A digital future projected

07/23/2011 12:00 AM

07/23/2011 8:14 AM

Next week, the blinding glow of Augusta Theatre's old projectors will flicker out to keep up with the film industry's push toward the digital age.

Behind the heavy oak doors, the fully restored historic theater still boasts its 1949 decor. But the theater will be upgraded with a new digital movie projector Aug. 1, shutting down the two 35 millimeter film projectors it has used for decades.

The change comes because the film industry is releasing movies mostly by digital means, said DeAnn Triboulet, executive director of the Augusta Arts Council. The council owns and operates the theater, which seats 500.

"I don't have a problem with the digital coming," she said, because the picture and sound will be better.

"But... you are going to see places like this close because they cannot come up with the $80,000."

That's what the new projector costs — $10,000 more than David and Aline Bisagno paid for the building before converting it into the theater in 1935.

The Augusta Arts Council still needs to raise $33,000 within the next few weeks to avoid taking out a loan to pay for the upgrade, Triboulet said.

"We're just hoping the money comes through, or we are going to be in a bind," she said.

When the Augusta Theatre opened, more than 15,000 theaters were operating in the United States, said Richard Sklenar, executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America. Today, about 300 historic theaters, including Augusta's, are still open, he said.

"Frequently, they got knocked down and just became parking lots," said Sklenar, who visited the Augusta Theatre in 2004. "Some were recycled and reused for other purposes."

The Augusta Theatre was closed for four years after its original owner tried to sell the building in 1985. The Augusta Arts Council bought the theater in 1989.

"The building was sitting here, and they were going to start selling the neon and the murals and the seats," Triboulet said.

"We just couldn't see it destroyed. It's a beautiful piece of art."

An extensive one-year renovation of the building, costing more than $330,000, started in 2006. The interior of the theater is restored to its 1949 look, complete with murals, art deco detailing and carpet that was remilled to match the original.

The digital upgrade is one more change needed to keep the theater open, faced with the gradual phasing out of 35 mm film by the movie industry.

"By 2013, you won't be able to get any," Sklenar said.

Triboulet said on occasion the theater will still use the old projectors. She is planning to show the 1925 silent film version of "The Phantom of the Opera" in October. Another silent film is scheduled for February.

"I'm just not doing a silent movie on a DVD," Triboulet said.

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