HAMMOND | Step off Kennedy Avenue into a brick storefront in Hammond’s Hessville neighborhood, and get transported back in time.
Vintage movie reels and taped-up posters touting coming attractions line the lobby walls of the two-screen Kennedy Theatre, a historic fixture that’s been entertaining region residents since the 1940s.
The rocking seats the old "rocking-chair theater" is known for still smell of popcorn. The theater originally played on that nickname in the '60s with a silhouette on its sign of President John F. Kennedy's famous rocking chair, which he used to help relieve chronic back pain.
The seats are still as plush as they were when the movies were black and white, if a little more beat up. The shop vac can't suck all the stickiness out of the carpet.
Even the prices are retro. Candy is just a buck or two, and tickets to first-run Hollywood movies are only $5 or $6.
The Kennedy Theatre, which old-timers might remember as The Ace, is as endangered as the 35mm film reels that spin around in the dark projectionist’s booth.
Hollywood studios have issued an ultimatum to theater owners across the country: go digital or go out of business. The studios do not want to pay at least $1,500 to $2,000 to produce 35mm prints of all the new movies and spend even more to ship them to theaters and multiplexes across the country, said Kennedy Theatre co-owner Chris Benavidez.
Major studios are no longer going to send out any 35mm prints of movies by year’s end, so local theaters must make the major capital investment of converting to digital or have nothing new to show.
They won't even be able to screen old films for much longer, as Benavidez found out when trying to procure a copy of "Gone With The Wind" for a couple who wanted to celebrate an anniversary by reliving their first date. The studios are converting their archives to the digital format and destroying the original 35mm prints to save on warehousing costs.
The problem is, digital projectors cost about $60,000 to $70,000, a whopping amount for small neighborhood movie theaters that sell bags of Skittles for $1. Indiewire estimates as many as 1,000 independent movie theaters nationwide may fade to black as a result of the forced conversion to digital projectors.
Benavidez is trying to raise $120,000 to $140,000 in donations to save the Kennedy Theatre. He's been exploring other ways to switch to digital but isn't sure he can justify taking out a loan.
Other NWI vintage theaters going digital
Northwest Indiana moviegoers shouldn’t fret if they prefer to catch flicks at character-rich theaters that once screened cartoons and newsreels during Saturday matinees. Valparaiso's 49-er drive-in, the Art Theatre in Hobart and the Ritz Cinema in Rennselaer all have made the switch. The Hoosier Theater in Whiting plans to go digital by year's end, but its owner is still shopping around for a good price.
This past winter, 49-er owners and brothers Steve and Mike Cotton invested $90,000 in a new digital projector and related improvements, such as insulation for the room it will be kept in.
"It's got to be climate-controlled because it's basically a big computer," Mike Cotton said.
The 49-er used to get two 50-pound prints of every film it showed, but now gets the movies on a hard drive that comes in a box so light you could palm it in your hand. Customers have noticed the picture is clearer and brighter, since the owners bought the brightest projector available on the market. But they didn't appreciate how they were forced to make their biggest capital investment since a storm toppled the screen a few years ago, leaving them with a $120,000 bill that insurance only partly covered.
"There are something like 350 drive-ins left today when there were 5,000 in their heyday, and we're going to lose more of them because of digital," Steve Cotton said. "A lot of owners have decided it's not worth it and are going to close."
Keep Indie Visible, a national campaign to save independent movie theaters, had offered to raise donations for the Art Theatre, Hobart's 1940s movie house that is known for its fluorescent murals. But Scott Frey, one of the owners, said they didn't have time to wait for fundraising to trickle in.
“We bit the bullet and just took out a loan for it,” Frey said.
Frey owns a few Dairy Queen restaurants. He and his brother, a doctor, bought and restored the Art Theatre seven years ago mainly as a service to the community, and not so much as a business venture.
Benavidez doesn’t have that luxury. He used to work in downtown Chicago, but not anymore.
He, his wife and their children make up most of the staff at The Kennedy, which can seat about 150 people in each screen. Kids will line up down the block to see sold-out screenings of teen favorites such as "The Hunger Games," and animated family flicks always draw big crowds. But as few as four people might turn out on a Tuesday to watch duds such as "The Lone Ranger."
People come from as far away as Illinois, Cedar Lake and Lowell because of the theater's low prices, which include $5 kids tickets and popcorn that starts at $2. Many neighborhood kids just walk over.
The theater is a destination that pulls in 30,000 to 40,000 people a year, Benavidez said. That's a benefit to Hessville's restaurants and bars, since many moviegoers get a bite to eat before the show or grab a beer afterward.
"It's a community staple," he said. "It's been here forever, and we want to make sure we continue that."
He’s launched a Save the Kennedy fundraising campaign. People can donate at the theater or online at www.gofundme.com/savethekennedy. Donors can get rewards, such as old movie posters or reserved sky box seats in the theater's balcony.
He's also selling Save the Kennedy T-shirts at the counter, and planning a fundraising event with a DJ and live bands at the nearby Galaxy Hall banquet facility.
Benavidez hopes the community will rally to save Hammond's last remaining movie theater.
He sees potential to grow the business if he can install digital projectors. He could screen Blackhawks games or other live sporting events, rent the theater to let kids play video games on the big screen, and play any movie that's available on Blu-ray, so long as he shares a cut of the ticket sales with the studio. He envisions double features, such as of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction," during slower months like September.
If the Kennedy stays in business, Benavidez wants to invest more in it. He hopes to install a new marquee that will be more eye-catching, and refurbish the distinctive rocking chairs.