Cinema Series: The Dietrich Theater

Like many film lovers, going to the movies is about more than just sitting in a dark room watching flashing pictures on a wall… it’s an experience we love and look forward to. To celebrate the cinema-going experience, we’re taking a look at some of the most interesting movie houses around.

The Historic Dietrich Theater

 

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In the land of multiplex cinemas with reclining seats and aisle side dinner service, it’s easy to overlook the historic Dietrich Theater. The building blends perfectly into the bistros and small shops along Tioga Street in the quiet town of Tunkhannock, PA. The marquee features letters that are changed by hand and save for some simple lighting, it doesn’t do anything fancy to try and catch your attention. Inside, the screens of this independent theater are of modest size and the lobby feels more like the hallways of a school than your average American movie theater. For those of us who remember the days when we didn’t have to sit through an endless barrage of commercials before the trailers started, a visit to this art-deco movie house feels like a step back in time.   

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“It’s nostalgia. It’s harkening back to a time when film was the only option – that cinema was the only option to go and entertain yourself. You didn’t necessarily have all these other options,” General Manager and Film Booker, Ronnie Harvey said of the Dietrich experience. “I think going here, you really do, it might sound cliche, but it feels like family. You feel like home. Our employees really talk to our customers. They want to know what their film experience is like. They want to know what movies they like. They want to know about them. I think you just feel close to people here. In comparison, it’s more intimate…and it’s fun.”  

History of the Dietrich

 

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Founded by George Dietrich, a farmer and entrepreneur from Wyoming County, the Dietrich Theater was the first movie theater in its community. People were able to catch a film at other locations in town, but the area lacked a proper cinema. When doors opened on May 28th, 1937, fifteen-hundred people passed through the new air-conditioned movie house to catch a film during its opening weekend. 

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The little single-screen cinema enjoyed decades of success until mall cineplexes started springing up in the 1980s. Like many small cinemas across the country, the Dietrich couldn’t compete with all the movies these multiplexes were able to bring in on a weekly basis. It didn’t take long before business at the Dietrich took a plunge and it was forced to close in the late 80s. 

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The Dietrich remained closed for nearly a decade. During that time the inside of the theater began to crumble from neglect. Parts of the ceiling had collapsed and you could clearly see clouds roll by overhead. An equally great hole in the community was growing during those years as people began to miss the little local theater. In 1998, a small group of Tunkhannock residents met and decided to reopen the Dietrich, this time as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. 

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The group managed to raise over $50,000 in a short period of time to purchase the building. It would take another three years and a million dollars in grants and donations to repair the building before the marquee was lit again on Friday, April 13th, 2001. During those renovations, a second screen was added.

In the crowd that opening night to see Traffic and Chocolat was the original owner, George Dietrich. 

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Shortly after the reopening, the theater branched out into a neighboring building and gas station and used the new space to expand to four screens. This expansion also enabled the theater to embraced its new role as a community center by building classrooms for children’s programs and other educational events.

“We’re very involved in the community,” Executive Director of the Dietrich Theater, Erica Rogler said. “In a given year, about 80,000 people come through our doors. We started film festivals in 2003 and we now have four film festivals per year. When we have our film festivals we bring in different speakers so you can further engage, not just with the movie, but with the audience afterward and learn additional things from the experts we bring in.”

The Rural Arthouse Cinema

 

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We live in a world where the entertainment industry and all its providers are looking to eliminate any challenges patrons might have to overcome to part with their hard-earned dollars. To say most programming is risk-averse would be an understatement. Familiar properties are repackaged on a weekly basis in an effort to offer the masses as much of a sure thing as possible. Let me tell ya, it takes a lot of guts to think you can convince a rural audience they need to start ‘reading their movies’ but that’s just what this little arthouse cinema has done. Sure, the Dietrich Theater carries all the Marvel movies and major releases that bring everyone on the planet out for a few weeks at a time, but there are a dozen theaters in any direction offering popcorn pictures on two-story-tall screens six thousand times a day to do that. What drives people to the Dietrich Theater in droves is the small independent films and the carefully curated festivals it holds multiple times a year featuring about two dozen films you won’t find playing in one place outside of the Sundance Film Festival. And these festivals are helping to foster a growing community of cinephiles in a town that had once let this very theater die. 

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On one Thursday afternoon in August, three weeks before the 2019 Fall Film Festival was to start, close to fifty people flocked to the Dietrich Theater for its Preview Day to watch about an hour’s worth of trailers for the little known films that would make up the festival program. Those fifty people sat with a program in hand and whispered amongst themselves plans to cram as many double-features into a two-week span as possible. One person, a man named Rod, drove 130 miles on his motorcycle to be there. He said he was on something of a scouting mission. He scopes out the films playing at the festival and then goes over the lineup with his son who watches the trailers online. Come festival time the two rent a room in town and for the better part of a week, they watch every movie they can. 

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“We are showing more films than what Indie cinemas do by putting it in a package and making it seasonal,” Harvey said, describing the festival format. “I met a bunch of people at an Arthouse convergence in Utah and they looked at me and said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re doing four film festivals a year – that’s insane’, I said yes, but we’re able to connect those two kinds of theaters (mainstream and art-house) into one. That’s what we are… I don’t know of any other theater that does both of those things simultaneously… so that’s what I think makes us unique.”

It’s fitting Harvey brings up Utah because many of the films that play during the festival at the Dietrich made their debut in Park City, but barely played outside the festival circuit. The Farewell and Midsommar hit big with mainstream audiences, but movies like Wild Rose, Luce, The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Honeyland didn’t receive wide releases but are consistently appearing on critic’s lists of top films of the year. 

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“It’s very rewarding being in an arthouse theater,” Harvey said. “We are able to see so many different kinds of people come into the theater and enjoy cinema that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy anywhere else in this area. Some people have to go as far as Philadelphia or New York City to see some of the films that we bring in here on an almost monthly basis now with the fact we have four film festivals a year. And seeing people expand their horizons and learn about new cultures, new ways of life, to see their first foreign film and react to it in a way that changes their perspective on not only cinema but the world – it’s very rewarding to have a small part in that.”

Harvey isn’t overstating the impact the foreign films and documentaries they are programing has had on the theater’s patrons. One of their regulars, Harry – who was also at Preview Day – was so moved by a documentary he saw during a recent film festival, The Eagle Huntress (a film which follows a 13-year old Kazakh girl in Mongolia who was training to become the first female eagle hunter in her family for 12 generations), he decided to take a trip to the very village in Mongolia where the film took place. 

When Harry returned he gave a presentation about his travels at the Dietrich.

The Future of the Dietrich

 

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Independent theaters like the Dietrich are still feeling the pressure of the big chain multiplexes which bring in a steady stream of new releases every week, and every venue on the planet is trying to make sense of the streaming services that have disrupted the cinematic landscape, but the future is looking bright for the little theater with the retro vibe as people continue to crave unique experiences in this increasingly manufactured world.

“This is probably the most important part of this town,” Harvey said of the Dietrich. “This is probably the most important place in the area. I think that it’s going to be here forever. And I think the experience you have here is going to make you want to come back again and again and again.” 

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