Following a seven-month shutdown, the Sunrise Theater is finally able to open its doors again — allowing its loyal patrons to come back in from the rain. “We’ve had some obstacles here. But we pride ourselves on our agility,” says Executive Director MaryBeth Poplyk, indicating the group seating-spots faintly spray-painted on the adjacent lawn, mysterious and intentional as crop circles.
Meanwhile, a handful of young volunteers erect privacy canvasses and a giant inflatable projector screen for an outdoor weekend showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds beneath an unpromising sky. “Yes, we’ve had a few rainchecks, some cancellations,” says Poplyk. “We try to mind the forecasts, but this is North Carolina weather we’re dealing with.”
Despite the unpredictable and unconventional outdoor seating, community interest in the Sunrise has not dimmed. “We’re actually selling out — folks have literally camped out along Northwest Broad Street in order to reserve a spot. We can only fit about a hundred people on the greenspace, so in order to maximize the number of people we can seat — at a safe distance — we try to admit people in pods of three to five. Sunrise has this down to a science.”
Sunrise Theater setting up for an outdoor showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds over the weekend. Photo by Sandhills Sentinel Reporter Shelby Herbert.
Moving inside, the interior looks much as it did back in February, leaving out the rows and rows of seats draped in yellow “Caution” tape. “I admit, it looks like a crime scene,” she says. “It’s a little eerie, but it’s not just for appearances. In this performance space, we want people to feel safe as much as they are safe.”
Per Governor Cooper’s recent announcement of phase three guidelines, indoor screenings at the Sunrise will operate at 30% capacity, seat patrons in alternating rows, and insist on the wearing of face coverings for each visitor and volunteer who enters the building. The balcony rows, for all their tragic history as segregated seating, are now some of the most ideal seats in the house. The additional space between the rows and seats allow for more freedom of movement, as well as more vacancy to seat larger groups of moviegoers at a safe distance apart.
In addition to the guidelines set forth by the new state mandates, the Sunrise has integrated some of its own strategies for harm reduction.
As a member of the Art House Convergence (AHC) association, the Sunrise has access to cutting-edge nationwide research regarding the spread of disease in independent entertainment spaces. “We’re constantly cleaning touch-points, monitoring bathroom occupancy, and being mindful of the space we’re using. We even tried to ventilate the entire house — which, by the way, is no easy thing to do to a building put up in 1898. When we did that, a chimney swift flew inside, and we spent hours trying to rescue him. The kids from our summer theater camp really got a kick out of that.”
In keeping with the spirit of its philosophy, “Community theater goes both ways,” the Sunrise Theater has gone above and beyond to protect its community members who have turned out in full force to support it throughout the course of the 2020 pandemic. For most indoor screenings following the Oct. 12, tickets will be available for purchase 30 minutes before the event.
Meanwhile, with the threat of bankruptcy looming over even commercial theater giants like B&B and AMC Theaters, Paragon Theaters co-owner and CEO Mike Whalen’s outlook for their Southern Pines franchise is refreshingly positive. However, for all its abundant space and luxury seating provided by its unfortunately-timed three-million-dollar renovation, Paragon Sandhills remains closed.
Paragon Theater’s CEO Mike Whalen getting comfortable in the new reclining seats in Jan. 2020 after a $3 million renovation. Photo by Sandhills Sentinel Photographer Maggie Sergio.
“Surprisingly, this is not a lockdown issue — or even an issue of demand. It’s that film companies aren’t ready to release those blockbusters yet. Around this time last year, we were expecting to be able to show the new Marvel movie (Black Widow), the new DC movie (Wonder Woman: 1984), the new James Bond movie (No Time to Die). They’ve had filming delays, or are otherwise stuck in post-production.”
Recalling the meat and toilet paper shortages of early spring, Whalen says, “It’s not unlike the situation we had with the grocery stores this year. They never closed, but there were plenty of things that were missing. Sometimes it’s just a supply-chain issue!”
Regarding the future of the franchise, Whalen looks forward to a possible partial-reopening in November or December of this year. “I’d like to see more automatic temperature-screening kiosks — maybe even some of the rapid-testing kits that are in development right now, which we could administer at the front door. I’m really interested in the new forms of technology that we can get on board to keep our customers safe. I believe that, by next summer, business will be relatively back to normal.”
“Even in the worst economic times, times of war — people have never stopped buying movie tickets. It’s a way to escape the darkness and tragedy of the present moment,” says Whalen. “I believe that people are social animals. We don’t like to be stuck at home — we have this fundamental need for entertainment, and for sharing the experience with one another. It’s how we connect.”
Feature photo: Sunrise seats draped in caution tape to allow for social distancing by Sandhills Sentinel Reporter Shelby Herbert.
Written by Sandhills Sentinel Reporter Shelby Herbert.