Historic theater comfortable space for moviegoers


CHATHAM, N.Y. -- Lauren and I could see the Crandell Theatre is a rare place, as we parked on Chatham's Main Street at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

The broad two-story building stands like a wonderfully out-of-place birthday cake, frosted in a sub-baked salmon pink with red trim, purposefully placed amidst the grays and whites that dominate surrounding buildings.

This vibrant art house was constructed in 1924 in a Spanish Renaissance style out of brick and stucco, incorporating arches indoors and out, whimsical Edwardian architectural flourishes and a yellow awning marquee that electrifies the night with swirling red circus lights framing the current and coming attractions in press-on black letters.

It announced the single-projector theater's current feature, first-run historical drama "The Butler" showing once a day through Thursday, and Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine," which opens with two screenings Friday evening at 7:15 and 9:15. As the sun dimmed the salmon façade did as well, and the marquee lit up the block like a movie screen.

We entered through two large arched doorways to the small ticket window, accepting cash only -- we paid $5 a ticket -- surrounded by colorful prints of vintage promotional posters and brochures advertising the theater's attractions to audiences of another era, which likely ranged from the highbrow to the high; "The Great Escape" through Monday and then "Black Orpheus" starting Tuesday, Truffaut's "400 Blows," accompanied by the documentary short "Bear Country." The campy thrill flicks "Duel of the Titans" and "The Young Racers" double-billed on a Friday night.

The hall was designed to host traveling vaudeville productions and screen silent films. Opening night came in 1926 with the screening of a Jules Verne teleplay. I can't help but wonder about the live acts that came through the Crandell in the 1920s. Some of them must have been dynamite.

The projector resides at the theater's rear and animates a screen that hangs above the 26-foot wide stage and orchestra pit. Other vaudevillian trappings include dressing rooms and organ lofts on each side of the stage. Audio equipment was installed in 1929 after "The Jazz Singer" hooked audiences on synchronized dialogue.

There are 422 comfortable seats with ample legroom, cushioned in crimson to match the enormous curtains swaying underneath stone arches receding into the auditorium's walls, arranged in three sections on the ground floor and 112 more in a balcony looming a floor above the back row of ground-floor seats.

It's a double-height theater that stretches back far from the road, so the seats are arranged in deep and relatively narrow sections that are easy to navigate during the film. Dim ruby light faintly glowing from wall-mounted lanterns shed just enough light to help me find my way to and from my seat without incident or confusion. There were about 30 audience members, and the place felt intimate, luxurious and welcoming. And, thankfully, it was not kept at subarctic temperatures as many theaters are.

Afterward, while poking around the lobby looking at the building's peculiarities and the posters advertising upcoming events, Lauren struck up conversation with Sherry, the woman who'd been working at the concession booth selling snacks that are a notch or two nicer than expected. She explained the Chatham Film Club, a nonprofit staffed by volunteers, purchased the Crandell several years ago.

The club, which used to merely host monthly screenings at the theater, hasn't changed much about the Crandell since assuming ownership, though their few changes are noteworthy. The annual five-day film festival, coming up in October, is anchored around the Crandell but includes Q&As with filmmakers, receptions and other events at nearby businesses in downtown Chatham.

The club also replaced the previous projector with a digital one, equipped with a unit that enables 3D projection when desired. Steve, another volunteer who showed us the projection booth, held up a red bar of plastic and metal, not much larger than a key chain flash drive, and explained that six feature films can now fit on one of these cartridges.

"The picture's beautiful and the sound's beautiful," said Steve. "Now with the digital projector we're doing a lot more first-run films. And by the end of this year only indie movies will be available on film."

Listings and tickets will be available on the Crandell Theatre website within the coming week. I'll certainly be back to see this beautiful old theater operating at full steam.


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