Digital upgrade, family touch give LeRoy theater new life
LeROY— Running a small-town movie theater is a rarity, but when the Hanafin family tackled LeRoy's Princess Theatre in 2006, they fell in love with the business.
The 150-seat theater, which has been part of the community since 1916, recently went high-tech as the Hanafins invested $89,000 in the new Barco digital movie technology, an upgrade from the old 35 mm projector.
"We had to bite the bullet," business manager Dawn Hanafin said. "It was getting hard to get movies. We were showing things nine and 10 weeks out — movies people had already seen."
"There were a couple weekends there where we almost didn't have a movie to show," Hanafin added.
She said filmmakers are making a limited number of movies in 35 mm and they were simply getting harder to obtain. So the family invested heavily in the new technology and Hanafin says it's beginning to pay off, although admitting the theater isn't a big moneymaker among the family businesses.
She said it's become a family business, with her parents Mike and Gail Hanafin involved as well as sisters Christie and Heather, brothers-in-law and even nieces and nephews, all of whom have specific duties. "Everybody has their job," Dawn Hanafin said, noting one niece, Morgan Wilkins, has really taken the business to heart, learning everything she can and taking on every responsibility possible.
"We're not in it for the money," she said. "It's a community service. We simply like doing it, and it really works well together as a family operation." She said the family will do "what we need to do" to keep the doors open and hopes that even with the new investment they won't have to raise prices, even at their concession stand.
John Hanafin said he's proud of how his family has taken on the project and noted if they continue to have crowds like they did for a recent showing of "Lincoln," he'd be happy.
"It's been a fun thing to have," he added, noting he got into it because his wife, Gail, who was raised in LeRoy, had a lot of good memories of the theater as a child.
The theater is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday for one showing a day, and Hanafin says she's proud of the fact they've been able to keep the small-town theater alive. She said it has not only become an attraction for local residents, but customers come from as far away as Atlanta, Bloomington and Champaign to see the movies, making a night of it in LeRoy or the area by combining it with a restaurant experience.
Dawn Hanafin said one family actually meets at the theater regularly once a month, coming from all over East Central Illinois. "It's their time together as a family," she said.
She said the theater averages about 43 viewers a night, but the building really packs them in on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month when they provide free showings sponsored by local businesses or organizations — usually a family flick that's rated G or PG. She said the free movies are booked through 2013 and into 2014.
Hanafin said they did host a drive to raise funds to help keep the theater open and collected about $15,000 from local businesses, families and individuals as well as some organizations that saw value in keeping the theater alive.
"There were no big fundraisers," Dawn Hanafin said. "We just asked for donations."