Saving history: Man leads effort to reopen Mayes County movie house
BY RHETT MORGAN World Staff Writer
Sunday, November 11, 2012
11/12/12 at 3:39 PM
Clarification: This story contained unclear information about RKO, Inc. It has been clarified.
PRYOR - Raymond Simpson has cleaned the Allred Theater's icky, sticky floors.
He has strung projectors, popped corn, poured soda, sold ads and changed marquees. The English literature major has even run the place while attending college half a continent away.
Now, at age 22, he is taking on a new role - that of leading man.
Simpson is spearheading the charge to reopen the 95-year-old theater, which went out of business in mid-August.
"I see it as almost a civic responsibility," said Simpson, a Pomona College (Calif.) student who began working at the movie house at age 16. "A lot of people when they go to college or leave their hometowns, they shake the dust off their feet and say, 'I'm never going back.' My family history in this county goes back 125 years.
"... I owe Pryor. I want to see the theater change from a place just to see a movie to something that's a real community anchor for our downtown."
Simpson is organizing an investment group whose immediate goal is raising $100,000 toward a down payment on the theater, which is in foreclosure. Through agencies such as the Cherokee Nation Small Business Assistance Center, Simpson, who is Cherokee, also seeks to generate about $250,000 for repairs and roughly $110,000 to convert the remaining two of the Allred's five theaters to digital technology.
Thus far, the effort has netted about 16 investors, including state Rep. Ben Sherrer, an attorney who has an office around the corner from the Allred.
"I believe in Raymond and what he is doing," Sherrer said. "I think he's got a good shot."
Sherrer is attorney for the investment group, which is holding the funds in escrow.
"He understands Pryor and he understands the Mayes County community," he said of Simpson. "I'll even go further and say I think he understands the demographic of rural northeast Oklahoma. You add that to the personal experience he's had with the Allred Theater, through working there through high school, it's really the perfect fit."
Founded by J.F. Allred, the Allred Theater opened in 1917, showing silent films.
Simpson's father, Brian, worked in the movie house for the Doyle and Kathleen Oliver family, who purchased the theater in 1963. Jack Lewis, Simpson's grandfather, was a longtime projectionist in Tulsa who sold sound equipment to the Olivers.
So it was natural for Simpson, the fourth oldest of 10 children, to apply for a job at the Allred when he turned 16.
"You went to it. Your grandparents went to it," Simpson said. "Your great-grandparents went to it. It's so ingrained with the history of the town."
Starting as a concession clerk, he was assistant manager within nine months. After enrolling in college in California, he came back to work at the Allred over the summer, holidays, anytime school was out of session.
All was good, Simpson said, until Hollywood began pushing theater owners to go digital in the late 2000s.
In terms of distribution, a 35-millimeter movie print can weigh 55 pounds and cost about $2,000, compared with roughly $120 to make an eight-pound digital hard drive, Simpson said.
Digital projectors, however, range from $60,000 to $100,000. So when Gene Oliver, Doyle and Kathleen's son, began the digital conversion of three screens in 2009, Gene had to refinance, increasing his mortgage and ultimately sealing the theater's fate, Simpson said.
The international market now makes up about 60 percent of a U.S. motion picture's total revenue, Gene Oliver said.
"If it has been said that 10 percent of national box office is from independent theaters, and the cost of conversion to digital is expensive, you tell me how many theaters are going to close?" Oliver said in a phone interview.
At his mother's request, Oliver came from California to run the Allred in 2000. Today, he declines to say where he lives or what he does for a living. (RKO Inc., Oliver's business.)
But he is eager to heap praise on Simpson, whom he has groomed in all facets of the movie theater business.
"He'll run it better than me," Oliver said. "... He has the temperament and social consciousness that only comes with youth.
"I never thought that I was the owner of the Allred. I was simply the caretaker of the traditions set by Mr. Allred and my father, Doyle Oliver, and mother, Kathleen Oliver. It was always my intent to find the person who would realize this tradition and carry it on. And that man is Raymond Simpson."
The city of Pryor is hoping to parlay a successful reopening of the Allred with a revamped downtown. In January, city leaders are planning to submit to the state Department of Commerce an application to become one of more than three dozen Main Street communities in the state.
A total of $60,000 in pledges must accompany the application for the Main Street program, which combines historical preservation with economic stimulation opportunities, said Lisa Melchior, Mayes County assessor and Pryor Main Street volunteer.
"Here we were in the midst of trying to rebuild our downtown, and we hear that this core business that has been there since 1917 has closed its doors for the first time," she said. "It was (taking) a big hit. Hopefully, it will wake the community up."
Simpson took off this semester from Pomona to attend to family matters. In addition to holding down a paying gig at Walmart, he's volunteering to bring the only movie house in Mayes County back to life.
If successful, he plans to supplement the usual movie fare with streaming content, such as concerts, sporting events, even the opera.
For Simpson, the curtain can't open fast enough.
"I see it as one of the great equalizers in society," he said of cinema. "It doesn't matter how much money you make. It doesn't matter who you vote for. It doesn't matter what church you go to.
"When you go into the theater and the lights turn down and the movie comes on screen, you're with a group of people as humans who have an emotional experience with that film."
Original Print Headline: Saving history
Rhett Morgan 918-581-8395
Raymond Simpson is trying to get the 95-year-old Allred Theater in Pryor reopened. The five-screen movie house went out of business in mid- August. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World
The Allred Theater opened in Pryor in 1917, showing silent films, and was bought by the Oliver Family in 1963. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World
Raymond Simpson stands at the front doors of the Allred Theater in Pryor on Thursday. Simpson is organizing an investment group to buy and repair the theater, which is in foreclosure. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World