
Tim leased the property to some friends of his, who moved to Streator from Arizona. They did a lot of work on the building, and operated the theatre for two or three years. He threw them out and hired a manager. Then he asked me if I would get involved, but I told him I had a full time job and a family. I didn't need another job....
The manager lasted about 6 weeks. I got a call from Tim about noon at my real estate office. That was June 12, 2009. He told me he had fired the manager and Jim (my husband), and I would have to run the theatre or it would go dark.
Which is how Katie learned to run a popcorn machine and reconcile the box office. We had a little more time than she and her husband did, to learn these things at the St. George, but in general, the seat-of-your-pants stuff seems really familiar. So does that newspaper’s bad timing — at the St. George our ads got dropped all the time, especially devastating when the local paper adamantly refused to believe Sly Stone would actually show up on our stage (he did).
Not surprisingly, a favorite maxim of Katie’s celebrates the terrors and joys of improvisation,“If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” (W.C. Fields)
If you’re running a movie theater, it’s likely you’re up to your ears in proverbial bull.
Am I correct in understanding that you are now the theater’s owner?
I ran the Majestic from June of 2009 until August 2013 when Tim decided to board up the front of the theatre and lock me out.
I bought the Majestic out of foreclosure on October 27, 2016. When Tim boarded up the front of the building, the roof was leaking...First thing I did when I bought the building was get roofing contractors in there to figure out how to resolve the roof issues and stabilize the building. The spectrum of plans and approaches would stagger you.That work has started, but the contractor has been slow to finish the project.
Slow contractors are everywhere: currently the St. George is receiving its long-awaited facelift, a new marquee (the original one has been rusting away since 1976, when we had the place ). Slow work, as winter sets in.
How has moviegoing in Streator changed since the Majestic’s heyday?
Digital projection. [The Majestic underwent digital conversion approximately two years ago.That equipment is stowed off-premises for the time]. And there is now competition from a six screen on the north end of Streator that the City gave a good amount of help to. Plus, there is the issue of poverty that haunts small towns in the rust belt.
Am I correct in assuming you want to reopen the Majestic strictly as a movie theater, or would you feature live shows as well?
The Majestic auditorium was built in 1907 for Vaudeville. [On August 17 of that year, as a matter of fact, a couple were married onstage in a cage with lions, part of a local dare, but very much in keeping with the theater’s Vaudeville roots.] The current seating is a little over 500. The balcony is amazing. There is not a bad seat in the house. Wonderful acoustics....I'm thinking we will do a mix of live entertainment, movies, and special events. Seeing live entertainment, and movies in the atmosphere of grandeur the Majestic can offer beats a box with a oversized TV screen any day. [You betcha.] The Majestic is a crown jewel. The show begins at the curb with the marquee, the box office, the ticket taker, usher, the snack bar. Showmanship is almost a lost art. I plan to teach it to those who are willing to learn so the tradition can carry on.
Keep it alive Katie!
As Marcus Loew said, “People buy tickets to theaters, not movies!”
You may know — or remember — a mutual friend of Katie’s and mine, Robert Endres, formerly the head projectionist at Radio City Music Hall, who grew up in Streator. Bob wandered into the St. George back in 1976, when we were struggling to keep it open, and offered to help, ultimately running our booth for several concerts. He has a particular fondness for old movie houses, especially the Majestic, his hometown theater. Here’s Bob’s first impression:
“I was around nine years old...I had been given a 16mm hand-cranked projector by my uncle and, already a movie fan, I was fascinated by it. I attended a Saturday matinee at the Majestic Theatre... I was seated in the balcony right in front of the projection booth, and stood on the arm rests of two of the theatre seats to peer through the projection port. Not seeing as much as I’d like, I went around to the booth door and was peeking through the keyhole when a manager caught me and ushered me into the booth. I was scared at being caught, but fascinated by the equipment. By the time I was twelve, I was being taught how to thread one of those machines by one of the projectionists”. (I was able to re-enact the experience a couple of years ago and was surprised to see how much lower the keyhole seemed than when I was nine).”
Of course Cinema Paradiso is Bob’s favorite movie!
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