Nickelodeon Theatre: On the Cusp of Rebirth
Written By James McAllister
Picture this: A burgeoning cinephile trapped by the confines of rural South Carolina in the pre-VHS age, with access to films limited to the broadcast airwaves and the first-run movie houses showing only the latest and widest Hollywood releases. As this particular movie-loving adolescent, I lived vicariously through the New York Times Arts & Leisure section, with its display ads and articles about esoteric and foreign films that, if they played South Carolina at all, might only screen at Columbia’s lone art house cinema, the Nickelodeon.
As one might imagine, once my parents finally decreed me responsible enough to drive to Columbia on my own, the first place I chose to go was that small cinema, tucked into a corner behind the looming, oxidized dome of the capitol. The movie was Louis Malle’s quintessential art film My Dinner with Andre; the experience, from the twilit drive to the smell of the coffee brewing inside the theatre to the masterful piece of cinematic art itself, remains indelible and unforgettable.
Now, almost 30 years later, “the Nick,” as its friends and fans refer to the theatre of the Columbia Film Society, is about to be reborn—sometime in 2012, Columbia’s tiny but venerable art house will not only relocate to the former Fox Theatre, the last of the original Main Street movie houses, but will also seek to redefine and expand its unique role in the community. Shepherded by Executive Director Larry Hembree, cinéastes may look forward to an exciting new chapter in the midlands movie going experience.
In a nod to the history of movies, however, as well as the ability for the Nick to again operate as a repertory house, Hembree notes a quaint and charming element under consideration. “We’re meeting next week with a company to see if we can get an old organ in there to play with silent movies.”
A strong partnership with USC is also in the offing. Hembree, who is an adjunct instructor in Art History, plans to work closely with the university to make its vast archival film holdings, including more than 11 million feet of Fox Movietone newsreels, more accessible to the public.
The $3 million capital campaign necessary to renovate the new theatre space and move the Nick is ongoing, as does financial support from both city and county government. “We knew from our feasibility study that we had to get county and city support, or it wasn’t going to happen.” A recent preservation grant from Richland County moved the project $40,000 closer to completion.
Besides other grants for which Hembree and his staff are applying, including one from the Ford Foundation, documentarian and political firebrand Michael Moore has also pledged support for the effort through a fund he’s created to help revitalize old “Main Street” style movie houses that have fallen dormant. “He wants to try to save film culture,” Hembree says, clearly appreciative of the famous filmmaker’s interest in Columbia’s effort to revitalize its art cinema.
But in this case, revitalization may be something of a misnomer—in 2009 the Nick enjoyed its best financial returns in its history, showing an increase in admissions of almost 18%. This era of growth is a sign to Hembree that the efforts to relocate the theatre are not only well founded, but equally well considered: the Nick will soon reside in what is becoming a true arts district along Main Street, which already features the Columbia Museum of Art, the repurposed Tapp’s department store, now home to artist studios and gallery space, and the White Mule, one of Columbia’s best live music venues. “Whether the city wanted it or not,” Hembree says, “we have an arts district that seems to have evolved naturally.”
While much work remains to be done—including fundraising efforts like the ongoing capital campaign, grant-writing opportunities, and the like—the end result will be an enormous physical improvement over the tiny current theatre. The smaller of the two new auditoriums will be 82 seats, which is only slightly bigger than the current theatre, but the larger, upstairs house will be 175 seats, with comfortable stadium seating to match the aforementioned improved projection and sound. “With two screens we’ll be able to run films longer, moving them from the larger to the smaller house. We won’t be tied to a set schedule the way we are now.”
With so much work left to do, the key aspect to the project’s success remains fundraising, which is doing well thanks to corporate buy-in from such donors as Blue Cross, Doctor’s Care, and Edens & Avant. Individual film lovers emotionally invested in the process may also provide actual financial assistance by visiting the web site, www.movethenick.org, which details a variety of opportunities to contribute, such as offering naming rights for individual seats.
At the heart of the Nickelodeon’s charm, Hembree says, is its role as a community within the community, a place where like minded filmgoers gather to enjoy their favorite art form, as well as discuss their experiences. The new “Nick,” as Hembree says they are considering re-branding the theatre, will only enhance what is already one of Columbia’s most important and valuable aspects of its art community. “We’re going to be able to create the film culture we’ve always wanted to have, instead of remaining Columbia’s best kept secret.”