Future fuzzy for Radford Theater
RADFORD — For almost 30 years, movie-goers have been able to count on the Radford Theater as a clear choice for affordable first-run movies, but now the future of the long-standing venue looks fuzzy.
Owner Frankie Kirk officially put the business up for sale last month, causing many of its most-tenured visitors to wonder whether the single-screen theater on Main Street had entered its final days.
A group of the concerned patrons, spearheaded by the Main Street Radford Economic Restructuring Committee, has planned an open meeting Monday for the community to discuss the future of the theater. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. and will take place at Main Street Radford’s office at 107 Third Ave.
Main Street Radford Director Becky Haupt said the group plans to highlight ways the theater can remain profitable, with the hope of playing the role of buyer-seller matchmaker.
“We want to find that person that will love it like Mr. Kirk loved it, but is ready to take it to the next level,” Haupt said.
Kirk purchased the theater in 1983 after spending more than 20 years working at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg.
He said the Radford venue, which began showing pictures in 1935, had lay dormant for two years and that it took him three months of working “every spare minute” to get it back up and running.
Since that time, the now 72-year-old owner has dedicated himself to showing films every night, running the theater’s 35mm camera himself almost each night since his debut film, Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Sharon Holdren, who has been the theater’s only other employee since Kirk reopened it, said it was the owner’s passion that fueled his dedication.
“He loves his movies, he loves his job, and he knows every aspect of it,” Holdren said.
Planning to join Kirk in retirement from the theater business after the sale, Holdren called it a bittersweet departure, but she said she knew it was time.
Part of that feeling is likely due to Kirk’s health. He spent the 2011 Christmas holidays in the hospital after having a heart attack and stroke, and although he has since returned to full-time work, he admitted he was tired and it was time to leave.
“I got to get out. Hey, I work seven nights a week, 364 days out of the year, no vacations unless I’m in the hospital,” Kirk said.
Another aspect of the business Kirk has remained dedicated to over those many days and nights was keeping his prices — which today are set at $5 per movie — below many of his competitors’.
“You can bring [a] date, go to the movie, enjoy a popcorn, candy, and a drink for under $20,” Kirk said.
To maintain that cost, Kirk said the theater has foregone a few technological upgrades, the most noticeable being the acceptance of payment via credit card.He admitted he does get the occasional cashless person, often a college student; however, he said he just wasn’t willing to raise his prices to compensate for adding the payment option.
Radford University junior Michelle Bowse said the cash-only policy has never deterred her from going to the theater, but rather the affordability and location have made her and her friends frequent costumers.
“It’s nice to not have to pay $10 and go into Christiansburg to see a movie,” Bowse said.
Bowse said she also enjoyed how the venue was an “old-style” theater but showed many of the most-recent films. She said she hated the thought of it closing.
She isn’t alone, according to Kirk, who said that since the announcement of the sale he has encountered many people upset over a potential closing.
“I hear that constantly,” Kirk said. “ ‘You’re not serious are you? You’re really going to close?’ I say, ‘No, it’s for sale. You want to buy it?’ ”
Kirk said he, too, hoped the theater would remain open after his departure but admitted that wouldn’t stop him from retiring and would be completely up to its new owner.
Finding that new owner, along with ways he or she can keep the theater profitable was a primary concern for Haupt as Monday’s meeting approached and was the reason she reached out to Marion Downtown Director Ken Heath.
Heath said he plans to speak about the renovation and revitalization process undertaken at Marion’s Lincoln Theater in the early 2000s, which transformed the 1929 picture house with caved-in roofs into the nonprofit live-entertainment theater it is today.
Most notably, the theater today plays host to the Public Broadcasting Service’s musical series “Songs of the Mountains.”
Heath said not only has the theater become a success, but that its success has had positive effects throughout the entire town.
“When there’s something at the Lincoln, Main Street’s full,” Heath said.
Though the Radford Theater is in far better shape than its Marion counterpart, Haupt said she believed some updates and improvements could turn it into a similar success.
Ideas such as maintaining a website, accepting credit cards, bringing in live entertainment, and upgrading to a digital projector are all concepts she said could be beneficial to the new owner.
At Monday’s meeting, Haupt plans to address those ideas in hopes they take root in an individual or group of people willing to invest in the downtown business.
Kirk said he, too, plans to attend Monday’s meeting and is hoping for similar positive results.
“I hope somebody stands up and says, ‘Hey, I’ll do it. I’ll buy it,’ ” Kirk said. “I’d like to see the theater keep on and stay there for another 50 or 60 years.”
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