By Deb Hadachek Telescope News
In an industry limited only by imagination, the Blair Center for the Arts in Belleville is reimagining its services for the future.
The Blair will return to in-theater movies on the big screen starting Friday, January 29 with the Tom Hanks movie, “News of the World”. New hours will be Thursday-Saturday at 7 p.m.; and matinees on Thursdays at 1 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Ticket prices are $6 except for Thursday’s shows, when admission is $3.
The theater is safe both in sanitizing measures and the availability of physical distancing, says board member Amy Walker-McGuire.
“Our biggest challenge is the public perception that we are a safe venue,” says McGuire. The theater seats 369, which allows plenty of space for movie-goers to spread out, she says. The Blair received a grant for electrostatic sprayers, and the auditorium is thoroughly cleaned and sanitized after each event, she said.
Movie industry changes
Many studios now release new movies directly to television where people can order them on-demand in their living rooms, she said, which is a difficult hurdle for brick-and-mortar theaters to overcome.
“Streaming has always been in the background, but the pandemic just accelerated it more,” McGuire says
Studios may now require a theater to keep a first-run movie for six to eight weeks, something that might be possible in a large city with multiple screens, but isn’t practical for local theaters, she said.
The Blair tried to reopen to the public this summer, but poor attendance led the theater to lock its doors once more. The Blair received grant funding for a pop-up cinema in late summer, and the several outdoor events sponsored by businesses or organizations on the inflatable screen drew good crowds.
But even though the Blair has not been open for 10 months, bills for utilities, taxes, insurance and expenses like service contracts on the equipment continue, to the tune of $4,000 per month.
“The biggest thing people can do to help is give money,” McGuire says. “We did secure some huge grant amounts for 2020, but, again, being restricted, they mostly don’t help us pay daily operational costs.” The Blair took out $58,700 in COVID-19 loans from through Republic County Development, the Main Street program, and the Small Business Administration to continue paying the current bills.
In 2019, the Blair had revenue of nearly $152,000, including ticket and concession sales, advertising sales, and support from Republic County and Belleville City.
In 2020, revenues dropped to $45,000. The theater’s annual Blair Bash, a fundraiser that nets more than $18,000 each year to “fill the gap” between income and expenses, was canceled.
Several different avenues can help, McGuire says:
- Unrestricted donations. Some may qualify for tax incentives for the donor.
- Sponsor of individual movies. “If we had 52 sponsors for 52 weeks, that would be incredible,” she said.
- Passive giving through online purchases made on Amazon Smile or Benefit.
“While we are a nonprofit, I think people forget that the Blair is a business and, like other businesses, we have bills we have to pay,” she says. “If we can’t pay them, we can’t operate. Fortunately, as a nonprofit, people can easily donate to our business to help us pay those bills, and it may even help them at tax time for doing so.”
While the doors have been closed to the public, major improvements took place at the theater in 2020. Grants totaling $115,000 allowed the theater to purchase a new projector, the Pop Up Cinema equipment, a trailer, and bike racks.
In 2019 the theater received grants for assisted listening devices that allow viewers to see captions from their seats. The sound system has been maximized throughout the building.
More than movies
McGuire and her husband, Greg, worked in sound and production for live theater venues before deciding to move back to her hometown several years ago. She said many people don’t realize the breadth of practical jobs that go on behind the scenes, available in the entertainment industry.
Greg McGuire says his experience in sound production translates to the technology many local businesses and schools found necessary to move to remote, online communication. Set design involves carpentry skills. Much of the technology used in a movie theater requires advanced computer skills needed by other businesses.
“I was really blown away when I went to college to learn all the job applications out there associated with arts and entertainment,” says Amy. “I was lucky to be able to get to do that, and I feel like the Blair can help teach that to students in our schools and community.”
The couple continues to see possibilities for live theater events at the Blair, as well as ways that with the proper, portable sound and projection equipment, the Blair could provide outreach services to other communities in the county. Zoom meetings, gaming events and concerts could be streamed on the big screen at the Blair.
The McGuires also believe the pandemic will spur more young families like theirs to return to rural communities. Many people have learned they don’t need a physical office building, and can do their jobs from anywhere in the world, Greg says.
But people want communities with quality-of-life amenities like theaters and restaurants, Amy says.
“Studies have shown that for every dollar spent for arts organizations, another $12 returns to the economy,” she says. “People may come to a movie, but go out to dinner before.
“If you build up the program, it generates excitement, and people will come,” she says. “Before you have a return from a program, you have to invest in it first.
“You have to believe it will happen.”
“We are always looking for volunteers of all sorts not just concessonists, although we gladly take people who want to learn concessions,” she adds.
“But the facilities have plenty of projects as well like painting and repairs, and organizing if people are interested in doing things like that- and we do have board vacancies. If anyone is interested in learning more about these opportunities, please reach out to us; we would be happy to provide more information.”
Current board members are: Merle Hadachek – President, Dr. Andy Walker – Vice President, Marlea James – Secretary, Mikel Hadachek – Treasurer, Steve Breeden, Kelly Collard, Lora Gieber, Amy McGuire, Greg McGuire, Shelly Pachta, Lesa Zenger.
More information is available at www.theblairtheater.com.
Follow the Blair Center for the Arts on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/TheBlairInBelleville