The Liberty Theatre, an iconic art deco presence in downtown Camas since 1927, is a favorite photo opportunity for the growing number of visitors who frequent downtown’s eclectic restaurants, boutiques and bistros.
But not too many of the visitors spend any time inside the theater taking in a movie. Rand Thornsley, managing director of the Liberty since March 2011, is determined to change that.
Thornsley and his partners, his son Adam Thornsley and Wisconsin-based theater owner Paul Rogers, are banking on improvements to the building and to the Liberty’s technology, along with a growing list of movies and events, to make the theater a centerpiece of the downtown business district and a force to improve the cultural life of the broader community.
Thornsley knows he’s fighting a battle against changes in the way people spend time and money. An experienced theater operator, he hopes that with help from the community, he can keep the Liberty alive.
“I like being in this part of the business,” he said. “I grew up working in family theaters, providing current movies at affordable prices.”
The Liberty owners, in collaboration with the building’s owners, have made substantial improvements over the last four years, and they have plans for more.
In 2013, the Liberty became a fully digital theater with two viewing venues — a 300-seat main auditorium and the 29-seat Granada Studio, largely used to show independent and foreign films. The theater features second-run movies, which it gets from four to six weeks after they open in the Portland/Vancouver metropolitan area.
As with other small, historic theaters, a major audience draw for the Liberty is its warm and nostalgic atmosphere. The theater offers a classic movie environment, complete with original, ornate art deco sconces and lighting, draperies and plush seating. In short, it has the same look and feel it possessed nearly 90 years ago.
Price and variety are other positive factors. The Liberty offers discount ticket prices ($4.50 any time/$3 on Tuesdays), affordable concessions and a wide variety of movies, from offbeat foreign films and Hollywood classics to current blockbusters. It also has full 3-D capability.
Thornsley said his primary audiences are families who want a movie experience at about half the cost of a first-run theater, and seniors, who often take in the foreign and independent films offered in the Granada Studio.
Thornsley said most second-run movie houses face a time-factor challenge. Customers must wait a few weeks to see major studio movies at the Liberty. Many do wait. But many others want to see films as soon as they come out.
Offering variety is another challenge. If the Liberty were divided into four 60-seat theaters, it could show a greater variety of movies and generate more attendance. But the building can’t be remodeled in this way, nor would Thornsley even attempt it. Breaking the building into smaller theaters would destroy the Liberty’s character, Thornsley said.
Young people, a major potential movie market segment, are less drawn by nostalgia or a theater experience. They can view movies at home on 70-inch high definition television screens. Up-to-date websites and mobile phone apps are a must to draw them, and Thornsley hopes to develop the online tools that would make them want to visit the Liberty.
The owner also has his sights set on people looking for cultural enrichment. Thornsley has signed contracts for alternative programming in music, opera and dance starting in December. These include the Bolshoi from Moscow, National Theatre Live and various operas from Rising Alternative.
Officially entitled Event Cinema, the schedule is on the theater’s website at www.camasliberty.com/EventCinema.htm. Ticket prices will range from $10 to $18.50.
“We also have several faith-based special event programs on board, and during the Christmas holiday we’ll present the 50th anniversary of ‘Doctor Zhivago.’ And we have traditionally run a Christmas-themed film the night of Hometown Holidays (on Dec. 4),” Thornsley said. This year’s featured flick: “Home Alone.”
Capitalizing on the surge in activity taking place in downtown Camas is another growth strategy, Thornsley said. The theater is opening earlier on Saturday and Sunday and staying open later on Friday and Saturday to increase the number of movies offered and to draw a broader audience.
Adults can now have beer or wine while sitting with their families in the main auditorium. Until recently, consumption of beer and wine was restricted to the balcony. The Granada Studio is now open to all ages except for R-rated films, and a portion of the main auditorium is now open to those younger than 21 who are not with their parents.
Carrie Schulstad, executive director of the Downtown Camas Association, said the theater plays a vital role in helping the city achieve its organizing goals as a member of Main Street America, a national organization that fosters revitalization of historic downtowns.
The Liberty is especially important, she says, because it provides an entertainment activity that people of all ages can participate in, both during the day and evening hours.
The Camas Hotel gives out free movie tickets to all who stay Sundays through Thursdays, and the Downtown Camas Association and theater provide free movie tickets as incentives to shop at evening promotional events. The business group also showcases the theater on its website (www.downtowncamas.com) and in promotions for the growing number of downtown events it sponsors, such as the new “Sip and Shop” event set for Thursday.
A lifetime commitment
Thornsley, who owned and operated theaters in Alaska for more than 30 years, said he had been looking for an opportunity outside Alaska when he happened on the Liberty in the fall of 2010 while doing some research for the Anchorage International Film Festival.
The Liberty had closed in September 2009 during the economic downturn and not much was happening in downtown Camas at the time, he said. But he “fell in love” with Camas, saw potential, and decided to take the plunge. In February 2011, he and his partner signed a five-year lease with two five-year options.
The lease was renegotiated in 2013 to include the cost of the digital equipment upgrade and now runs to 2018 with two five-year options. The building is owned by Gary and Marilyn Webberly of Kirkland. Marilyn is the granddaughter of C.E. Farrell, who had the theater built in 1926.
From 2011 to April of this year, Thornsley continued to run the theater side of the successful Bear Tooth Theatrepub in Anchorage, Alaska, largely by telecommuting. That income enabled him to operate the Liberty without a salary.
Even so, the Liberty has lost money every year since Thornsley became owner except 2012, when it earned a small profit. Admissions are down 9.4 percent this year and Thornsley has had to operate with fewer employees, taking up the slack himself. This means long hours and long weeks. But Thornsley is undaunted, drawn to the challenge by his love of the theater experience.
“A movie is meant to be watched with other people in a dark room, on a large screen,” he said. “That’s the level of intimacy we’re trying to provide.”
Editor’s note: This article was revised to note that Paul Rogers, a partner in the Liberty Theater, is a Wisconsin-based theater owner and that Adam Thornsley of Camas, son of Rand Thornsley, is also a partner in the theater.