by Anthony Eramya
photography by Abelina J. Nuñez
You’ve waited all day for this: your first time back in a real movie theater since the pandemic. Inside, the aroma of buttery popcorn overwhelms, causing you to ignore the chipper “Hello, welcome!” coming from the ticket booth.
“Sorry. I don’t mean to be rude. It’s just that this is my first time at a movie theater since the pandemic.”
As an employee at Harkins Theater, Chino Hills, since September 2021, I’ve heard that apology many times in recent months. But it’s nice to see people coming back.
It’s been about a year since my theater removed its plexiglass shields. Still, some of us continue to wear masks to be on the safe side. Winter Calderon, a team leader there, wears hers despite occasional criticism from guests. While the pandemic may officially be over, the virus is still out there, and she wants to keep her family safe.
“I wear a mask at work because some people are not as sanitary as me,” she says. “It’s not fair that people can come in to watch a movie while they are sick, but if I’m sick, I have to stay home because I don’t want to infect other team members or guests. Wearing a mask is just a small inconvenience when it comes to protecting the health and safety of everyone.”
Guy Valdez, General Manager of Laemmle Theaters in Claremont and North Hollywood, made sure his theaters were in alignment with CDC requirements during the pandemic. Even today, to be extra safe, he’s kept the plexiglass up at both locations.
“During the pandemic, there was always the occasional person who didn’t like that we were adhering to CDC guidelines,” Valdez says, “but we never really had anyone freak out or act too crazy.”
After the pandemic, Claremont’s Laemmle Theater struggled to stay afloat. In fact, there was a time when it looked like it may close for good. Even when the theater reopened, they offered only two showtimes per movie. Today, it’s back to five.
As business picks up, Valdez is considering ways to expand his theater.
“I still want to show movies, but my vision is much bigger.” Valdez says. “I can see us tapping into other forms of media, and turning this theater into an art hub.”
Valdez, who has been with the company since 1997, has pretty much full control of his theater. Owners Robert Laemmle and his son Greg have full trust in Valdez because he has been with the company for so long.
How are the theaters being used aside from showing movies? Every Sunday, the Tapestry Church holds 10 a.m. services at the Laemmle Claremont. Valdez also has made the theater available for live podcasts.
Harkins Chino Hills also has begun renting its facilities for such things as birthday parties and awards shows. What separates Harkins rentals from other theaters is their video game rentals, with gaming devices hooked up to projectors for large groups to enjoy together. But Harkins may have some competition, as Valdez is testing the waters for similar offerings in Claremont.
“We had a Christmas party this past year for our staff,” Valdez says. “We let them have an entire theater to themselves. We set up a Nintendo Switch on the projector, and our entire team was playing. There was something about it being on the big screen that made everyone in the theater feel like they had to watch.”
Another way the Claremont Laemmle keeps in touch with the community is through their collaboration with the Claremont Art Walk. Every month, the theater displays creations in the lobby from local artists, and they usually have someone playing live music in the lobby.
Valdez loves music, and plays guitar with the Antarcticans. His dream is to make the Claremont Laemmle an art hub, and is considering making a couple of the theaters there more suitable for music. The Press and other venues for live music in Claremont closed their doors recently, reducing outlets for area musicians to perform original songs.
“The only problem with having musical performances in a theater is that, when you listen to music, you want to be able to move around,” Valdez says. “When you are in a movie theater, you just sit in seats. I’d like to open it up a little more so people can actually move to the music.”
“Mainly, I just want the Laemmle to be a place where people go to to have a good time.”
Theaters took a big hit during the pandemic. But the silver lining may lie in the creative ideas for their use that have arisen in the aftermath.