Wickenburg historic theater in danger of closing

June 06, 2013

Early next year, production companies will stop making movies available on film. That means theaters have to purchase new equipment to show digital movies, and that is not cheap.

The Saguaro Theater The Saguaro Theater is know for its neon cactus on top of the building that lights up at night. The neon has never been replaced. (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)

Some local theater owners are starting public fundraisers to get by. After more than 100 years of movie making, producers are giving up on film. It’s going away like eight track players and the Sony Walkman, but entering the digital age is not a change some Arizona theater owners are excited about.

“Isn’t that a wonderful sound? And that sound is part of what I’ve loved about the business all of my life…but unfortunately no more," said Scott Zimmerman, owner of the Saguaro Theater in Wickenburg.

Zimmerman stands in the projector room. It is a hot and crowded little space above the auditorium that seats more than 270 people. Zimmerman bought this place three years ago, because he has always been a film buff.

“The theater opened on April 9, 1948. This is one of the original Harkins theaters. It was built by Arizona showman Red Harkins, which is the father of Dan Harkins.” Zimmerman said. 

The Harkins family now owns dozens of movie theaters around Arizona, and it pretty much started in small movie houses like this one.

"Back in the old days it had two separate rooms in the back. One was a cry room where if your baby was crying or it was hungry you could take it back there and mother and baby could sit and still watch the movie through a piece of glass, and the opposite side had what was called the smoking lounge where you could watch the movie while you were smoking your cigarette," Zimmerman said.

The baby room and smoking lounge at the Saguaro were walled up years ago. In fact, this old theater has seen quite a few changes over the years.

Zimmerman has spent a lot of time and money upgrading the seats, restrooms and the theater’s single screen. Now he is facing another huge hurdle.

“For the Saguaro Theater its going to cost $50,000 to install this equipment, and  it doesn't stop with just the equipment. We’re unsure if the sound equipment is going to be compatible," Zimmerman said. "Some theaters have even had to replace their speaker systems because they’re not compatible with the digital equipment.”

Zimmerman said he cannot come up with the money by himself so he has launched a public fundraising campaign. It has gathered $1,200 in contributions over the past month.

He said the large theaters are getting rebates from movie companies to install digital projectors, but theaters with fewer than five screens are on their own. Zimmerman says he may have to close the Saguaro or convert it into another commercial space.

“People in this town love the theater. It’s a part of our history, a part of downtown," Wickenburg resident Diane Lowe said.

Diane Lowe has lived in Wickenburg for 40 years.

“When you look at the theater the first thing you see is a huge Saguaro cactus. We’ve named him Prickles," Lowe said.

Lowe is crazy about the large neon cactus that sits atop the marquee of the Saguaro Theater. She managed the business for 11 years and even though she is not employed here any longer, she is working to keep it open.

“There’s nothing here for the kids to do. There’s no bowling alley, there’s no anything, this is about it for the kids and even the adults," Lowe said. "Most of them would rather stay here and see a movie rather than go someplace else.”

The Saguaro is the only theater in Wickenburg, and if it closes, the nearest place to watch a movie is in Surprise more than 30 miles away.

But, Wickenburg is not alone. People in Kingman and Tucson are trying to raise money to save their small theaters too. Jason Carney is executive director of the Phoenix Film Foundation and he said the small theater owners are smart for appealing to the public for donations.

“You know if these smaller theater chains can make it through the storm they’ll be great in the long run and hopefully we can because we need them. These small communities need these small theathers and without them," Carney said. "They wouldn’t get to see film as much and get to experience the art of film.”

But, for a lot of people in small towns, life might mean going without first-run movies. The National Association of Theater Owners says 20 percent of movie theaters and drive-ins in the United States are in danger of closing during the switch to digital.

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