Dream Machines: The End of Reel Film Is Nigh, but a Local Movie-House Dynasty Is Going Strong
In 1947, Merrill Jarvis started supplying Vermonters with celluloid dreams. Each week, the 12-year-old and his uncle packed up a portable projector and drove to tiny towns such as Rochester and Proctor, where they screened movies in town halls. The projector had to be rethreaded every 20 minutes, a hassle almost unimaginable in an age of instant streaming. But in that pretelevision era, customers were just hungry for an evening of entertainment.
“I knew right away, This is what I want to do,” Jarvis says today. He held on to that conviction through 66 years in the movie exhibition business: “I never thought, This is work. I always loved it; I couldn’t wait to get there.”
In the course of his career, 77-year-old Jarvis has owned or operated most of the movie theaters in greater Burlington and built several of them. Today, he and his son, Merrill Jarvis III, own the Majestic 10, Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas and the Palace 9 — every multiplex in the Burlington sprawl except the Essex Cinemas. Another son, Bill, owns the Bijou 4 in Morrisville.
In those 66 years, movies and movie theaters have seen radical changes. But one thing has remained constant: the flicker of film.
Until now. Last week, the Jarvises converted their last two 35-millimeter multiplexes to digital projection. It’s a change dictated by industry-wide market forces that has already swept over most of the theaters in Vermont. The Savoy Theater in Montpelier, an art-house holdout, converted this month, too.
On a recent Wednesday at the Palace 9 in South Burlington, a technician examines the newly installed projectors in the spacious attic that once held gigantic, whirring platters of film. Those have been pushed aside to make room for silent digital projectors like the one currently showing Oz the Great and Powerful in a theater below.
With price tags of $29,000 to $32,000 each, the new NEC NC1200C projectors look like computer servers with lenses and xenon bulbs attached. Instead of being threaded with film, they “ingest” movies on hard drives or receive them from another server, a “library management system” that can be programmed to control all the theaters’ basic operations, from trailers to ambient music. While Merrill Jarvis III says no layoffs are planned, the traditional role of the projectionist is obsolete.
There’s no use for the old projectors, either; this month, Fujifilm will stop manufacturing motion-picture stock. In the Palace 9 stands a stack of carry-cases that hold the “last of the film,” Jarvis Sr. says, “never to be seen again.”
It’s the end of a cinematic era that began in the 19th century. But it’s not the first seismic shift Jarvis has seen in his business, and it’s not likely to be the last.
Jarvis’ theaters are up to date, but he’s something of an old-school guy. He pronounces “theater” with the emphasis on the second syllable. He’d rather watch old movies on AMC than current action flicks — “all gadgets and gimmicks and blowing up this and blowing up that.” He wishes Hollywood would focus on stronger storytelling.
Trim, dapper and tan from his winters in Las Vegas, Jarvis typically projects wry bemusement, whether he’s talking about schmoozing at exhibitors’ conventions or a Justin Bieber sighting at the Majestic. Name a blockbuster of the past several decades, and he can probably tell you where it played in Vermont and for how long. He has an eye for potential sleeper hits — 1973’s Walking Tall, for instance, for which Jarvis offered the audience a money-back guarantee if they left in the first 30 minutes. They stayed.
Jarvis remembers when downtown Burlington was packed with movie houses: the Strong, the Flynn, the Majestic, the State. On the outskirts of town, drive-ins sprouted like weeds in those postwar years: Jarvis’ uncle built the Malletts Bay Drive-In in 1949. At the Milton Drive-In, customers sometimes paid in chickens or eggs.
The Milton Drive-In and the Strand Theatre in downtown Winooski belonged to a second local movie dynasty, which produced Jarvis’ wife-to-be, Lucille Barrett. When they first met, he was the Strand’s 17-year-old projectionist, she its 14-year-old cashier. For their first date, the couple saw The Robe in CinemaScope at the Flynn — a theater they would later own.
Today, of course, the Flynn is an upscale performance venue. But Jarvis recalls that, even as a midcentury cinema, the theater, built in 1930, had certain pretensions. Candy and popcorn weren’t sold there, because “they didn’t want to get the floors dirty.”
In the 1950s, “People dressed up more” for the movies, Jarvis remembers. “They went in suits.” And tickets were cheap: “We’d fill the theater up, and we’d have $40,” Jarvis says. “I used to make $45 per week as a projectionist.”
Films were cheaper for exhibitors, too. In his early days, Jarvis says, the studios took only 25 percent of the gross. Today, it’s closer to 60 percent. With 600 or 700 movies released each year, theaters could switch their programming more than once a week. “This was the only place you could go to be entertained, really,” Jarvis says. “Sometimes I’d go as many times as I could get the money.”
Movie theaters may have been a solid business proposition, but they were vulnerable to other forces — like fire. Because nitrate film (used into the early ’50s) was highly flammable, projection booths were built with fireproof shutters. Jarvis recalls an incident at the Sunset Drive-In: “A piece of film caught in the projector and broke off … and then the fire started, and it went up to the top reel, and the whole thing just exploded, so we had to get out of that projection room as quickly as we could.”
Even after the demise of nitrate, many of greater Burlington’s theaters fell prey to flames, never to be rebuilt. Jarvis remembers trying to salvage film from the Strand, which burned in 1956 (“As I was jumping out, the roof of the theater collapsed”). He was working at the State Theatre when it met its fiery end in 1977; appropriately, Bound for Glory was on the marquee. By then, the Strong Theatre (on the present Courthouse Plaza) had also burned. With a chuckle, Jarvis recalls his wife suggesting he exercise special caution at the Showcase in South Burlington (now Higher Ground), given the apparent jinx on theaters with “S” names.
Changing moral standards brought a firestorm of another kind. In 1973, Jarvis went to court for screening Deep Throat at the Flynn, a theater he had purchased the preceding year. The FBI “came in and scared” Lucille Jarvis, demanding she hand over the offending reels, but the U.S. Justice Department’s actual target was the film’s distributor. “We just watched the bullets fly,” Jarvis says.
And Burlington turned out not to be as conservative in its community standards as the Nixon administration had assumed. After the case was dismissed, Jarvis recalls, he met one of the jurors, an “older woman,” on the street. “She says, ‘You know, I don’t want anybody telling me what I can see and what I can’t see,’” he says. “I thought I was going to get holy hell there. Instead, she stood up for the film totally.”
In the 1980s, massive blockbusters such as the Star Wars trilogy made bank for exhibitors — at least, those who were willing to gamble on them. Today, studios push their big films into as many theaters as they can to maximize the opening-weekend gross. But back then, Jarvis says, exhibitors blind-bidded for the right to run a blockbuster exclusively. He recalls making good bids ($35K for On Golden Pond) and a bad one ($25K for the George Lucas bomb Howard the Duck). Once a theater landed a hit, it held on tight: “We had films that ran 17, 18, 20-something weeks,” Jarvis says. When E.T. was exclusive to the Showcase, “we started in the summer [and] played it right through Christmas.”
The spread of home video would shorten films’ runs. But the theater experience of 35-millimeter projection was still vastly different from anything most people could experience at home — until digital culture came along.
Both Merrill Jarvises have been busy lately. On a recent Sunday, father and son were up till 5:30 a.m. installing silver screens at the downtown Roxy — not the “silver screen” people use as shorthand for “Hollywood,” but the kind you need to show movies in 3-D.
“We’re not happy with the change. Who’s happy with change?” Jarvis III, 55, asks rhetorically.
But his dad has seen plenty of it — CinemaScope in 1952; stereophonic sound; early 3-D (which required two synchronized projectors); Sensurround, which rocked the State Theater in 1974.
And now change is happening faster than ever. The shiny new digital projectors will probably only be good for 10 years, says Jarvis III. The next trend on the horizon is laser projection.
How does the elder Jarvis feel about digital? “The picture’s great,” he says. “There’s no weave, no jumpiness. You can read the smallest lettering.” Focus and framing are automatic, not subject to the whims of a projectionist, and “bad prints” are no longer an issue.
But, as with most high-tech devices, digital projectors can be a headache when they don’t work. “Before [with 35-millimeter], I could fix the projector,” Jarvis says. “I could probably have it up right away or for the next show.” When a digital projector malfunctions, he has to call a technician. “You’re at the mercy of that projector,” he says. “It’s very complicated … They’re not really perfected like I’d like to see them. They’re great when they’re working good, but when they’re not working good, they’re bad.”
The conversion is an upgrade that will allow the Jarvises to collect 3-D ticket prices at the Palace and Roxy, but it isn’t really a choice. As they did back in the days of blind bidding, the studios — which save money with digital distribution — are calling the shots. After 2013, Jarvis says, “if you don’t have digital, you won’t have a movie.”
In the 1990s, Jarvis almost left the business. He sold a slew of theaters to the Australia-based Hoyts Group: the Ethan Allen, Newport, Century Plaza, Showcase, Cinema 9.
But when Hoyts pulled out of Vermont, Jarvis was pulled back in, just like Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III. In 2002, the family even acquired a new flagship theater, the downtown Merrill’s Roxy, which had been opened by Boston-based Joel Tranum as the Nickelodeon in 1981.
“I wanted to retire,” Jarvis says. “That was 22 years ago, and I’m still here. Gotta have something for my kids to do. That’s my inheritance; I can either give it to them or go out and spend it all. I tried to spend it all,” he adds with a chuckle, “but it just didn’t work.”
Boston-based Harold Blank co-owned the Majestic 10 with the Jarvises when it opened in 2004; last November he sold them his share in the digital multiplex, along with the Palace 9. Blank calls Jarvis “a very astute business guy. He’s knowledgeable about the business, and he really loves the business.”
Just like his dad, Merrill Jarvis III got into the biz early: He was doing reel changeovers at the Burlington Drive-In at age 10. Lucille Jarvis worked alongside her husband, handling bookkeeping, concessions and human resources for the company.
When Lucille passed away in 2010, University of Vermont film scholar Frank Manchel delivered the eulogy. A longtime family friend, Manchel often disagreed with the Jarvises on the merits of movies, Jarvis recalls.
But when Seven Days spoke with him in 2010, Manchel delivered a stirring testament to the family’s efforts. “Together [Lucille] and Merrill really founded the movie business in Burlington,” he said. “These were two people who started out basically with nothing. The two of them worked day and night for 14 and 15 hours a day.”
And they lasted. As Jarvis puts it, “I’m the original guy here. The other guys have come and gone.”
How long can they last? Will people keep going to the movies? Of course they will, Jarvis says: “They want to go out. They want to date.”
“Everybody’s happy to come to a movie,” his son says. “It’s getting away from home … and coming into a fantasy world.”
With nearly seven decades of perspective, the elder Jarvis isn’t daunted by the new challenges to his business — home theaters, instant streaming on smartphones. “They’ve been saying that the death of movies is coming, and I’ve been hearing this for 50 years, and we’re still here,” he says. “Through TV, through videotape, through DVDs, through Blu-ray, through video on demand, we’re still here.”
His son puts it succinctly: “It’s in our blood.”