Anyone who’s strolled up Court Street in the past century has seen the brightly lit, vintage marquee, advertising the Athena’s latest shows. From silent films to obscure and edgy cinematic art, this theater has seen it all.
After the Athena’s centennial celebration last year, the business has remained vibrant and in sync with the community. Its past has seen successes, disasters and near failures, but that hasn’t stopped the Athena. Its new ownership has breathed life into the weathered walls and provided a fresh start. From the Athens International Film + Video Festival, to a new project called “Drop Your Shorts,” there is a wide range of events to bring all age groups together. As for the future of the “arthouse,” there is every indication that another 100 years are in its future.
Soon to be 101 years ago on June 3, the Athena Cinema opened its doors as the “Majestic Theatre,” welcoming a flurry of ankle-length skirts and swishing dress slacks. It was 1915; women couldn’t vote, World War I was in full swing, and you could see a movie for a dime. The world was standing on a precipice of change.
“There’s just something that really marks it as a special moment when you see a movie on the big screen, with somebody you love or by yourself. People really remember the experience that they have here, I think,” says Alexandra Kamody, the director of the Athena.
All of the early movies that the theater featured were silent films, and before that, there were even some vaudeville performances. The Athena’s very first audience viewed Mary Pickford’s silent film, Cinderella. There would have been a musical accompaniment that played in front of the stage, providing a soundtrack for the movie. The audience would sit in rapt attention as the “magic” unfolded on the screen. The theater industry was still a relatively new phenomenon, and sound wouldn’t be introduced until 1927.
Throughout the years, the theater remained its own entity and featured many first-run movies. Though the university’s connection to the cinema has only recently been established, many alumni couples recounted their first dates in the theater for the “Share a Memory” activity during last years’ anniversary celebration.
When asked about the nostalgic activity, Kamody says, “It was so fun to read those. We have the ‘first date’ ones, and the ‘goofy’ ones, and the ‘X-rated’ ones that we can’t put on the website. There’s just so many funny things that have happened here over the years, that really capture the time.”
It wasn’t until later that student involvement began to grow, and Ohio University and the Athena established a close relationship. According to the Athena’s website, Ohio University bought and restored the theater in 2001, which is now run by the College of Fine Arts. Employing many students and drawing many of them in as audience members, Ohio University is now an integral component of the Athena.
Over a century later, the Athena Cinema is still thriving. The ticket prices have risen through the years from a dime to $6.50, but the audience is ever faithful. There are $4 Tuesdays, discounts for children, seniors and Friends of the Athena members, and a matinee price (any time before 6 p.m.) of $5. There is also free admission for events sponsored by community partners.
Friends of the Athena is a membership program that not only contributes to the success of the non-profit theater, but also offers many benefits as well. There are four different levels that offer perks such as free popcorn and soda with every visit, to using the marquee for a “happy birthday” wish.
Clearly, the theater is a growing business as of late. This is mainly due to the recent change over to a more “arthouse” cinema, which means that there are many independent films, documentaries, and even student screenings presented by the theater. These productions tend to bring in an older audience, but have been very successful in snagging many students as well.
“I just feel like we’re growing and moving. We’re almost growing faster than we can keep up with, so that’s one of our biggest challenges—finding enough time in the day to do what we need to do,” says Kamody.
From the theater’s spring catalogue, there will be plenty of events, including the Athens International Film + Video Festival, and a new event called “Drop Your Shorts” which will be a one-night-only film screening in which community members’ shorts will be featured.
“We hope that the “Drop Your Shorts” event will encourage filmmakers or anyone in the Southeast Ohio area to create and screen diverse films and videos for a night of community submitted content. It’s a way for people to get their work seen by their peers and celebrate local indie filmmaking,” says Yang Miller, Tech Director and Audience Experience Coordinator for the Athena.
Founded in 1974, the Athens International Film + Video Festival has presented independent films from around the world and has become quite a prestigious event. From April 4-10, over 250 films will be featured on the screens of the Athena.
In an age of smartphones and Netflix, theaters are still a thriving function of the community. It is a common ground that has pulled people together since the beginning of its existence.
“There’s just a certain magic about coming to a 101-year-old theater. Seeing a kid sitting next to a student, sitting next to an 80-year-old woman is what it’s all about—bringing the community together,” Kamody says.
Through fire, flood and nearly going out of business due to the TV industry and competing theaters, the Athena has withstood the test of time. Movies are a timeless creation that bridge the generation gap effortlessly and truly bring people together. The only element that is not so enduring is the actual film on which old movies were copied. Though many reels have been preserved, they are very delicate.
“That’s another big dream of something we want to do for the future. We still have the ability to show 35 mm, but it’s not on the preferred system. So, we’re hoping to move towards being able to show it on a reel-to-reel or changeover system so we can borrow more prints from film archives and really keep showing 35 mm prints as well. This year I’m sure we’ll show a few 16 mm films at the festival,” Kamody says
As the faithful audience of the Athena sits on the edge of their seats, anticipating what the future holds for the theater, it is evident that the impending changes will unite past and present with effortless perfection. The Athena is inspiring an innovative comeback in the movie industry.
Here’s to another century of good business, exceptional movies, and exciting events that bring the community together.