RADFORD — The race is on for one enterprising Radford couple to raise enough money through pledges and donations to take over the operation of one of the city’s most prominent landmarks.
Originally opened in 1935, the Radford Theatre is one of the oldest businesses in the city still in operation. Longtime owner Frankie Kirk, who has taken tickets, hung letters in the marquee and operated the projectors since 1983, is retiring at the end of the month.
With no heir-apparent, Kirk will be shuttering the doors to the theatre after showing movies on its silver screen for 30 years.
Angela Caldwell, a self-proclaimed stay-at-home mom, part-time photographer and lifelong lover of cinema, and her husband, Joseph Caldwell, a civics teacher at Dublin Middle School and hobbyist short film aficionado, heard of Kirk’s retirement and want to keep the business he has painstakingly run for over a quarter century running.
The pair sees keeping images alive and flickering on that screen instead of letting it fall into darkness and disrepair as a steep challenge.
The Caldwell couple has put together a fundraising effort they call, Radford Theatre – The Third Act. The effort, spearheaded by creating a website, www.gofundme.com/radfordtheater, is aimed at raising $150,000 in pledges on the site. The most challenging part: the couple must raise all $150,000 in pledges by April 24, or all the money goes back to its contributors and the Caldwells and the theatre get nothing. As of today, nine days in, the total collected is just under $1,500. They have 21 days left.
And a long way to go.
“Basically, Frankie is done running the theatre on April 30, and we are trying to get enough money raised to take it over and keep it running,” Angela Caldwell said in an interview with the News Journal. “We want to be able to breathe some new life into it, do some upgrades and try and keep it from being just another empty building.”
One of the more expensive roadblocks, one of the reasons for the $150,000, is to purchase a digital projector to replace the theatre’s existing 35mm reel-to-reel — the projector equivalent of a dinosaur — in an age of regularly and rapidly advancing cinematic technology.
“That’s going to be the hardest part,” Caldwell said. “You can’t just by any digital projector. It has to meet the size and distance parameters of the theatre. In this case, there’s quite a lot of distance between the projection room and the screen. You have to find something to match perfectly or the picture will be off. They’re hard to find used ones like that.”
If they can pull it off, Caldwell will have saved a Downtown Radford icon for future generations of cinephiles.
“That’s what we want, that’s the whole point of this. Just to keep it going for the community,” she said. “We want to keep it going, and eventually do some upgrades and improvements to the building. We’d like to add more show times. Who knows if we’ll make enough in pledges, but the plan is to make enough to keep it open, keep the prices the same and make sure in the long term that this doesn’t happen like this again. If we don’t want to run it anymore, it just won’t end. There will be a next operator so it won’t close down.”
Also as a part of the long-term plan, Caldwell would like to see the theatre become a bigger player in downtown Radford, as a local venue and as a draw from those from out of town.
“Radford doesn’t have a very large downtown, you see a lot of empty buildings when you’re driving around. I don’t want to see the theatre join them,” she said. “I would love to see it grow. Eventually I’d like to, in the long term, bring a film festival of some kind to it.”
She has a vision of integrating the theatre into the community, much like The Lyric in Blacksburg is now, and the recently rescued, renovated and reopened — after a near 25-year vacant and dormant period — Pulaski Theatre.
“That’s what we just don’t want to happen — we don’t want it to sit there for 25 years collecting dust and falling apart, waiting for someone or some group to come along and try to get it working again,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell grew up in Radford, attended Radford High School and graduated from Radford University. The theatre has been in her peripheral vision almost all her life. In fact, she recounted one of the earliest memories she had of seeing a movie there.
“I went to the theatre with my future husband — we were dating at the time,” Caldwell said. “We saw Little Women. It’s a great memory. It was cold outside, it was snowing. Most people stayed in. There might have been three people in the theatre that night — we had it all to ourselves.”
The pair are doing everything they can to get the word out, to get the donation train rolling. Kirk put the web address of the donation site on the theatre’s brightly lit marquee. They’re utilizing social media and the Internet, as well as doing things the old fashioned way.
“We’re hitting the streets and handing out flyers,” Caldwell said. “We’re passing out flyers to business all over town and are canvassing at RU. If people don’t hear about what we’re doing, they’ll never know and we’ll never reach our goal. A lot of people are liking us on Facebook and are telling us they like the idea, but they’re not donating. We really appreciate the people who have pledged so far, but we need much more to reach our goal. We’re trying to reach people in Fairlawn and Pulaski too — you can’t find a movie at a theatre for five dollars anywhere else. This affects them as well.”
Caldwell said it is important for the public to know that, for now, the pledges on the website are just that, and no money is being collected until, or if, the goal is reached.
“We have to get the community involved or this is going nowhere.”
By Aaron Atkins