The Buchanan Theatre opened as the Star Theatre in 1917. Its opening was part of an explosion of nickelodeon-style storefront movie theaters across the country. For just 5 cents a ticket, patrons could file into orchestra seats and watch a short film.
The small-town movie theater in Botetourt County will soon receive $500,000 in state funding as part of the commonwealth’s recently passed budget. The money will be used to give the theater a mini-facelift. For town residents, it is important that the building retain its historic charm.
The building is a part of the culture of Buchanan, according to Botetourt resident Kathy Austin. As such, it not only shows movies. It also serves as a gathering place, a special event space, and a venue for live musical performances.
The theater has the nostalgic charm of a simpler era, when families went to the movies to see films that are now considered classics. The interior boasts an art deco-style tin-tiled ceiling, wooden paneling and framed photos and news clippings from the theater’s past.
Sharon Coleman is president of Standing Room Only, the nonprofit that has managed the theater since 2001. She used to watch movies in the theater when she was in her late teens and early 20s, she said, and she remembers times when the theater was more popular.
“I came here to see ‘ET.’ It was probably the third time I had seen it. It was still full in here, then,” she said.
“This was the only theater like it around,” Coleman said, regarding the single screen; most simplex theaters have added additional screens over the years to allow multiple movies to show at once, but a few single-screen theaters do remain.
The Buchanan Theatre still has just one screen with two aisles. The original balcony remains intact and continues to overlook the main stage.
“We still have people come in and ask which door they should go through. And I’m like, ‘Take your pick,’’ Coleman said.
“That kind of blows people away sometimes,” she said.
For Austin, visiting the theater has been a family affair. She took her son to the Buchanan Theatre when he was young, she said. Now her son and her stepchildren take their own children to see the movies.
Austin also recalls special Christmases at the theater. Botetourt resident and renowned clown Leon McBryde dressed as Santa, and community children would visit with him, she said.
“I think almost all my grandchildren have done that,” Austin said.
The theater itself is a cornerstone of town activity throughout the year. Movies are shown every weekend beginning on Thursday night. The patrons are usually families or adults between the ages of 40 and 60, according to Coleman.
“If we’re showing a family movie and they’ve got a bunch of kids, it’s so much cheaper for them to come here,” she said.
Tickets are $6 for adults and $3 for children age 12 and under, with a $1 discount for Standing Room Only members. Concessions are inexpensive, too; it’s possible for a family to buy sodas and popcorn for less than $20.
Visitors sometimes drive in from Bedford, Rockingham County, Roanoke and Salem to see the movies, according to Harry Gleason, Buchanan’s community development planner. Some stay in nearby B&Bs.
“It’s a cool thing to have because it draws people in. They want to do the old-timey, small-scale thing. They’re always shocked at how affordable it is. It’s a cool experience,” Gleason said.
Gleason volunteers in the theater on a regular basis. He said that visitors are sometimes surprised to see him all around town, performing maintenance on town buildings during the day and serving popcorn at night. He likes seeing everyone and making them feel welcome, he said.
“You can’t walk in there without seeing someone you know,” said Buchanan resident Samantha Marsh. She works at the Buchanan Fountain & Grille, which is just across the street.
“Seeing a movie is like comfort food for our community,” Austin said.
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The well-loved building needs some work. The back decks are lopsided, the stage is a little wobbly, and there might be a family of mice living in the walls, as evidenced by noises coming from the walls on a recent visit.
“Have you seen out back? That’s where all the problems lie. There’s a two-story porch that’s barely hanging on,” Austin said.
Austin is a member of the Standing Room Only board and is married to Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, the vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee. He was responsible for the budget amendment that included money for the Buchanan Theatre, according to legislative assistant Matthew Miller. (Updated: An earlier version incorrectly stated Austin’s position on the committee.)
The delegate recognizes the importance of the theater to the community; he grew up seeing movies at the Buchanan Theatre as a child.
“My intention is that these dollars [will help] make it more of a performance theater along with a movie theater. That will create more opportunities to use that facility, to bring people there,” he said.
According to Kathy Austin, the board has compiled a list of the most important updates that will ensure that the Buchanan Theatre remains structurally sound and culturally relevant.
The slated improvements include repairing or removing the decrepit rear decks, upgrading the sound system, improving the stage lighting and upgrading the bathrooms, she said.
The funds from the commonwealth will go toward making those improvements, she said. At the same time, the board will take its time; improvements may not be seen in a matter of weeks or months.
“[The board] has some ideas. Not a real plan. We just found out that that money was going to be available a few months ago,” Coleman said.
In addition to updating the bathrooms and adding safety features or removing hazards, the Standing Room Only board is contemplating eventually adding square footage to the stage, building dressing rooms and improving the overall appeal of the building so that it will also attract musical performances and small plays, according to Austin and Coleman.
The biggest concern is that any improvements maintain the historical integrity of the theater, Austin said.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources will be asked to provide direction on retaining the theater’s historic elements, she said.
Standing Room Only has approximately $100,000 in rainy-day funds set aside to help with renovation costs when the time comes, Coleman said.
Admission and concession sales and group rentals bring in the majority of the income required to cover the theater’s operating expenses. The theater is solely run by volunteers, which keeps the overhead low, she said.
Botetourt County’s Department of Economic Development coordinates an annual grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, according to Ken McFadyen, director of economic development. Botetourt County provides a match.
That amounts to $9,250 in annual funding, according to Botetourt County operations assistant Luke Campbell. The same amount is provided to Botetourt County’s theater company, Attic Productions.
“We’ve been putting that [money] in an investment account to plan for when we do the big thing — updating our bathrooms — because we really don’t have bathrooms that are truly handicapped accessible,” Coleman said.
“We want it to look original, but we also want it to be updated and practical,” she said.
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In the 1940s, the theater underwent a major renovation. That’s when many of the art deco touches were added. The seats may also have been updated at that time, Coleman said. For the most part, the art deco decor remains to this day.
The theater changed owners a few times over the years. Town residents think it remained open consistently until 1985, Gleason said. A catastrophic flood that November impacted a number of the town’s businesses. Though the theater was not directly touched by rising waters, then-owner Wayne Thompson faced the fallout of the natural disaster, Gleason said, and the Buchanan Theatre closed.
Following the flood, the theater sat empty for 17 years. The last movie shown, “Invasion USA” starring Chuck Norris, remained frozen in time. The giant metal reels were left attached to the vintage projector as if waiting for the next day’s showing to commence. Those reels are in the theater’s projection room to this day, though the projector technology has been updated twice since.
“Reopening the theater was one of the wishes that town residents had,” Gleason said.
Dale and Gloria Carter purchased the building in April 2001 and worked on renovations over the next 18 months, according to a 2022 story by The Fincastle Herald cited by the Botetourt Chamber of Commerce. The Carters worked with Standing Room Only to reopen the theater in late 2002. Town residents were thrilled.
“In my opinion, they saved the structure. And Sharon was right alongside them,” Austin said.
“That, to me, is a little miracle story,” Gleason said.
Soon after the theater reopened, Coleman began to volunteer. She has been a permanent fixture ever since.
She credits Dale Carter with helping the reopened theater flourish.
“He was here all the time, and took care of so much stuff that we kind of took for granted,” she said.
The Carters sold the theater to Standing Room Only in 2008. Four years later, the organization upgraded to a new digital projection system.
Coleman fondly remembers learning to operate the new system with Dale Carter by her side. “We were here the day they put it in,” she said.
Prior to the digital update, the theater showed only movies that had been released to DVD. With that system, months often passed between a movie’s theater release date and the time that the Buchanan Theatre was able to show it.
After the update, the theater began to show newer movies. The theater is considered a sub-run theater, meaning it can show releases a few weeks after they have played in the major theaters.
As a result, the theater has seen increasingly larger crowds. Their best-attended movies since reopening have been 2016’s “Secret Life of Pets” followed by 2013’s “Frozen.” The theater only shows movies rated PG-13 or below to maintain a family-friendly atmosphere, according to Coleman.
People visit the Buchanan Theatre for the atmosphere and for the nostalgia of seeing a movie in an old simplex theater, Coleman said. She wants the organization’s focus to remain on showing movies.
In planning the theater’s renovation, the Standing Room Only board will preserve the small-town, historic, nickelodeon atmosphere, according to Austin.
“The movies are a staple of the community. We will protect them,” she said.
“Expanding the variety [of] entertainment offerings to as many people as possible while preserving the character and charm of our sweet theater is the ultimate goal,” she wrote in a follow-up message.