By Will Ashton
Since it opened its doors in 1915, The Athena Cinema has blossomed into a historical landmark for Athens, OH. Through fires, scandals, growing competition and renovations, the theater has stayed in the center of Court Street, and is just as vital to the city and Ohio University as ever as it reaches its 100th anniversary.
Initially called The Majestic Theatre, before changing its name to Schine’s Athena and then finally called The Athena Cinema, the theater first opened following the eviction of a Bethel grocery store. A one-screen cinema, it gained popularity by showing four reeler movies at just 5 cents, according to Ohio University’s reports. Pictures of the theater at this time can be found on its website.
For years, the theater was independently own, playing hit movies in town as it was the only cinema in the area besides The Varsity, which disappeared after a bad fire, subsequently being replaced by a Taco Bell, then a Chipotle, in due time. While business was good for a while, the openings of subsequent theaters like Movies Ten, a.k.a. The Fun Barn, in Nelsonville and the Athena Grand caused the Athena Cinema to lose its impact. The Grand, especially, caused complications, as they took some of their biggest titles. Even when the Grand and Cinema were under the same ownership, the Cinema found its customers drifting to the other locations.
In the mid-90s, the Athena Cinema switched from played bigger titles into showcasing arthouse films, with acclaimed and thought-provoking independent features adding to the town’s culture. But running down and not sure how to continue with decreasing funds, it went up for sale in 2001. Upon seeing its sales request, OU contacted the theater, seeking to own and restore the building. With little to no competitive buyers, the university acquired the theater, reopening its doors in February 2002. The university, following its acquisition, also hired an independent manager for the theater’s operation.
With an expiring lease and no university division segregated to operating the theater, the Athena Cinema banded together a committee of business students to decide how to commence forth with this new upper management. Both the Athena and the students decided the College of Fine Arts should host it under their school. By September 19, 2008, the Athena was reopened and operated under Fine Arts’ management, with the theater screening even more independent films and now international features. Ruth Bradley, director of the Athens International Film and Video Festival, served as the theater’s managing director.
Also acquiring a new job at the Athena Cinema during this time was Hsin-ning Chang, who hopped on board as the theater’s head projectionist— a title she still holds. Formally a MA film studies student at OU, she searched for different positions across the country, but ultimately found a home for her skills with her local college theater.
“I was looking for an internship job around the U.S., and they were looking for people to be trained as projectionists, so it was a good match,” Chang said. “Surely, I was—and still do—have great interests in learning projection skills. Other then basic 35mm, 16mm, and digital projection skills, I also learn how to maintain machines as well as work with a team of projectionists.”
While Chang was trained in her projection skills, she learned a lot more valuable information from working with the Athena.
“Moreover, since we have many special events, I learn how to deal with various needs during the events,” Chang continued. “Generally, I am always learning how to put on a steady and comfortable show for the audiences.”
And she is still learning, she believes. Just recently, she and Alex Kamody, the current managing director of the Athena Cinema, went to a workshop regarding how to continue projecting 35mm in this moment of time. While the theater went digital last year, the theater owners keep the film projector in store, should they need or want to screen a film print in the future. Chang notes “learning how the theater puts back our 35mm projectors as a change-ove/reel-to-reel system,” as well as “learning how to deal with rare and treasured 35mm prints” will be Chang’s “next course.”
To see the projecting process for a charity event screening of Elf, check out the video below:
Kamody first joined the theater six years ago, when working at the Athena as a student. An Athens resident, Kamody has the rare distinction of growing up with the theater in her youth, while also working for it in her adulthood. Remembering the long lines she experienced coming to the theater with her family and friends in the ’80s and ’90s and the joy of the theater experience, Kamody gained her love of cinema through the Athena. With her position, she tries giving this magic back to the community.
“To me, this theater feels like home,” Kamody said. “And I think the reason for that is because I have been coming here for so long, and I work here and have an office here and spend every day here (laughs). But it’s also got a special feeling to it. I think the history here really adds to that. I am attracted to history. I live in an old farm house. I have always enjoyed older things, and things that have a story, and I think that is what is really attractive about the theater.”
Speaking of its history, one of the theater’s biggest features —even beyond its local setting —is its film festival. Celebrating its 47th year next year, the Athens International Film and Video Festival continues from April 3-9, 2015. More details on the festival can be found on its website. While Bradley stepped down from her managing director job in 2011—passing the position over to Kamody—she continues to run the film festival. There are already hundreds of submissions sent at this time.
Through it all, the Athena Cinema continues pushing its possibilities. Whether through its new digital projection/sound system, its new features and open doors for special events and groups, the Athena Cinema thrives in Athens, even with almost a hundred years under its belt. Also benefiting the theater is a Athena Cinema Support Fund, to keep the operational funds of the theater in check, according to Ohio Compass.
“It’s been through so many different times and eras, whether its been through fires and floods, through different experiences that were going on in the bigger world and in Athens,” Kamody said. “So it’s kind of just this ever present rock that’s always there, for people can always come to the theater and always go see a film. Whether its a film that helps them escape from their daily life, the troubles that might be on their mind, or whether it’s a film that brings those things to the forefront, it celebrates both being active, politically, and it celebrates culture and it celebrates fantasy, and this special, fun way to get out of your daily life.”