POR Bryan Wade March 22, 2009
The Movie Man
It’s a Thursday evening at the Avalon Theatre in downtown Grand Junction, and Bryan Wade is doing something rare.
And he’s not happy about it.
The 1,000-seat auditorium is empty. No one came to see the 5 p.m. showing of “What Just Happened” starring Robert DeNiro and Bruce Willis. The only sound in the hulking structure is the occasional whir of a vacuum.
Most any other night, patrons of the city’s 86-year-old theater will find the movie projectionist doing much more than his title implies. He takes tickets. Fills bags of popcorn. Sweeps the floor. Keeps the sidewalk in front of the theater clear. And, most important to him, engages the customers.
This is the kind of place he’s worked since he was a teenager, a place where he admits he spends more time than he should and less than he wants to, a place that, for so many, ignites a spectrum of emotion and rekindles memories.
And there’s Wade, holding the match.
His own recollection of going to the movies is vivid. Growing up in west Texas, his father took him to see “Superman” when he was 5 at his aunt and uncle’s Sky-Vue Drive-In, a place still showing flicks today. He can still picture sitting in Dad’s big green car, listening to the speaker hanging in the car window and munching popcorn as the giant image of Christopher Reeve appeared on the big screen.
“I was just absolutely in love with that movie and the whole experience,” Wade said.
Living in small towns, on-screen entertainment was usually restricted to three television stations and one video store. So he’d work his way across the video store shelves from left to right, checking out every tape he could get his hands on.
When his first job at 16 at a doughnut shop didn’t pan out — he consistently fell asleep on the flour sacks — it was only natural that he applied at the fourplex in Huntsville, Texas, and was hired as the projectionist.
Upon graduating high school, Wade enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute because Walt Disney had been a student there. While there, Wade started a comic book company and ran classic films on a 16-mm projector with the intention of becoming an animator.
But he grew homesick and tired of the big city and the monotony of animation. He left school after a year and moved to Nucla, where his parents had relocated from Texas, to figure out his next step.
After a stint in Tucson, Ariz., where he worked at an art house theater while his then-girlfriend attended graduate school, the couple moved to Grand Junction and got married. Wade took a job at Carmike Cinemas.
In 2003, after he applied to be the manager of the theater but was turned down, he defected to the Avalon, where the nonprofit Cinema at the Avalon had boosted their showings of foreign and independent films from once a month to virtually 365 days a year. He worked behind the concession stand before becoming the manager.
But Wade thought it might be over last fall when, after a five-year run, declining revenue led Cinema at the Avalon to fold. He lined up a couple months worth of work as a freelance illustrator when city officials came calling a few days after Cinema’s last film. They had purchased Cinema’s movie projector and other equipment and wanted to continue showing movies.
He talked about it with his wife, Shawna.
“She knew right away that the only thing I really wanted to do was be here,” he said. “She knew if the city hired anybody else to do this job, I would be upset.”
So Wade stuck around and continues to do his part to keep alive a venue rich in history but poor in revenue, a place whose performers over the years are world-renowned but yet can’t host some theatrical and musical productions because of a plethora of structural deficiencies.
What the Avalon lacks in the technology and cushiness of modern movie theaters, Wade makes up for in personal attention bereft at the stadium-seating venues. He makes eye contact with ticket-buyers and asks them how they liked the movie. He’s been known to argue with patrons about movies and run into shoppers at the grocery store who seek his advice on whether to see a particular flick.
“My attitude was to act with the customers as if you were inviting friends into your house to watch a movie,” he said. “Most people go to the movies to have an experience, so it’s up to me to create that good experience.”
As he works with film agents to book movies, he tries to engage a broad audience, whether it’s seniors with classics like “The Seven Year Itch” or Generation Xers with cult films like
“The Big Lebowski.” Because he believes so many films are made to appear the same on a 3-inch iPod as a 60-foot screen, he digs for movies that take on a completely different life on the big screen.
Wade’s two boys, 8-year-old Tycho and 5-year-old Jack, have taken their own interest in film, particularly the classics. They like Abbott and Costello and the black-and-white monster movies.
“They’re begging me to book Godzilla. I tell them, ‘Maybe this summer,’ ” he said.
There’s something else about the Avalon that draws in Wade: nostalgia.
“The funny thing about this place is that it’s not only part of Grand Junction’s history, but it’s part of so many people’s personal history,” he said. “Those moments I had with Superman, they have here.”
He loves to hear stories from the gray- and white-haired women who religiously show up for the Wednesday matinees and recount stories of holding hands on their first date or their husbands proposing to them in the balcony.
And he hopes to stick around at the Avalon as long as a predecessor he’s never met but still idolizes. Harold Coulson, whose name is etched into several gray bricks on the sidewalk outside the theater, worked as the movie projectionist from 1944 to 1976.
“The theater was built to create comfort and culture,” Wade said. “I don’t think it would make a great restaurant. I don’t think it would make a great parking lot. I think it makes a great theater.”