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The name of the original owner was William DeNault, my father. In the early fifties he had a custom stereo store in the premises; there were no other businesses in the courtyard, only apartments. With the advent of component stereo modules he found his business drying up (much as the small movie theater business did decades later). Seeing the success of the Cinema Guild on Telegraph avenue, he decided to build the theaters. By expanding into a couple of apartments and knocking down walls he eventually hollowed out the theaters.
Everything was made of second hand goods. Original seats came from a burnt out theater in Brisbane and another in Richmond where the refinery was taking over. I remember a journey to Stockton for projectors from another defunct theater.
At first Studio A (nearest to the courtyard) ran 16mm. The projectors were over the hallway that ran to Studio B, which had old monster 35mm projectors. Within a year or so both Studio A and B had the old monsters. The projectors dated back to the 1920’s and had the later Simplex sound heads bolted on (to accomodate the talkies). For the first few years the low intensity arc lamps were used, the ones with the fat uncoated carbons. Later these were replaced with the high intensity lamps.
There was no architect and hardly any contractor work. The only time I recall a contractor being used was when a steel I-beam had to be installed to replace a load-bearing wall that was removed in the initial construction. My father built the entire place (no wonder it was a bit funky!).
I started working there as a projectionist in 1957 or 1958. I was 10 or 11 years old and so short I had to stand on a wooden crate to see out of the windows to make cross-overs. The First movie I ever showed was “And God Created Woman”. To avoid paying union wages my father employed myself, my older brother and a number of my brother’s friends and a number of college students. I worked there until 1965 when I joined the Army. My father figured that since he was paying room and board, there was no reason to pay me a living wage. This became a real problem when I turned 18.
Working as a projectionist was demanding. You had to run the projectors for both theaters simultaneously, so the booth had four machines. The reels were 15-20 minutes long and the arc lamps needed maintenance after each reel. We never had first run films so what we had was often damaged, leading to film breaks. The old machinery itself was not too reliable and often needed various fixings and adjustments. The arc lamps the the rectifiers generated lots of heat and the usual temperature was somewhere around 90 degrees.
The original name was the Fine Arts. The problem was some wit would often climb up the marquee and transpose the first letters. The business was incredibly profitable in the fifties and early sixties. Distributors had these foreign and art films with almost no market in most of the country. My father could, for instance, book a Fellini film for $25 flat rate per week and gross thousands.
In the early seventies my father opened the University Theater in Seattle. Same sort of format but it never worked as well. By the early nineties it could no longer pay the bills and was closed. My father, now 90, is still alive though suffers from prostate cancer.