BELLOWS FALLS — The beloved Bellows Falls Opera House is set to reopen next weekend, 15 months after it closed its doors and shut off its projectors after showing the eventual Oscar winner, “Parasite.”
Town Manager Scott Pickup told the Rockingham Select Board Wednesday night that current plans are set for the movie theater to reopen June 11, after the lengthy coronavirus pandemic closure.
Pickup said in a follow-up interview Thursday that the movies that will reopen the traditional, large-screen movie theater are likely to be “Cruella,” “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” and “A Quiet Place Part II.”
He said that the Opera House’s co-manager, Jennifer Jung Heidbrink, is working to nail down which movies will be shown and didn’t have confirmation quite yet. He said the movies would be oriented to family or Disney movies for the premiere weekend.
Jennifer Heidbrink and her husband Tim are the Opera House’s new managers; both have other jobs Pickup said, and will be working part-time on a flexible schedule to get the theater up and running.
Both Heidbrinks are longtime veterans of the Opera House, and they have been running the theater’s popular “Triple Up” concession combination during the past several months, to not just generate revenue for the town-owned and operated theater but to keep the area residents involved.
The town has applied for several grants to help cover the costs of the theater, which has always been subsidized by the town in its operation.
The town has already applied for a $140,000 Small Business Administration grant that is focused on helping closed theaters and arts venues reopened and operating.
Pickup told the select board there is no guarantee the movie-going public will be back as they were before the pandemic struck. He said the SBA grant, if the town receives it, will be a cushion to help it stay open and rebuild its clientele for the next year or so.
Whether people will stay home with their Netflix and other streaming services is a big unknown, Pickup said.
One advantage the Opera House has is its large capacity, 470 seats, Pickup said, noting that Gov. Phil Scott is expected to lift the remaining public health restrictions next week, clearing the way for no restrictions on the movie house.
Vermont is approaching the 80 percent vaccination rate that Scott has set as a target before he orders the remaining restrictions on public gatherings lifted.
At any rate, Select Board member Susan Hammond noted that the Opera House gives people plenty of room to “socially distance.”
The town is in the process of coming up with a contract with Rockingham Entertainment Development Ltd., or RED, an organization headed up by local artist Charlie Hunter.
While original plans last fall included a plan for RED to take over much of the Opera House operation, Pickup said that proved to be unrealistic. The town will still hire and pay the staff to run the movie theater, Pickup said, while RED will take over marketing and promotional activities, such as bringing live performances to the restored theater.
Hunter, who attended the Wednesday night meeting along with the Heidbrinks, said it is a big unknown on whether people will return to the movie theater or stay home. Hunter said RED is working to upgrade the Opera House’s website to include paperless tickets. Tickets will still be sold in person at the theater, he said. The price has gone up from $5 to $6.
The complexities of running a movie theater are “so exponentially compounded by COVID, no one knows,” Hunter said.
Jennifer Heidbrink said she is optimistic people will return to the theater, which was restored by the town about 15 years ago.
“I definitely feel good about it,” she said. “I really do.”
Pickup said the town is in the process of making $20,000 to $30,000 worth of health-safety repairs to the theater, particularly plumbing and electrical improvements to the concession stand.
Rockingham Chairman Peter Golec said he is concerned about money, and he noted that RED originally said it would take over the operation of the theater by itself, with no financial contribution from the town.
As a result, Golec said, the town did not budget anything for the operation of the theater in the budget that begins in July.
He said the current budget has about $300,000 set aside for the theater operation, but the money will not be available after June 30. He complained that the theater was not breaking even before its closure.
But Hammond noted other town departments, such as the Recreation Department, also didn’t break even, and said the theater provides a quality of life boost for the town, routinely drawing people to downtown Bellows Falls for movie night.
Pickup told Golec and the rest of the board that the unspent funds in the current budget could be carried over to the next budget with a board vote.
He said RED would be taking over some operations of the theater, saying the town planned on “leaning” on RED for its entertainment management expertise.
Pickup said that current plan is to have the movie theater open five days a week, as it was before.
Hunter said live events would be scheduled in conjunction with the movie theater, noting that Jennifer Heidbrink is even teaching him Google calendar for scheduling.