Originally published in Synthesis Weekly: November 2013
If you’re a longtime resident of Chico, it’s safe to say that the Pageant Theater holds a special place in your heart. For me, the turning point came in 1997. I was 12, and my dad brought me to see Princess Mononoke. I remember walking into the unassuming building and taking the (big for me at the time) step up into their makeshift box office. After some sports-related banter with Tim Giusta on my dad’s part, and some wide-eyed staring at the concessions on mine, we made our way into the theater. Everything about that place, from the creaking of the floorboards, the mural on the wall, and the couches in the front row, combined to create a perfectly unique and brilliant amalgamation of what’s become a trademark Chico movie experience.
One of the great things about the Pageant is that they still show movies on a film projector as opposed to a digital one. As movies on film will no longer be offered in 2014, the Pageant has been left with the option to either raise the $51,000 needed to make the switch to a DCI digital projection system, or close its doors. In a collective uproar at the thought of having Tinseltown as our only movie option, myself and the other denizens of Chico have joined forces to keep the Pageant alive. I sat down with Tim Giusta, co-owner (along with Roger Montalbano) to talk about the past, present, and hopeful future of the Pageant Theater.
How did the Pageant get its start?
Roger and I were playing softball for the Pageant team (that’s when Al Mitchell owned the theater). Roger was always a big film buff, and I wasn’t really doing anything— between jobs as they say. Al had closed the theater down, it was closed for about a year, and Roger asked if I wanted to get involved with it. And I thought, why not? It was more of a lark than anything else. So I borrowed a grand, and he borrowed a grand from his mom… and we had no idea what we were doing. The projectors up there were World War II surplus things—it was a joke. We just liked movies. If we’d known what it would really be like, we probably wouldn’t have done it. So in the beginning it was a rude awakening, but we eventually figured it out. Our turning point was when we got the film Ordinary People in the theater. It won the Academy Award that year and helped to get us our start, and gave us enough money to become the art theater that we wanted to be. So that was the beginning. The two of us ran it with help from and friends and family, and here we are 34 years later.
What made you want to own a theater?
Roger was teaching at the time at Paradise Elementary and he’d always loved film. We both did, but he was more of a film buff. There was really nothing like it in the area; there was the Rainbow Theater that did 16mm film, but they were usually two, three, or even four years behind in release dates. So we knew we had the ability to do 35mm film, but we didn’t realize what crappy equipment we were working with… but we had the ability! So that allowed us to show films that were either just released or just a few months old.
What was the first film you showed here?
The very first film we showed here was Used Cars, a comedy with Kurt Russell and directed by Robert Zemeckis, who went on to become famous later for Back To The Future and Forrest Gump. Used Cars certainly wasn’t typical of the kind of films we were going to show. It was double-billed (back then we did double-bills) with Justice For All, and Jack Warden was in both films… [laughs], a Jack Warden double-bill.
Did you and Roger talk beforehand about how you wanted to run the theater, choosing films, etc?
We both went into it wanting to show movies that were more in the independent film category—stuff that back then you’d essentially have to go to Sacramento or San Francisco, possibly even Ashland to see. That was important to us. When we first started, we got cold feet because we weren’t sure if we could make enough money showing the kinds of movies we really wanted to show. So that’s why we started going the mainstream route with movies like Used Cars, Justice for All, and some other really bad stuff like the Rocky movies. At one point we stopped and realized this really wasn’t what we wanted to do, so why are we doing it? Let’s fail or succeed on our own terms. It was rough, but there’s definitely an audience out there and we’ve built it up over the years. It was just nice to succeed doing what we wanted to do, instead of becoming just another mainstream theater.
Ok, best night ever at Pageant, worst night ever at Pageant?
[Laughs] Oh man, best night… probably a long ways back. There are nights when you’re with an audience and at the end everyone is clapping. Actually, at the movie we’re showing right now, Muscle Shoals, that’s been happening a lot. People on the street are coming up to me to tell me how much they loved the movie. I think as an event though, the most just fun thing we had was when we showed the Talking Heads movie, Stop Making Sense, back in the mid ‘80s. We showed that for a while, and we put in a bunch of big equipment, and people were down in the front dancing, so that was the single greatest event.
Any night that the film screwed up and came out all over the floor, which has happened more often than I’d like to think. In the early days, probably one of the worst nights was when we were still trying to do mainstream movies, and we’d show a feature, then a second feature, and then the original feature so it’d be three shows a night. One night Roger was working and we were showing Rocky V or some other crap and about halfway through the second showing of the film he looked down and realized there was nobody there. [Laughs] It was so bad everyone had left— just walked out. But that was one of the things that helped us get to the turning point of wanting to show the movies we wanted to, and fail or succeed on our own terms.
Top five movies?
Oh man that’s tough. Depends what day you ask. As far as the top movies in the sense of being popular here… My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That was off the map compared to anything else we’ve ever shown. We played it for six months. It was huge for us; I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for that movie. I wouldn’t say it was in my personal top five favorite movies, but I’ll never forget it because it really helped get us going. Cinema Paradiso is another one that comes to mind.
What’s in your personal top five?
One of the films that I’ve always really, really loved was 2001: A Space Odyssey. When that movie came out I was living in Mexico City and I saw it 13 times. And I wasn’t stoned or anything! It just blew me away.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Actually booking the films and setting up the schedules. I enjoy it when I’m here and it’s a big group experience that everyone enjoys.
Have you ever gotten to meet anyone who you admire within the industry?
We debuted Alexander Payne’s film, Citizen Ruth, because he had been living in Chico. At the time he was nobody, and I remember standing in the back with him while his movie was playing and he’s explaining some shots to me, and I asked him what his next project was going to be. He said, “Oh it’s all about high school. It’s called Election.” And I remember thinking (sarcastically), “yeah that sounds like a winner,” and of course that’s the one that put him on the map. And he’s done so much great stuff since, like Sideways and The Descendants. And it’s kinda cool now, watching the Academy Awards and seeing him and thinking, yeah, you got your start at the Pageant!
We got to meet David Lynch once, which was funny because Roger had an Eraserhead t-shirt on underneath another one, and he opened his top shirt and Lynch just kind of rolled his eyes and said yeah, whatever.
Are there any movies coming out that you’re really excited about?
The one I was really looking forward to is the one we have right now, Muscle Shoals. My real passion is music—film is kind of secondary—but I went to Muscle Shoals just to check out the area. I saw the movie in New Orleans and I really wanted to bring it to Chico, but I figured it would just be me and six good friends who love this stuff. It turns out though that it’s doing great! Which is a great feeling because there was a time when I’d thought, well I probably won’t bring it in because no one wants to see it except me.
Anything else you want to add for the readers?
We really appreciate all the people who have been helping out. The campaign hasn’t been up that long and we’re already at $18,000. It’s also been nice to hear when people come up to me and tell me how much they love the theater. Because to me, having done it for 34 years, I mean it’s my job, so I lose track of the perspective of why it’s important to other people. It’s pretty neat what this has become.
I knew this digital changeover was coming and I knew we couldn’t afford to do it, and I thought well, that’s going to come at the end of 2013, and at that point I’ll be 65; while I’d like to stay with it a little longer, make a little more money, I guess this’ll be the end. But when I started telling people, letting them know that we’d be closing, I was surprised at the reaction of people saying “Oh no! You can’t do that!” So there was a lot of that extraneous energy that helped push this along, and then Roger jumped on board and helped with the Indiegogo campaign. He doesn’t have anything to do here as a day-to-day commitment, but it’s a legacy and we want to keep it a little longer. We’re eventually going to go, but I sure would like to see the theater go on.
Maybe you’ll sell the theater to two young upstarts like you and Roger once were…
(laughs) Yeah you never know!
Well readers, there you have it. If you’d like to donate, head over to the Pageant Theater’s website at www.pageantchico.com and follow the link to the Indiegogo campaign. You can also write a check directly to the Pageant Theater and drop it at 351 E 6th St. Don’t forget to attend the Jonathan Richman show, a benefit for the Pageant, on December 11 at the ARC Pavillion!