Loretta Miles, owner of Salem Cinema on Thursday, October 23. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

As storefronts closed and lights went out on gatherings across the state in March, Loretta Miles picked up her phone and recorded a voicemail greeting for Salem Cinema.

“Well, kids, here we are,” Miles said in the voicemail greeting for the arthouse theater. “Who would have ever thought we'd be caught up in the middle of a Hollywood apocalypse b-grade movie with no plot, all the dialogue is ad-lib and the end is not in sight?”

For the first time in over three decades, Salem Cinema would be going dark, continued Miles, the theater’s longtime owner. She encouraged callers to stay home, be patient and, if interested, donate to the theater and sign up for email updates.

 “And I hope to see you at the movies soon,” she concluded her message.

On Friday, Oct. 23, Salem Cinema, located at 127 Broadway St., reopens for the first time since closing with new mask and social distancing requirements that have become part of daily life.

Salem Cinema — a theater that specializes in art, independent and foreign films — has been at the center of Miles’ life for the last 37 years. It’s become a hub for local movie enthusiasts, and she gets letters from people on the other side of the country who saw movies at Salem Cinema while in college.

“They’ll tell me about how their life was completely changed by the experience in a darkened room with other people appreciating the exact same thing as the exact same time,” she said.

Miles is nervous about reopening. There are now limits on the number of people allowed in Salem Cinema’s three screening rooms. And audiences, used to staying home, might be reluctant to venture out.

Movie theaters across the country have seen virtually no income for months because of the pandemic, said Bruce Gardiner, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Theatre Owners Association. He said that smaller and independent theaters are at particular risk of closing their doors. Some already have, including Silverton’s Palace Theatre and the Northern Lights Theater Pub in Salem.

He said these closures mean the loss of a communal gathering place where audiences can laugh or cry together.

“You’re going to be losing all of that,” he said.

‘Top of the world’

The film that changed Miles’ life was one she wasn’t supposed to see.

Growing up in Lincoln City in the 1950s and 60s, Miles said there wasn’t much to do but go to the movies. She said her parents dropped her off the local theater on Friday night assuming everything starred John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart or Doris Day.

When she was 11, she saw “Town Without Pity,” a 1961 film about a town that turns on a teenage girl after she’s assaulted by American servicemen stationed in Germany. Miles said she realized that movies were more than a way to kill a couple of hours.

“Movies get inside of us and touch our souls in a way that nothing else does,” said Miles, paraphrasing Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.

Miles got married right after graduating from high school and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. After getting divorced, Miles realized it’d be easier to be a single parent in Oregon where she had family and the cost of living was cheaper. So, she moved to Dallas and became a regular patron of Salem Cinema when it opened in 1982. A year later, she started working there.

At the time, it was a single-screen movie theater in Pringle Park Plaza. Miles sold concessions and tickets in addition to running the projector. At the time, movies would be shipped to the theater in 35mm canisters that she would have to splice together.

On Nov. 1, 1990, Miles bought the theater from its previous owner. She had a party at the theater to celebrate with regular customers she had gotten to know.

As a single parent, Miles didn’t have much income, but had made her dream come true. After all the guests left, Miles put on some music, hugged herself tightly and danced with herself under the screen.

“I was at the top of the world,” she said, describing it as one of the happiest moments of her life.

Miles recalled high points running the theater. In 2002 Salem Cinema screened “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” for months after it became an unexpected national hit and it didn’t run in other local theaters. 

She said that in 2004, a regular customer came in and told Miles that his son was in a movie. He wasn’t sure how well it would do and asked Miles if she’d do a few screenings for him and his friends.

The man’s son is Salem native Jon Heder, the star of the 2004 hit comedy “Napoleon Dynamite.” The movie had just been picked up by Fox Searchlight Pictures and Miles arranged to screen the movie just as buzz was unexpectedly building around it. Salem Cinema screened the movie for a week with Herder in attendance almost every night as it surpassed a million dollars in ticket sales nationally.

“It turned into a very, very big deal in a very short time,” said Miles, who screened the movie for six months. “We were sold out every single seat for the entire week that Jon was there.”

Angela Yeager, the co-host of Capital Community Media’s film review show Reel Film Snobs, said that Salem Cinema has created an environment for people who love films. While people have been watching lots of movies at home during the pandemic, going to a place like Salem Cinema with no distractions is a different experience.

“You really have that chance to be transported away and taken on a journey,” she said.

Salem Cinema on Thursday, October 23. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

‘It hasn't done well for anyone’

In early March, Salem Cinema began screening “Emma.” Miles said she was selling half as many tickets as she expected. Eventually, she was selling just a dozen for a movie that would normally sell out.

Not wanting to risk the safety of her staff or patrons, Miles said she spent a whole weekend in tears trying to figure out what to do. By Sunday, she announced that the theater would be closing.

“As hard as it was for me to close, I thought I'd be closed three weeks,” said Miles.

Then came state orders that banned gatherings above 25 people and closed restaurants, bars and schools.

While closed, Miles worked with film distributors to offer “virtual screenings” on Salem Cinema’s website. Miles said that after distributors take out fees, she gets half of the ticket sales. But she said she only sees between two and 20 sales for an entire month.

“It hasn't done well for anyone across the country,” she said. “There's so many options of what to watch at home.”

She said that the online screenings have mostly maintained some connection to her audience.

Over the spring and summer, Gov. Kate Brown began gradually lifting pandemic restrictions. Movie theaters in counties in the second phase of the governor’s plan have been allowed to reopen with social distancing requirements.

But in August, a group of movie theater owners from across the state petitioned Gov. Kate Brown to further relax the reopening guidelines for movie theaters.

In September, the National Association of Theatre Owners wrote Congressional leaders complaining that they had been left out of the previous pandemic relief package and without action the country could see an unprecedented wave of closures.

Staff members stand inside one of the theaters at Salem Cinema on Thursday, October 23. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

‘No way I can let them down’

On the day before its reopening, Salem Cinema smelled of cleaning products.

“It will only take 30 seconds to smell like popcorn,” said Abby King, the cinema’s manager.

For the last three months, Miles said she’s been getting emails asking if she’d screen “Manhattan Short Film Festival.” It’s a curated short film selection that’s the cinema's most popular event and will be featured when it reopens.

“I just couldn't find it in my heart to tell Salem that I wasn't going to do it this year,” said Miles.

Miles said that she’s confident that the safety precautions at the cinema, including audiences buying tickets online, will keep staff and movie-goers safe. Like in restaurants, people can take off masks while consuming concessions. But on Mondays, no concessions will be sold for those who want to be extra safe.

“But as far as finances go, it's, it's a very scary position to be in, I've been without any income for seven months now,” said Miles, 70.

But the cinemas three screening rooms (which have 141, 64 and 40 seats respectively) can only operate at limited capacity with two seats in between each group of people. So even if she has a big hit, there’s no way she can sell lots of tickets. Meanwhile, she’s six months behind on rent.

During the closure, she received donations ranging from $3 to a few hundred dollars. Those have given her encouragement, she said.

“When I think about those people, and many of them I've come to know over the years, there's no way I can let them down,” said Miles. “There's no way that I could just say, ‘It's over.’”

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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