The San Francisco Chronicle (California)
August 13, 2010 Friday
FINAL Edition/ Datebook; Pg. F1
This Cameo can steal the show; 97-year-old St. Helena theater has classic touches
By Peter Hartlaub, Chronicle Pop Culture Critic
Cathy Buck has nothing against Michigan. That’s where she grew up, fell in love with movies, built a prosperous real estate business and raised three children.
But after discovering St. Helena on a wine tasting tour while visiting her grown daughter in San Francisco, she decided she couldn’t live anywhere else.
"And then I just said ‘I’m done,’ " Buck remembers. "I gave my business away and sold my house, packed up lock, stock and barrel and moved here. Family and friends said you’ll be back …"
Six years later, you can find Buck at the Cameo Cinema, a 97-year-old neighborhood movie theater that is easy to miss during the drive along Highway 29 through town, but hard to forget once you’re inside. Classic touches plush love seats mix with modern technology a new 3-D projector and only-in-Wine Country amenities. That’s espresso-flavored gelato for sale in the lobby, and home-baked cookies from four local bakers, including a vegan chef.
At the center is Buck, whose story could be a pitch for a Sandra Bullock movie. Newcomer in a quaint Napa Valley town is met with suspicion, and then wins everyone over with her pluck and enthusiasm. Added cinematic touch: Buck introduces the movies in the 140-seat theater, and climbs a ladder every week to change the letters on the marquee herself.
"Being on Main Street in a beautiful town is just magical. It’s like being on a movie set," says Buck, 53, who grew up wanting to be a movie star. "I get up on the stage every time I do a show and I do announcements – and I laugh, because I certainly didn’t turn out to be on a big screen, but I have a control of a big screen."
The Cameo has a rich history in the area, existing under several different names, including the Liberty and the Roxy. Each time an owner has put it up for sale, the locals have been concerned. Just about everyone who grew up in St. Helena went on a first date, received a first kiss or skipped school to go to the Cameo. Sometimes all three at the same time.
"We all get very anxious in town," says Sylvia Griffiths, a longtime resident who has worked for 13 years at Patina, the jewelry store next door to the Cameo. "We may be St. Helena, but we might as well be in the middle of the country as far as the films that come around. Sometimes she’ll have a week of films that you really want to see, that were only showing in San Francisco."
Buck said there were some concerns when she and friend Shawn La Rue, who left the business last year, took over ownership of the Cameo in 2007.
"We had to prove ourselves," she says. "And then as we created the programming and welcomed the community, all of a sudden the life force changed. People wanted to get involved with it."
Buck signs every correspondence and ends phone calls with a cheery "See you at the movies!" Her energy can be seen during a tour of the theater, which can be covered in about 15 paces but is stretched by Buck into 20 history-filled minutes.
Buck sometimes programs 15 or more movies in a month – a mix of art films, 3-D blockbusters, opera transmissions and local events. Teachers from area schools use the film house for educational purposes, and last Memorial Day weekend Buck organized the Cameo’s first Family Film Festival – a four-day fundraiser for local teen centers. Among the programming was 33 short films made by local children and a special faux-Oscar night to celebrate their efforts.
Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Redford have been to the Cameo, but Buck doesn’t seem starstruck. Talking about a recent successful World Cup simulcast, she mentions hat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in the audience in passing – and only after gushing about all the valley laborers who came to watch the game.
Ric and Cheryl Henry had their first date at the Cameo then the Roxy Theatre in 1972, and each of their three grown children worked there. The couple has celebrated two private anniversaries at the theater – both times showing their first date film, Peter Bogdanovich’s "What’s Up Doc?"
Ric Henry compliments the eclectic movies being brought in by Buck. During the family festival, she recruited a local professional skater to introduce a little-known skateboarding-themed movie outdoors near the town’s skate park.
"One reason the community is so accepting of Cathy is that she’s so accepting of everything going on here," Henry says. "We’re grateful that she’s looking after the Cameo. It’s not easy for a place like that to survive in a world full of multiplexes."
Buck says the Cameo has been in the red for 13 years, although she’s close to breaking even. Buck has always been mechanically inclined, and fixes everything from the popcorn maker to the ice machine herself. "I’ve learned how to fix things," she says, "and that’s a constant issue with a 97-year-old theater." For more complicated plumbing and electrical jobs, she trades movie tickets for work from a guy at the local hardware store.
The Nimbus Arts foundation of Napa has helped fund the Cameo’s community programming, and a grant from the group paid for the digital projector. Buck relies on help from more than a dozen "ambassadors" – local fans of the theater who do everything from passing out flyers to volunteering at the concession stand during special events.
Buck says she liked the idea of running a movie theater, because she could see herself working there when she’s 80. She hopes to work at the Cameo for decades, even if all she does is take tickets at the door.
"I can’t say you never get tired. But the minute people start coming through the door, and they share an opinion of the movie or a story with you, you know you’re doing the right thing," she says. "It’s magical. I tell people all the time, ‘I live in Oz.’ And that’s the way I feel."
The Cameo Cinema is at 1340 Main St. along Highway 29 in St. Helena. For more information, go to www.cameocinema.com.