Sometimes in life, things work out like a Frank Capra movie.
Craig Smith opened the Firehouse Theater in Kingston a dozen years ago; a friendly place with real butter on the popcorn, and Smith himself out front selling tickets and personally introducing every film. (The name is appropriate; Smith renovated the town’s former fire station, creating a two-screen cineplex.) Though the theater was popular in the community, Smith had long struggled to recoup the costs of the renovation — and, at 65, was wondering how long his dream could be sustainable. Last month, his children helped him set up a GoFundMe for the theater. In its first couple of weeks, it raised about $6,000.
Then, after a “CBS Sunday Morning” story about Smith and the Firehouse aired early Sunday, contributions started to pour in. As of noon Sunday, the fundraiser had raised approximately $140,000, from nearly 3,700 individual donors. Comments from donors — located all over the country — indicated that Smith’s story touched them: “The American Dream should live on,” said one, giving $15. “I donated because I love the movies and those who try to keep their spirit alive,” wrote another with her $20 donation. Another, giving $10, wrote, “I donated to support Craig’s contribution to his community, and to help allow him to continue his passion.”
The CBS story followed a Wall Street Journal story on the Firehouse in December by Seattle freelancer Chris Kornelis, who was interested in the struggles faced by small local theaters. Smith, a lifelong film lover who “grew up seeing movies the way the filmmaker wants them to be seen,” was happy to talk. A CBS producer spotted the article, and things happened quickly: In early January, a small crew went to Kingston, filming in and around the Firehouse for two and a half days. The segment aired, appropriately, on Oscar Sunday — and suddenly the GoFundMe was, appropriately for the theater’s location, on fire.
Speaking by telephone Sunday, after getting his first two matinees under way (the phone had been “ringing off the hook,” and one of the movies started a bit late due to unexpected crowds), Smith was overwhelmed by his theater’s sudden good fortune. “It’s like manna from heaven,” he said, noting that he stopped taking a paycheck from the theater some time ago. “In my heart of hearts, I did not dream of this. Those (CBS) guys, the way they told the story was true. I just didn’t imagine it would come across like that.”
He says he’ll use the money to pay off debts, “get a little bit ahead,” and do some long-wished-for renovations that would make the theater suitable for live events as well as screenings. Long term, he’d like to investigate transforming the theater into a nonprofit community organization, which might allow him to eventually retire. His wife, a schoolteacher, is retiring next year, and “she told me I’m supposed to retire too.”
But for now, there’s popcorn to pop, tickets to sell, and a parade of regular customers who’ve made the Firehouse part of their lives.
“It’s an event to go out to a movie, as opposed to sitting watching your television,” Smith said. “Movies are intended to be seen with a shared emotional response in an auditorium on a big screen. We just can’t let that die.”