By Wayne Laepple
WATSONTOWN — A special screening of “Marley and Me” at the Watson Theatre at 7 p.m. Thursday will mark the end of an era.
Rick and Deb Whistler and their son Jason, who have owned and operated the theater since 1996, have decided to close it. They’ve run the theater as a hobby since they bought it, and on Jan. 1, they cut the prices of all tickets to $5 in an effort to bring in more customers. But between mall multiplexes, home theaters and the lousy economy, it didn’t help.
For 68 years, the 490-seat Watson Theater has been a community fixture, and a movie theater has been on the site since 1912. One of the oldest theaters in the region, it retains the ornate silk damask wallpaper applied in 1940, when the theater was rebuilt following a fire.
David Hontz, Watsontown’s mayor, fondly recalled Friday night movies at the Watson.
“It was a big thing when you were a kid,” he said. “You met all your buddies there.”
“I’m sad to see it close,” he went on. “It was an institution here, and I know the businesses downtown will miss it, and so will a lot of people.”
The iconic theater, one of only a handful of single-screen operations in the country, has been for sale for some time. For many years, the Watsontown Police Department has held an annual event at the theater to collect toys for children, and the Whistlers have always been willing to open their doors for other special events such as Thursday night’s movie.
The free showing of “Marley and Me,” which stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston, is part of a regional reading promotion, Read Across the Valley, sponsored by 14 area public and academic libraries. The movie is an adaptation of the book by the same name by John Grogan. Grogan will speak on at 7 p.m. Oct. 3 in Weber Chapel-Auditiorium on the campus of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove.
“They opened their doors for our kickoff movie,” said Melissa Rowse, director of the Montgomery House-Warrior Run Area Public Library. “They’ve done this sort of thing for years. They’ll be sorely missed.”
During an interview in 2002, Deb Whistler explained that small-town movie houses are handicapped by the film distribution companies. Theaters must contract for a minimum of four to six weeks for a single film, and in a small town, everyone sees the film in the first couple of weeks.
“For us,” she said, “if we get two really good films in a year, they carry us for the rest of the year.”
The Watson was run as a family-friendly, community-oriented theater, Whistler said.
“We found our niche,” she said. “We’re proud of this place.”