Bellingham has that iconic college town feel, with its porch couches and faded prayer flags, plethora of coffee shops and cheap dinning, $2.00 pitchers of beer, and cozy bookstores. But what's a college town with out an art house movie theater?
The Pickford Cinema fills that requirement to a T. Located downtown at 1416 Cornwall Ave., in a tiny, rented, make-shift theater, The Pickford holds only 80 movie enthusiasts at a time. Filled with an eclectic mash of salvaged seats and run with a vintage projection box, the feel is decidedly relaxed and intimate. This may be an independent theater, but there is a surprising lack of pretense, probably because of its non-profit status.
The Pickford is in close partnership with its community as it is funded through approximately 2,000 members, assorted donations in conjunction with ticket revenue, said Alice Clark, executive director of The Whatcom Film Association (WFA).
“Without volunteers our jobs would be extremely difficult,” The Pickford projectionist Alex Hudson said. Volunteers come 40 minutes before a movie starts to prep the theater while the projectionist is prepping for the next movie, Hudson said. Then 20 minutes to show time the volunteers run the concessions while the projectionist sells the tickets, she said. The process would be much longer without the help, Hudson said.
The volunteers get a free movie ticket due to the appreciation for their help, and two movie tickets if they work the last movie of the evening because they clean the pop-corn machine, Hudson said.
The theater was originally called The Grand Cinema and was struggling to make it as a business, Clark said. The owners sent out a plea to the community to save The Grand and independent film in Bellingham, Clark said. She and others responded to the idea but when taking a closer look at The Grand and its business practices they realized that its continuation as a business wasn't feasible.
Hence the Whatcom Film Association was created, and The Pickford was born. That first summer the WFA held its first Fairhaven outdoor film showing to create publicity, but ended up making quite a bit of money, Clark said.
The Pickford boasts the title of the only full-time independent cinema between Vancouver, B.C., to Seattle, Hudson said. She talked to a patron from British Columbia who came specifically to The Pickford as it was the only theater around showing, “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.” That a person would travel far for The Pickford is a testament to the quality of the programming, Hudson said.
“I like that The Pickford is completely different from everything,” Hudson said.
The theater only has two workers at a time which means that Hudson has a hand in the entire movie-going process, something that is unique in an era of multiplexes, she said. Hudson said sees the patrons before the movie as they buy their tickets from her, then she goes to the projection room where she loads six to seven large reels onto the platter, which feeds the film into the projector. Then, after the film, she gets to witness the initial reaction of the viewers as they leave the theater, she said.
“I like to have full contact with the movie experience,” Hudson said.
Hudson is not the only one who enjoys the ambiance of The Pickford. Ticket revenues continue to increase each year, Clark said. Finding a bigger and permanent location became feasible, Clark said. Moving into a new space will make The Pickford into a more effective business with a larger venue and more concessions, she said. It would also provide a better space for patrons, with an actual lobby to congregate in before and after films, she said.
In 2002 came the push that decided The Pickford's fate. The Bellingham Radio Museum offered some of its space to The Pickford, and although this deal fell through, the plans were already made to move The Pickford from its location, Clark said.
The new theater, located on 1318 Bay St., will cost an estimated 2.5 million, which includes everything, including ownership of the venue, Clark said. Currently the WFA has raised 1.5 million and has aspirations of opening around this time next year, Clark said. The new venue will provide two theaters, better sight lines, and mainly more space with an actual lobby. The concessions will also be expanded to include cappuccino and alcohol options for substance-craving patrons.
One of the new aspects Clark was most excited about was the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification that the new building will have. This LEED certification will mean that the building will meet national benchmarks for energy efficient and sustainable building.
“I believe it will be the only LEED certified theater in the nation,” Clark said.
Here's hoping the new venue can provide a more enjoyable viewing experience while still retaining the kitsch of the old.