Historic Crystal Theatre marks 20 years
July 14, 2005
The Crystal Theatre on Main Street in Carbondale – a long, narrow place steeped with history – is being thrown a birthday party this weekend.Starting today, theater owners Bob and Kathy Ezra are celebrating their 20th year in business (the actual birthday is on Tuesday) by offering a variety of special deals, giveaways and a bit of nostalgia.And on the anniversary day itself, they’ll be charging the same admission prices that patrons paid in 1985, for a movie entitled “Mad Hot Ballroom.” The film itself is a continuing tradition of sorts. The last time the Ezras threw a party for the Crystal, at the 10th anniversary in 1995, they showed the popular dance film “Strictly Ballroom.”History, it would seem, is a large part of what the Crystal Theatre is all about.
Back in the early 1980s, in the wake of the last Carbondale Spring Talent Show to be held in the old Crystal Theatre, the space was condemned and mothballed. Junk was piled everywhere, the walls were painted black and decorated with murals that included a harlequin figure, and an elongated mule whose head was in the lobby while its hindquarters were in the auditorium.The structure was built in 1912-13 as an addition to the original, eastern portion of the Dinkel Mercantile Co. building (which was started in 1892); the space had been an old-style general store for several decades. It had been a theater off and on since the late 1940s, Bob Ezra said. He said an entrepreneur named Chris Wimmer tore up the floor of the former mercantile store, sloped it downward toward the back of the building (the stage is at the same level as the floor of the lobby) and turned it into a theater that is believed to have stayed open until the early 1960s. After that business closed, Kathy said, a group of local residents would occasionally show films in the space as fund-raisers for local recreational programs; the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities put on a 16 mm film series at one point; and, of course, the talent shows had a short but spectacularly popular run in the old venue.Once it was condemned, it wasn’t too long before the Ezras got their inspiration. They talked then-owner Wally DeBeque (grandson of the building’s developer, Carbondale patriarch William Dinkel) into leasing them the space at no cost if they would undertake the renovation and give the town a theater again. They did that despite warnings from friends, including Dominic Linza, former owner of the Isis Theater in Aspen, that it was a crazy idea. Carbondale was a small town in economic distress. The economic mainstays of coal mining and agriculture both were waning, and commercial and residential growth were both relatively quiescent. A theater could not survive in such conditions, the naysayers declared.
But the Ezras were not deterred. With a small group of friends, they completely remodeled the space. They removed the old ceiling and used the wood slats for wainscoting in the auditorium and the lobby. They reduced the size of the projection booth to make more space for the lobby; put in new seats (several of the old seats are along one wall in the lobby); painted, decorated and spruced up the old place; put in a concessions stand; and built a new “sound wall” between the auditorium and the lobby.The opening weekend in 1985 was a sellout, and now, even though the rent is a lot higher (it was free for the first few years), the Ezras are making a living.”We work almost every night,” Kathy said. “I take the downstairs selling concessions and Bob works the projector upstairs.” And together they stay busy researching films, booking and ordering the films and keeping up the general appearance of the theater.”Most of the big movie houses have a booking agent who gets the movies for them. We do all that ourselves and try to get things we think our audience will like,” Bob said, adding that he feels they’ve done well reading their audience.”We’ve only had three goose eggs in the last 20 years,” he said, recalling that one of them was “Santa Claus – The Movie,” which came out the same year that the theater opened. The other two goose-eggs have faded from memory.
During their 20 years in business, the changes in the midvalley have been a source of some anxiety for the couple.”I feel like we’ve dodged several bullets since we’ve been there,” Kathy noted, mentioning new theaters in nearby towns and the sale of the Dinkel Building to Aspen landlords Tony Mazza and Frank Woods as two occurrences that might have spelled trouble for the small theater.But the people of Carbondale have stayed loyal to their hometown movie house, and the Ezras’ new landlords have worked with them to keep the rent at a level where they can stay in business.”If we hadn’t been able to work with Tony, I don’t think we’d still be there,” Kathy said.And they plan to stay at it “as long as people keep coming in,” she said.
“This theater has a life of its own, we’re just trying to keep it aimed in the right direction,” Bob said. “This place has great karma, everyone was so into it. I think it’s special because of its history.”In honor of the 20th anniversary, the Crystal Theatre will show “Mad Hot Ballroom” from today to Tuesday. Every 20th patron will be admitted for free, and there will be $2 off all concessions for all patrons. There will also be a drawing every night for a 10-punch discount pass.On Tuesday, the big day itself, patrons will enjoy 1985 prices – $3.50 for adults, kids get in for $2, and the popcorn will be free. Wally DeBeque and William Dinkel’s great-granddaughter Shelly DeBeque (who works at the theater) will be on hand for the drawing.Show time is 8 p.m.Carbondale correspondent Gina Guarascio contributed to this story. John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org