Radford Theatre revival keeps movie magic on Main Street
Opened in 1935, Virginia’s Radford Theatre nearly went dark in 2013. But Paul Pallante revived it by making the show much more than the movie.
A single screen. A film projector. An aging Main Street address.
If that sounds like the movie trailer for a film about a down-on-its-luck business, meet Radford Theatre owner Paul Pallante. He’s taken Virginia’s only first-run single-screen movie theater and doubled ticket sales in his first year.
Paul has made the community the star and the experience more than just a movie and brought the theater into the age of digital film.
Moviegoer Jenny Riffe recalls, “Our kids loved watching ‘Batman’ swing from the theater balcony to save the day from that dastardly Joker [played by theater employees and friends]. The Radford Theatre is close by, it’s fun, it’s inexpensive, and it involves the community.”
Welcome to the Radford Theatre, where the pre-show before “Captain America” featured local ROTC cadets singing the national anthem, confetti cannon blasts, and a costumed Captain America roaming the aisles.
“When you only have one screen, you have to provide a special experience for your customers, and that means real people doing real things onstage,” says Paul. “I started this business to bring back the magic of the moviegoing experience and keep Radford Theatre the hub of downtown — as it had been since it first opened in 1935.”
While well known in Radford (population 17,184), the theater drew widespread attention in 2014 when judges named it one of five winners of a $25,000 grand prize in the Wells Fargo Works Project contest launched to promote the Wells Fargo Works for Small BusinessSM initiative.
Coco Soodek, the business coach Wells Fargo assigned to Paul through the contest, has helped him learn to better manage multiple projects while continuing to find ways to expand the theater’s offerings.
“He’s taking the existing model for movie theaters and then turning up the knob past 10 by applying creativity and using every resource,” Coco says.
Pallante says he plans to use his prize money to open the theater balcony in June 2015, adding 40 of a new style of premium seat.
Birth of a business
Paul already owned a successful industrial and residential power washing business in town when he heard in 2013 that the Radford Theatre might close. Frankie Kirk, who’d owned it for 30 years, was stepping down and no one was stepping up to take his place.
Given theater trends, it didn’t look good. According to the Motion Picture Association of America’s 2013 report, 82 percent of the 39,783 theaters open had eight or more screens. Meanwhile, the number with seven or fewer screens had dwindled from 7,390 in 2012 to 7,156 in 2013.
Undaunted, Paul set out to save the business and the treasured sights, smells, and experiences from his childhood.
In 30 days, he and a group of investors and business associates dived into a theater makeover. They brought the business into the 21st century with a digital projector and electronic sales terminals.
The theater closed at the end of April and reopened June 14, 2013, with “Man of Steel.” Since then, in addition to doubling ticket sales, it set records in the region for opening-weekend sales for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” and “Son of God.”
David Horton, president of the Radford City Chamber of Commerce, says the theater’s revival is a shot in the arm for a community that, like others it size, has struggled to keep young people in town.
“Paul sees opportunity, and is bold, brave, and confident enough to know he can make it happen and make it work,” says David. “People see what he’s done with the community and say, ‘That’s something I can do as well.’
“With Wells Fargo’s help, Paul is reimagining what the Radford Theatre and downtown can be. It’s so much bigger than movies; it’s the American business spirit at work.”