Photos by Tom Parker
Back from the brink: Marysville’s Astro 3 Theatre gets new lease on life
That’s theatre with the r before the e. British style, but also with something of a track record preferred by many long-standing Broadway theaters. It might smack of pretentiousness but, in the case of Marysville’s only indoor movie theater (and Marshall County’s only movie house, period), more a nod to the historical record. Americans once elevated these things to a higher platform, held them to a deeper estimation, and the language had to conform. A distinction had to be made. You weren’t spending your hard-earned money on a two-hour movie, you were going to the theatre. And it wasn’t just theaters or theatres, it crossed over into other factors. How many flea-ridden, substandard motels littering the nation’s backroads were named after the Sands, the Stardust, the Sahara? Adding glitz to a name fooled no one, but a little glitz went a long way.
And don’t forget the three. Alex Shultz, the (reasonably) new owner of the Astro 3 Theatre, wants that clear. The Astro has three movie screens and he’s immensely proud of each one of them. Each has its own character and size. Each is, in its own way, is a juggling act balancing mainstream blockbusters with art films. And each has been painstakingly restored, or is in the process of being painstakingly restored, at tremendous cost and effort. Which is an odd thing for someone like Alex to do when you consider that he never saw himself as the owner of a movie theater.
“In general, I’m not a big movie buff,” he says. “I mean, I enjoy watching movies but it’s not the kind of thing where I memorize trivia or dialog.”
So why has he spent the last year and a half working nonstop to not only revamp the theater with new seating, carpet, sound system, paneling, sound proofing and decorative touches, but also to restore the exterior of the building to its former glory? It’s a question that turns the normally voluble Alex all but speechless.
When he finally offers an explanation, it’s as much background as excuse.
He went to school for a long time, he says. A long time. Though he worked toward a degree in electrical engineering at Kansas State University, he was actually a professional student. He milked it for all it was worth, but he enjoyed learning, so it wasn’t a waste of time. It just took a long time.
After graduation, he put those skills to work at Valley Vet in Marysville, mostly doing computer work, with a little video editing and multimedia work thrown in. It didn’t have much to do with what he learned in school but it was a job. He enjoyed it.
Sometimes he wondered if it would be enough to make a career out of. He didn’t think so.
Every Sunday he worked at the Astro 3 Theatre. Mainly as a favor to a friend, Bob Smith, whose father Dick was the owner. Alex would drop by on Sunday evenings and just hang out. After a while Bob decided he wanted Sunday evenings off, so Alex stepped in.
For seven years he stepped in. During that time, Bob’s nephew, Mike, bought the business. At the end of seven years, Mike offered to sell the business to Alex.
Alex grins and shrugs. “So I left all that glorious, glamorous work behind for a life of toil.”
Before there was an Astro 3 Theatre, or an Astro Theatre of any kind, there was the Isis Theater.
The Isis came into being in 1924. The building was constructed in 1912 as the Christian Athletic Hall, sort of a YMCA under the tutelage of the First Christian Church of Marysville. A large gymnasium occupied the first floor, and a balcony provided a walking track that circumnavigated the building. The basement was filled with a large swimming pool, traces of which can still be seen.
The building was sold in 1920 for economic reasons. For the next decade it operated as a community center, basketball court, meeting rooms and, during the flu epidemic of 1918-1919, a temporary hospital. As the Isis Theater, however, it found a new life and a measure of longevity.
Along came Dick Smith, a devotee of the Silent Era whose youth had been colored by various occupations within the movie theater business. The Smith Chain expanded throughout northern Kansas with movie theaters in Concordia, Clay Center, Horton and Hiawatha. The Isis expanded into an adjacent garage and car dealership, becoming for the first time a three-screen operation. With the renovation came a new name and a new attitude. Not only would the Isis transform into the Astro 3, theater would become theatre. R before e. Glitz.
“The way I look at it, I got my masters degree and really I felt like I learned to learn,” Alex says. “I hate to not learn something every day. It just drives me nuts if I don’t feel I got something new out of the day.”
Daily learning has pretty much been the norm since purchasing the business in October 2008. Alex’s goal of a complete makeover had a one-year timetable. He didn’t make it.
The project was much bigger than he envisioned, for one. Every step had a new challenge, a different hurdle.
The first thing to do was to hire a roofer and fix the leaks. Then he started tearing things out. Not just inside things but outside things, too. It was like peeling the skin from an onion, each layer another revelation, and another part of its history. The original tin ceiling was still in place so he ripped out the drop ceiling. A wooden facade was removed to showcase brick arches framing the entrance. The lobby was opened up to give a sense of spaciousness. A retro, 1930s style dominated.
The tin ceiling in the lobby looked so good he added it to the theaters. “It’s not great for acoustics,” Alex says, “but the sound guy was here and he said the sound will be a little more live with the speakers pointed down toward the audience. So we decided to go ahead with the tin ceiling, it had a really nice look to it.”
From the beginning, it was a family affair. His brothers worked on the woodwork and wainscoting, his mother the curtains along the walls. His father did a lot of everything, from moral and financial support to replacing the brick on the exterior and laying new wood flooring.
It was also a community affair. A neighbor, J.B. Wilson, showed up offering to help rewire the electrical system. He’s become a sidekick to Alex’s father as a all-around general contractor. “They complement each other very well,” Alex says.
It was that community spirit that made him realize this was more than just a new business venture. The Astro 3 Theatre was, in some ways, an integral part of main street Marysville. By renovating it, and in particular by restoring its facade to its original grandeur, Alex was resurrecting a chapter of rural life that had become jaded and tattered.
“I’ve really been surprised by the community support,” Alex says. “When I was buying the place, people said, ‘Oh, what a good thing you’re doing here, keeping this in the community,’ and I’d think, that was nice to say. But as time went on, I realized this is much more important than I ever realized for the community. People are still coming up and thanking me, and telling me what a wonderful job I’m doing.”
So that he now has regulars who never miss a movie, and others who come in and tell him they haven’t been to a movie in ages and ages and how surprised they are at what they missed.
It wasn’t just a movie theater he bought, it was an ideal.
Alex also tapped into social networking and provided live progress updates on Facebook. It enabled the community to interact with the restoration process and to keep tabs on upcoming flicks.
He also learned the trick of marketing and giving extra.
“When we showed the movie, ‘Up,’ one of the big things in the movie was the old man and his house,” Alex says. “He used to sell balloons, so he blew up thousands of balloons and lifted his house up and floated off to South America. So we bought about a thousand balloons, blew them up and tied about five hundred of them together, and gave that away to some kid who came to the movie. He didn’t float, but he walked down the street, this huge, massive balloon—you couldn’t see anything but this little pair of shoes under the balloons.”
And when the theater aired the Clint Eastwood movie “Gran Torino,” one moviegoer was enchanted to find a restored, mint-condition Gran Torino parked at the curb in front of the theater. As much as he’d like to take the credit, though, Alex says it wasn’t his doing.
“It was just some customer’s car,” he says.
Nice touch, though.
Alex’s latest addition was to install a lighted marquee to the exterior, adding a bit more glitz. Renovation continues unabated and will continue for some time.
“By the time I’m ready to give up, I might break even,” Alex says. “We certainly put a lot of money into it. It’s hard to tell what we’re going to have for crowds when we’re done, if we’re going to get people coming back to movies.”
So far the response has been good. In an era of big-screen high definition TVs and home theater sound systems, people are rediscovering the romance of the big screen.