MEET YOUR MERCHANT: Family-owned Sierra Theaters celebrates their 40th year in the movie business
Del Oro Theatre
165 Mill St., Grass Valley
840-C East Main St., Grass Valley
399 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, CA 95945
Nevada Theatre Film Series
(Sunday evenings only, indie films), 401 Broad St., Nevada City
Phone number for all theaters: 530-477-9000
Website for all theaters: www.SierraTheaters.com
At a recent free community screening of the movie, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” at the Del Oro Theatre in Grass Valley, just as the homesick alien is about to die, a child in the audience bursts into tears.
Suddenly, most of the audience appears to be crying too, said Azriel LaMarca, who co-manages Sierra Theaters with her husband, Michael LaMarca.
It’s shared audience experiences like this that exemplify the magic of viewing a film in a large group, she said. By comparison, watching the same movie on a small screen or phone just doesn’t seem to measure up.
“I’m convinced that humans are better off when they gather and experience stories together,” echoed Michael. “The audience goes through a certain catharsis together. For us, it’s rewarding to see that every single day.”
Azriel was just 4 years old when her father, Mike Getz, began showing movies on a large screen in his backyard up on San Juan Ridge. A lover of independent, art and experimental films, Mike had worked in his early 20s as the manager of the Cinema Theatre in Hollywood, where he showcased the work of up-and-coming, little-known independent filmmakers, such as Andy Warhol and a young George Lucas.
Joining the back-to-the-land movement in 1968, Mike moved to Nevada County and began working as a film programmer, shipping independent film reels to art theaters all over the United States.
“For that job, he just needed a mailbox and a phone,” said Azriel. “So he got out of L.A. and moved to the ridge.”
While attending the Ann Arbor Film Festival one year, a University of Michigan student named Barbara caught his eye and the two hit it off. After Barbara graduated, she joined Mike on the ridge and “never went back,” said Azriel, with a laugh.
HIT WITH COMMUNITY
Eager to share eclectic, off-beat films with a larger Nevada County audience, in 1979 Mike and Barbara began renting out the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City on Sunday nights. It was a hit with the community.
An offshoot was the “Midnight Movies” film series, of which the now-cult classic “Rocky Horror Picture Show” was one.
“I really think my dad is responsible for the Rocky Horror midnight movie phenomenon that eventually caught on all over the country,” said Azriel. “He’s very humble about that, but I think he’s the reason it happened.”
The Sunday night film series at the Nevada Theatre continued on for about a decade, however the demand for art theater was starting to wane, and — while committed to continuing the series — the Getzes began looking for an additional venture.
Serendipitously, the owner of a movie theater on East Main Street announced he was going out of business.
“That’s when my parents seized the opportunity to buy and upgrade the theater, which became Sierra Cinemas,” said Azriel. “Thanks to their connections throughout the country they were able to get a good deal on things like seats, projectors and other equipment.”
Fortunately, the Getzes’ brave financial investment — borne out of a love of film — came at just the right time. As luck would have it, summer of 1989 was the perfect storm when it came to blockbuster movies. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Parenthood” and “Uncle Buck” had most seats filled in the four-screen theater, every night.
“I was here the night we opened Sierra Cinemas,” said Azriel. “There was a line out into the parking lot. It went like gang busters that whole first summer.”
In 2000, the Getzes were able to buy the two-screen Sutton Cinemas, also in Grass Valley. Then, in 2004, the jewel in crown — the Del Oro Theatre — came up for sale. Built in 1940 by United Artists, the Del Oro has been a community icon for generations. The Art Deco architecture and illuminated 70-foot tower continues to serve as a landmark in downtown Grass Valley.
“It was a big decision to buy the Del Oro,” said Azriel, of her parents. “But it was a good one. Today we consider ourselves custodians of this historic treasure that belongs to all of us. It’s an honor to keep it open and running.”
EVOLVING WITH INDUSTRY
Azriel and Michael met in the Theater Arts department at the University of California, Santa Cruz — she was primarily focused on dance and he in acting, directing and the technical aspect of theater. After a stint in New York post-graduation, the couple moved to Nevada County.
By 2008, the Getzes were eager to take a step back professionally, and that’s when Azriel and Michael began gradually taking on more managerial duties in all three theaters.
“It was such a nice thing for me,” said Michael. “I already had a lot of experience in the movie industry and I was living in a beautiful place and doing something I knew I already loved.”
The timing turned out to be just right, as in 2009 theaters across the country were transitioning from film to digital, something Michael already knew a lot about.
“When Michael said he could take that on, I saw a change in my dad,” said Azriel. “He said, ‘Hmmmm, maybe we should let Michael take over that aspect.’”
In recent years, running successful movie theaters — however beloved — has become increasingly challenging. Since Netflix introduced streaming services in 2007 — followed by a myriad of others — the push to get viewers out of their homes has become increasingly difficult, said Michael.
“We’re constantly thinking of ways to improve,” he added. “The business continues to evolve and so do we.”
A coup for Sierra Theaters and a popular mid-day addition has been the introduction of “National Theatre Live.” Operated by the Royal National Theatre in London, performances are broadcast live via satellite to cinemas around the world. Also, the “Metropolitan Opera,” broadcast live from the Lincoln Center in New York City. Shown at Sierra Cinemas, the opera series is shown in partnership with InConcert Sierra and Music in the Mountains. On Dec. 15, community members will be treated to the Bolshoi Ballet’s extraordinary production of “The Nutcracker,” broadcast from Moscow, Russia.
In December of 2016, Nevada County movie-goers were treated to yet another new experience — the opening of the CineCafé inside Sierra Cinemas, which now boasts a kitchen, bar, seating area and rest room. The menu features items that can be enjoyed in the café or taken into the movie theater itself.
Additional upgrades in recent years also include remodels of the lobbies at Sutton and Sierra Cinemas, as well as improvements to the tower and marquee at the Del Oro.
While Azriel’s father, Mike, continues to oversee the Nevada Theatre film series and consults with his son-in-law on weekly programming in all three theaters, these days he and Barbara are happily enjoying life in the background, which is why the Getzes did not participate in this story.
“The bottom line is this is a beloved family-run business and we work really hard to keep the lights on,” said Azriel. “There aren’t that many independent theater operators out there anymore. It’s not an easy business, but we love what we do. We’re very invested in the community and want to be responsive to customer requests. We see ourselves as a community space — a place where friends and neighbors can come and enjoy a fun night out. Movie theaters are a long-standing tradition — a shared experience — they’re a great part of life.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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