How "Walking Dead" Creator Kept Kentucky Theater Alive
About halfway down Pike Street, off of U.S. 27 in Cynthiana, a 143-year-old theater sits between a vacant building and a small dance studio. Outside, the antique sign says Rohs Opera House. Inside, the air is cool and dark and slightly dusty.
For now, there is silence in the projector room on the second floor, just behind the balcony seats. Come Nov. 21, however, that silence will once again be filled with the sound of movies, thanks to the generosity of a couple of Harrison County natives-turned-celebrities: The Walking Dead co-creator, Robert Kirkman, and his wife, Sonia.
“Hollywood went 100 percent digital last fall,” explains James Smith, one of the co-owners of the Rohs (pronounced ‘ross’). “We didn’t have the money to go digital, so we thought our movie showing days were over.”
Smith explains that Kirkman came down to the Rohs for a visit later last year. “He talked to us for a while. Of course, we talked about some Walking Dead stuff, and he told us he wanted to bring movies back to Cynthiana. He asked what it would cost, and we gave him the rough estimate of $100,000. He told us to contact the company and he would pay for it all,” Smith says. “He said he’s doing it for the kids.”
Kirkman declined to comment for this story, saying he wanted attention focused on the Rohs Opera House and the work its owners are doing.
Up until the old projector system was made obsolete by new technology last summer, moviegoers could watch the latest movie during a three-night weekend run for $5 per ticket. Smith says they played sold-out shows about 20 times a year for movies such The Hunger Games and those from the Twilight series. The last movie shown there was Man of Steel in July 2013.
The building where Rohs Opera House is located was erected in 1871 and originally housed the H.A. Rohs jewelry story on one floor and Aeolian Hall opera house on another. (Photo by Kristy Robinson Horine)
Back in the darkened projection room, a brand new digital system from Tri-State Theater Co. of Memphis, Tennessee, sits in boxes, ready for installation. The first film to be played has yet to be chosen, but Smith says they are leaning toward the latest inThe Hunger Games series. They are looking at opening night on Nov. 21.
Smith has been co-owner/operator of the Rohs since 2006. He partners with Roger Slade and Phillip Nickerson. The trio are said to be only the third set of owners since the building was erected in 1871. The original building housed the H. A. Rohs jewelry store on the first floor, and Aeolian Hall, an opera house, on the second floor.
In Aeolian Hall, the ancient wooden floor creaks underfoot, a small room under the balcony serves as a sound-and-lights booth, and a raised stage accommodates whichever act is performing. Toward the far end of the tall-ceilinged room, opposite the long windows that face the street, the floor shows evidence of a once-upon-a-time orchestra pit, long-since filled in.
“There were circuses here, and revivals and circuit riding preachers,” Smith says. When he speaks, the sound echoes off the walls and across the ceiling. “There was a traveling opera and they played silent movies in here, too.”
Down a carpeted hall lined with a mirror and old playbills, a newer section of the building houses a massive 35mm commercial projector. This part of the building was added in 1941, and includes a 400-seat movie theater playhouse and a basement for actors to use as dressing rooms. Behind the balcony with padded, fold-down seats is a separate, narrow balcony with hard wooden seats, accessed by an external staircase. This was the section for people of color. No one sits there today except for the ghosts of a different era.
While the projector room is silent for now, the Rohs has seen a bustle of activity. The building routinely hosts live performances by The Rohs Theater Company, a newly formed nonprofit theater group, and the HarriCYN Community Theater, an established production group. In addition to those, the Rohs hosts local country music shows, tribute bands that have paid homage to Johhny Cash, The Eagles and Elvis, and some local singing competitions such as Cynthiana Idol and a Can You Duet competition back in January. The local 3M company, which manufactures Post-It Notes, holds an annual fashion show where the goal is to create an entire outfit from the sticky notes.
Another popular attraction this time of year is the annual Cynthiana Ghost Walk. Nearly 1,000 ghost hunters come out to spy a vision of the famed Lady in White, or to hear the laughter of long-gone children in the hallowed halls of the old building.
Movies should return to the Rohs on Nov. 21. (Photo by Kristy Robinson Horine)
But a lot of people remember the Rohs for family movie nights. Co-owner Slade remembers learning the ropes of the old projector system while he worked for the previous owner.
“We had a 35mm, the same thing that people have had since the ’40s. The movies came on five or six reels, and there used to be someone who had to stay in the projection room and change each reel. The system we had put in, maybe during the late 80s, was a platter system. We basically taped the reels together and played from there,” Slade says. “I knew how to work the movie, how to thread it, how to do maintenance on the projector. We just learned that stuff as we went along.”
The new digital system, Slade says, will change more about the Rohs than just the equipment.
“For us, this is humbling. It has totally changed our business plan. We focused on a lot of stuff, live stuff. We did plays and concerts and we are still going to do those things,” Slade says and then pauses. ‘But here, in little old Cynthiana, we will have newer equipment than in Georgetown, newer equipment than in Lexington. You don’t have to drive 30 or 40 minutes to go see a first-run movie, you can go right here. It’s going to give us one more thing we can do.”
Slade explains that the movies will be shipped in on a hard drive, which will then be plugged into the new system and shown on a new projection screen. The sound will come through a new sound system.
“There will be some things done through a laptop, where we will communicate with the company, but it is a special projector that the hard drive is connected to,” Slade explains. “Before, if a reel broke, we could just tape it on the spot. Now, if something goes wrong with the digital system, the company will have remote access through the system and fix 95 percent of the problems within a very few moments.”
Slade, Smith and Nickerson will still work through a booking agent to choose the movies. Each theater company is required to keep a movie running for two to three weeks, so they need to stay on top of which blockbusters might bring in the most people, especially during the upcoming holiday season.
“When there are a bunch of movies coming out all at once, we have to discuss some things,” Slade says.
Overall, though, after the initial shock of such a generous donation to the small-town theater, the reality is beginning to sink in.
“The opera house has been here since 1871 in one form or another,” Slade says. “The Kirklands have ensured that we are going to be here for the next generation as well.”
Smith agrees that the impact is huge, not only for the theater and the small town, but as an example for the rest of humankind.
“There is this overwhelming sense of gratitude,” Smith says, “that there are still people in the world that will do that for a whole town.”
This article originally appeared at KY Forward and is written by Kristy Robinson Horine, a freelance journalist who lives in Paris.
Top photo: The old 35 mm projector system in Cynthiana’s Rohs Opera House is being replaced by digital technology, thanks to a donation from The Walking Dead co-creator, Robert Kirkman, and his wife, Sonia, both Harrison County natives. Owners Phillip Nickerson, left, James Smith and Roger Slade say the donation will ensure the Rohs will be around for another generation to enjoy. (Photo by Josh Shepherd/Cynthiana Democrat)