100 years of the Strand: Old Forge’s historic theater leaves lasting imprint
By Jamie Organski
There are some places that feel like home when you walk into them. Fans of the Strand Theatre in Old Forge point to the one-of-a-kind experience found there. From the vibrant, eclectic decor, a well-stocked concession (which includes Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) to friendly-faced owners who always ask how you enjoyed the show.
This home away from home recently marked its 100th in operation. Strand owners Helen Zyma and Bob Card marked the milestone March 14 with an informal event which included a free screening of “The Smallest Show on Earth,” starring Peter Sellers.
The 1957 film is about a couple who fix up a small, rundown theater, and as luck would have it, although the test screening went swimmingly, Card ran into technical difficulties which delayed the film’s start.
“Old Homestead, a silent archival movie [a 1922 silent drama] that was shown when the theater was first opened, was not available, but we thought ‘The Smallest Show on Earth’ was a good choice,” Card said. “The weather was poor, but we had a nice turnout. People were good sports about the technical difficulties we had that night, joking that it was only fitting for the film we showed.”
Card and Zyma have owned the theater for 31 years. As they reflect on those years, its highlights and challenges, the couple expressed gratitude to the community for its support.
“It’s still here despite a lot of challenges and competition with video and streaming [services,]” Zyma said.
Open for business
The couple moved to Old Forge from Waterville, NY in 1990, purchasing the theater together in November of 1991. Zyma, who grew up in Utica, juggled owning and operating the theater, with a second job as a school librarian at Poland Central School for 25 years, retiring from the position in 2019. Card, originally from Sherrill, NY, continues to restore old, historic buildings around the Old Forge area, as well as in Waterville.
Card said the theater was open on a seasonal basis in 1991. Their first order of business was install inga heating system, with a goal of operating the theater all year round. The couple renovated several apartments situated above the theater’s main floor, housing many tenants who have stayed for decades.
“In 1992, we decided to be open for the winter season,” Card said. “People told us that it would never work as there weren’t enough people around in the winter season. Now, it has become a popular season.”
A leap to digital
The theater’s old equipment, including film projectors, needed to be upgraded to a digital system.
“The carbon arc projectors needed to be watched constantly,” Zyma said. “We had to babysit them to make sure everything was working properly. We also had to do changeovers during the film showings.”
In 2013, the theater underwent a major upgrade in equipment, a necessary switch from film to digital. Although this transition was a critical one, both Zyma and Card said they missed certain aspects of the old equipment, a part of the magic of movie watching.
“We missed hearing the sound of the projectors,” Zyma said. “It was a very comforting sound to us.”
The digital upgrade came with a big price tag, and donations came in from near and far to help the theater make the transition. Community organizations pitched in on fundraising events, such as a 90th anniversary gala, View’s Songs for the Strand event, and a fundraising event at Niccolls Memorial Presbyterian Church.
‘A host of challenges’
“Unfortunately, a lot of small towns have lost their theaters,” Card said. “We are glad to see this one is still up and running despite a host of challenges.”
The couple cited frequent, unexpected power outages, pandemic-related obstacles, and competition with video and streaming services as primary challenges throughout the years of operating the local theater.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the theater was closed for 8 months, a time when many people began subscribing to streaming services. The production of movies also slowed during this time, Card continued, with some films going straight to streaming services and some being delayed.
“It messed up the typical release schedule, but we got through it,” Card said. “Although our summer crowd has remained strong, the shrinking year-round population, including families, has also been a challenge for the theater in more recent years.”
“Things do [operate in] cycles,” Zyma said. “I remember when theaters were competing with video markets, and many of us made it through that.”
T couple were quick to point to the people, including both locals and visitors, who have become fond friends over the years.
“We both enjoy seeing multiple generations visit the theater,” Zyma said. “We get parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, you name it, and we love to see that cycle. We really get to know our customers, and there is just something about the experience of people gathering together to enjoy the magic of movies.”
Zyma cited several wedding ceremonies [including their own four years ago by the iconic popcorn machine] that have taken place in the theater as well as young magic camp students performing their acts on stage as memorable events that have occurred over the years. Both Card and Zyma stated they would love to see a return in midnight showings, reminiscing about the days of Harry Potter where people would dress up and line up down the sidewalk in order to attend a midnight showing of the latest Potter film.
The Goodsell Museum in Old Forge is currently working on constructing an exhibit to help commemorate the 100th year of the Strand Theatre. The exhibit will feature several displays, paying homage to the theater’s robust history. The couple said they are eagerly anticipating the opening of the exhibit, adding they are curious to see what artifacts the museum has included. The exhibit is expected to open in time for summer, Zyma said.
The couple plans to host several film and live events this year to commemorate the 100th year anniversary.
“We intend to offer free screenings and special events throughout the various seasons this year to give everyone a chance to celebrate with us,” Card said.