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Arts: Strand Theater dusts off its silver screen for cinema debut

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

So, you want to be in pictures?

There is more to movies than what you see on the screen, or even behind the screen. There is the screen itself. When the house lights dim Friday at the Strand Theater in Georgetown, the image that illuminates the 10 by 16 foot screen will be the result of months of planning and preparation by a group that wants to bring movies back to the county.

“Volunteers have given hours to get this up and going,” said Karen Yaniga, who heads the Strand Cinema committee.

The group will begin regular screenings of independent, foreign language and classic films in the theater that has been home to the Swamp Fox Players for over 20 years. The opening film will be “Potiche,” a 2010 French comedy that was a selection at the Toronto and Venice film festivals.

It’s the sort of film you won’t find at the multiplex, and that’s the idea behind the Strand Cinema, Yaniga said.

“We will be able to have an art-house cinema that will be able to bring movies whenever there isn’t a live performance,” she said. “It’s a different experience than you’ll find at the megaplexes at the mall.”

Also showing this month will be four documentaries about World War II in Europe.

Yaniga divided her time between Rochester, N.Y., and Pawleys Island for the last 19 years before moving to the area full-time. One thing she missed was the Little Theatre. It started in Rochester in 1982 and now has six screens. It has also expanded into music and fine arts.

She thought the concept would work in Georgetown County. This spring, she pitched the idea to the board of the Swamp Fox Players, which owns the Strand. With their support, she put together a steering committee and started making contact with film distributors.

Operating under the corporate umbrella of the Swamp Fox Players smoothed the way for the Strand Cinema to work with the distributors. “Distributors require extensive paperwork,” Yaniga said. “They want to know that you’re not going to be showing these movies in your home.”

The group held a fund drive this fall to raise the money to buy a digital projector. They have over 100 founding members who paid a minimum of $100. “That is pretty phenomenal in this economy,” Yaniga said. “We were able to get up and running without any debt.”

All the work is done by volunteers, from selecting the films to selling the tickets. Strand Cinema found a projectionist in Bob Gause, who has directed two musicals for the Swamp Fox Players. After breaking down the set for “Love 4 Sail” last month, Gause turned his attention to the projection booth.

The digital projector takes up less space than the 35mm projectors that are typical in commercial cinemas. Yaniga said the technology will benefit the Strand in the long run. “We hope to be able eventually to do some live streaming,” she said, which opens the possibility of showing live performances.

With 175 seats and the 10-by-16 screen, the digital projector will provide a quality picture, she said. Deciding what films to show is a more difficult question.

Josette Sharwell heads the screening committee. She has organized a French film festival at the Waccamaw Higher Education Center for several years, and for 14 years before that as a professor at Columbia College. “We have a group that’s knowledgeable and energetic,” Yaniga said.

Linda Ketron, director of the higher education center, helped the Strand Cinema get the World War II documentaries, which were produced in South Carolina. The center has been the closest thing to an art house cinema in the area, and she is optimistic about the Strand Cinema.

“We’re slowly plugging in all the elements that make for a really culturally diverse, artistically diverse community,” Ketron said. “This is one of the last pieces.”

She moved to the area in 1988 when the Tara Theatre was still operating as a twin-screen cinema at Litchfield. “It was such a beautiful theater,” she said, but recalled that she and her husband were often the only customers.

The cinema closed in the early 1990s. The theaters are now part of the conference facilities at Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort, but will eventually be torn down as part of a planned reconstruction of the facility.

Although there were once three cinemas in Georgetown, the county hasn’t had one since Tara closed.

Yaniga believes there is an audience for movies other than the major studio releases. Even with the rise of online services such as Netflix, Strand Cinema will be able to offer more timely releases and an experience that you can’t get on the small screen.

“It’s just a totally different experience,” she said. “It’s like going to hear classical music with the orchestra.”

The French film series draws audiences from as far away as Charleston, Ketron said. It will move to the Strand next year, though still under the sponsorship of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the higher education center. “We think it will be a big draw,” she said.

How well weekly films fare at the Strand will depend on the committee’s choices, Ketron said. “There’s a huge audience if it’s free,” but the $7 ticket price and the need to drive to Georgetown makes film selection critical, she said. “The people involved are devoted to it,” Ketron added. “They didn’t have any trouble finding the first 100 members.”

The Strand Cinema committee will survey audiences this weekend about the types of films they would like to see. “I would really love to see some of the old classics,” Yaniga said. Her first choice is “An Affair to Remember” with Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr and their ill-fated rendezvous atop the Empire State Building. “I’ve seen it 20 times, and I’ve never seen it on the big screen.”

They are working on a Christmas film for later this month, and have plans for a Valentine’s Day series.

“As long as we’re able to provide something people in the community want to see, I think we’re going to be all right,” Yaniga said.

Organizers aren’t the only ones who are excited. Yaniga spent Saturday going door to door on Front Street asking shops to put up posters for the cinema. She believes audiences will come for dinner and a movie, or spend time shopping before Saturday matinees.

“Everyone I have spoken to says, ‘Oh, wow, this is great,’ ” Yaniga said. “It’s fun to be able to contribute something.”

Now playing

“Potiche” (“Trophy Wife”) stars Catherine Deneuve as a “trophy wife” who steps in to run her husband’s factory when he is kidnapped by striking workers. Things get complicated when he returns. Dec. 2 at 7 p.m., Dec. 10 at 2:30 and 7 p.m.

“Back to the Battlefield: A D-Day Veteran Returns to Omaha Beach” and “The Americans on Hell’s Highway” about the 1944 allied offensive in Holland. Dec. 3, 2:30 p.m.

“Return to the Battlefield” documents the story of a South Carolina soldier on D-Day, and “Season of Valor – The Battle of the Bulge,” Dec. 3 and Dec. 10, 7 p.m.

Tickets: $7. Box office opens an hour before show time. More information online.

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