Randy Walker special for the Roanoke Times
The 90-year program in the Virginia Room of the Roanoke Public Library lists entertainment for the Grandin Theater grand opening – a performance by the Ken Winn Orchestra, a Looney Tunes cartoon, a Movietone newsreel, a dance of “Misses Floyd and Dorothea Ward”, and the main attraction, a screening of “Arrowsmith” starring Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes.
“Only theater in Roanoke built exclusively for sound pictures,” proclaimed a newspaper ad. “The ‘GRANDIN’ – Roanoke’s newest theater – is a purely local business, with no affiliation with any movie theater chain.”
It was Saturday, March 26, 1932. Those present, including members of the Junior Woman’s Club, could not have foreseen the plot twists that would follow over the next nine decades, including three closures, two other major openings and a pandemic. But they would surely be delighted to know that the Grandin, Roanoke’s last survivor of the movie palace era, is still standing, still local, still screening films and celebrating its 90th birthday – all changing with the times.
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Lee Wilhelm, 74, grew up on Greenwood Road and was part of Wasena Elementary’s Student Safety Patrol. “We were going there when we were 9, 10, so it’s like the late 50s, early 60s,” he said. “We could go to the Grandin Theater on Wednesday afternoon and show our badge and get in for free. The other cool thing, we all headed there on Saturday morning. It cost a quarter to get in, and our parents would give us 50 cents or something, and 20 of us from the Greenwood area would drive up there.
By the 1970s, suburban multiplexes were wreaking havoc, and the Grandin screen went dark in 1976. But that wasn’t the last curtain.
The Mill Mountain Theatre, having lost its mountaintop home to a fire, moved to Le Grandin, where it performed ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Guys and Dolls’ and ‘Annie Get Your Gun’. The cast left the stage in 1983 for further digs in Center in the Square.
The following year, the Grandin reopened under new owner Jack Andrews, his sons and co-manager Phil Poff. The brief Andrews era, 1984-85, is best known for concerts by Bobby Bland, Delbert McClinton, Dave Brubeck and other blues and jazz legends.
“It was fun because those were the guys I liked,” Poff said. “Not many 27-year-old guys get to hang out with Ray Charles, BB King and John Lee Hooker. The level of talent was extraordinary.
The Lindsey-Hunsaker era began in 1985 when businessman Jim Lindsey took over, appointing his sister, Julie Hunsaker, as manager. She brought in arthouse, independent and foreign films, then bought the property from Lindsey.
In 2001, the financial clouds were rumbling again, and Hunsaker screened “The Last Picture Show” as the finale. But a sequel was already in the works. The non-profit Grandin Theater Foundation came to the rescue by purchasing the theater in Hunsaker with financial assistance from the city. Grand Opening III was held in October 2002.
General manager Ian Fortier joined the cast in 2014. Under his leadership, the theater launched a walking program for children in the West End Centre; Programming for Black History Month (see attached article); and the Grandin Theater Film Lab for budding filmmakers in grades 9-12.
Seventeen-year-old Kent Turner and a team of comrades are in pre-production on a film he’s writing and directing. “It’s a psychological thriller, which will incorporate a lot of the directing techniques we learned in our horror genre study last year,” he said.
There was a lot of psychological stress, if not horror, when the pandemic hit.
Before the pandemic, the Grandin was a first-run movie theater, with showings seven days a week, Fortier said. During the first few months of the shutdown, the screen turned off; then the Grandin reopened as a second-run theater, with far fewer showings and reduced ticket sales to accommodate the spacing of viewers. The theater returned to first-run status in July 2021, showing movies only on weekends.
Even before COVID, movie theaters across the country were stressed by the rise of Netflix and other streaming platforms. In 2019, Fortier and his board members began talking about making changes to the main auditorium.
“We realized that this room which is underperforming, if it had the capacity to do other things at a high level, then we could offer diversified programming around our cinema identity”, such as corporate seminars , educational matinees, ballet, children’s theater, a series of children’s authors, TED talks, guest speakers and occasional live music. “Capturing diversified revenue to help us become sustainable in the unpredictable future – that’s our goal, to make sure the Grandin is here for at least another 90 years.”
The three-phase “Heart of the Main” campaign (as in the main auditorium) improved house lighting, stage lighting, and acoustics. Final stage goals include improving the stage, screen, curtains, and sound system. The foundation hopes to raise $350,000 (for Phase III plus additional upgrades) by the end of the summer.
Before COVID, revenue from tickets, popcorn, merchandise, rentals and on-screen advertising ranged from $700,000 to $750,000 a year, Fortier said. Grants, donations, corporate partnerships and memberships cover the remaining expenses. “This organization has been in the dark for seven years in a row. Le Grandin is a debt-free, lien-free, loan-free, interest-free and mortgage-free organization. The total budget is approximately $1.4 to $1.5 million.
Despite the upheaval in the entertainment industry, Fortier said moviegoers need not worry. “It’s a movie theater palace. It’s one of the last golden age cinemas we have in our area. We don’t intend to stop being a movie theater .
The theater receives donations to grandintheatre.com/donate.