A Modern Classic: Dansville’s Star Theatre

Photos courtesy the Star Theatre
by Halie Solea

One of my favorite pastimes is to visit the stately Star Theatre in my hometown of Dansville in Livingston County. Underneath the aroma of buttery popcorn, I can detect the mild scent of history in the walls as I make my way down the sloping floor to my seat.

The theater turned 95 this year.

With a single screen mounted on what was once a fully functioning stage, the Star shows first-run movies every night at 7, with matinees on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday. It seats 278 people.

The theatre first opened for business in 1921, and hosted vaudeville shows and black and white silent films. The organ that was once used for accompaniment is still there. Among the celebrity entertainers were a young George Burns, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason. Franklin D. Roosevelt took in a show there, pre-presidency. During Hollywood’s heyday, people flocked to enjoy the glamour of “going to the movies.”

In the mid 1980s, though, the popularity of home viewing systems pulled people from its seats, and the theatre’s doors were forced to close. It stood empty for about nine years until local resident Charles Schmidt stepped in. He couldn’t stand the thought of letting the Star just fade away, so he bought it and invited his family to get involved.

“He didn’t have to do much convincing,” recalls his son Edgar, laughing. Together, they began to restore and repair the building. They installed new seating and equipment and the Star was brought back to life.

“Edgar knows every board and every screw in that place,” says frequent theatre attendee Marilyn Gray, 62. “It’s something he’s really passionate about and would really like to see succeed. He won’t let go, and won’t even sell unless he knows that the owners would keep it going and not try to change it.”

When his father retired, Edgar became the owner and operator. With occasional help from Cameron, his teenage nephew who lives in an apartment upstairs, Edgar is a one-man show. The movie-time routine is ingrained in his system.

Zipping around in a Star Theatre long-sleeve shirt, he flicks on switches, unlocks doors and adjusts garbage cans without missing a beat. The staircase up to the off-limits balcony and projector room is not only narrow, but also piled with items ranging from decorations to small tools and other objects. But nothing slows Edgar’s speed as he navigates up in the dark – not even the low ceilings (he’s tall and thin) and awkward combination of ramps and half-steps. He converses with me the entire way. “You can choose to rent a projector, but then Hollywood is monitoring and controlling how many times you show the films and which films you’re playing,” Edgar told me. “We’re a sole proprietorship and my dad always said, ‘You don’t bank where you buy.’”

At the top, it’s clear to see why he moved his somewhat cluttered desk and office space from the cramped projector room to the open balcony, which is closed to the public purely for insurance reasons. From his seat, Edgar can look out onto his personal kingdom. The chandelier above, and the seats, screen and stage below, are all in his sights. Up there, he calls the Star Theatre “home” and stores everything that needs to be fixed or isn’t in use. He even has a plush “Mrs. Bates” propped up in a seat in the wings of the balcony, as though she’s there to enjoy the show with the rest of the viewers. From that balcony, Edgar continues to welcome customers and announce the start of the show himself.

Preserving the authenticity of the theater was most important to Edgar’s father, and remains important to Edgar today. He tries to contain updating to what is essential and authentic to the hands-on history of the theater. Necessary changes were made to the lobby and reception area, including the addition of a concessions counter. “It used to just have vending machines, which was really lame,” he said, “so now we have a cool, full-service snack bar.”

About 25 minutes before show time, Schmidt opens the front doors and takes his place at the register, where he prepares to greet people and run ticket and snack sales at the same time. “We’re cash only,” he says. “It’s been that way for 95 years and we’re not changing.”

It’s apparent that he makes an effort to know those who come and support his efforts, and while I was there, he struck up conversation with a couple he’d never met before. “I’m horrible with names,” he admits, “but I can remember faces. One time, a little boy came in with his grandmother and he said, ‘See, Grandma, this is how movies are supposed to be seen.’ That made me feel good.”

The number of moviegoers has become smaller and smaller of late, partially because of operations like Netflix and On Demand, he believes, and partially for reasons he’s not quite sure about. Eight people attended the Saturday matinee when I was there. Edgar mentions that evening shows are typically better attended, though never quite ideal.

In order to siphon up more interest from the community, he added a variety of features and deals to the standard show times. He created a series of movie passes that don’t expire, and hosts birthday parties during off hours. “They can bring in their own movie or watch what we’re playing,” he explained. “We just have to maintain regular show times because, first and foremost, we’re a movie theater.”

In the future, Edgar hopes to restore the stage so that live shows can be held again. “It’s one of those things in the 10-year plan. Nineteen years later, we’re still working on it,” he says.