St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)
Wednesday January 19, 2011
FIRST EDITION/ COMMUNITY; Pg. B1
Elsberry rallies for theater Fire-damaged venue, called heart of Lincoln County town, generates support.
By SUSAN WEICH • sweich > 636-255-7207
Robert Sinnett was always a movie buff, so in 1974, when he heard about a one-screen movie theater for sale in a small Lincoln County town, he bought it.
In the 30-plus years since then, he and his wife Sandra have tried to make the Senate Theatre in Elsberry more than just a business.
"When people walked in, we wanted them to feel like they were walking into home," said Robert Sinnett, 72.
Now the Sinnetts say they are the ones who feel like family.
Two weeks after a fire heavily damaged the theater, the community has rallied behind the Sinnetts, organizing fund-raisers and posting remembrances of the cinema on Facebook and Twitter.
"People have told us we’ve got to come back because the theater is the heart of the town," said Sandra Sinnett, 70. "I don’t think we realized it meant so much to people until now."
Josh Burbridge, who used to work as an usher when he was a teenager, isn’t surprised by the support. He said that in a town like Elsberry, which has about 2,500 residents, few places allow people to have a shared experience as they did at the Senate Theatre.
Burbridge’s sister, Brooke Reller, agreed. Most of her childhood memories revolve around going to the Senate, something she would regularly do on both Friday and Saturday nights.
"Even though we saw the movie on Friday night, we would see it again on Saturday night," she said. "There wasn’t a lot else to do, and that was really the thing to do."
Reller is spearheading fund-raising efforts to get the theater running again, because insurance will cover only part of the damage. (For more information e-mail Reller at savethesenatetheatre)
The Senate is in a buff-bricked storefront on Broadway in the center of Elsberry’s business district, and it has more than sentimental value.
Sarah Hunt, who runs the town library, said records show the building has been around for 99 years and has been a theater for the majority of that time. The fire on Jan. 5 was the third time the building burned. After a blaze in 1937, which started in the film booth, owner C.W. Cannon entered the building, collapsed and died.
In the 1950s, Edward V. Long, a U.S. senator from Louisiana, Mo., bought the theater and changed the name to Senate from Orpheum.
When the Sinnetts took over the business, they wanted to bring in current films but keep it affordable and family friendly. They had to close the theater in 1999 when Sandra became seriously ill, but a community effort that time brought it back, too.
Before the fire, which started in an adjoining shop, the theater charged $5 for adults and $4 for children. The most expensive item at the concession stand was a large popcorn, which cost $3.
The Sinnetts said they didn’t make a lot of money, but it was enough to keep the doors open for one show on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
"We wanted people to come see a movie, have a bag of popcorn and be happy," Robert Sinnett said.
Featured movies were what you might see at any of the bigger cinemas, although the raciest rating was PG-13. They offered the community a free show every Christmas, and the theater was the location for many school field trips.
Sinnett also walked down the center aisle before every show and addressed the audience. He’d tell children to be quiet during the film, and if the story had a sad ending, he might encourage the audience to have their tissues handy.
"Sometimes he got so carried away that he would go right through and tell you the ending, but it gave the experience a nice personal touch," Hunt said.
The Senate has always been family run. The Sinnett children, Bobby, Kimberly and Dawn, grew up working concessions; they stood on milk cartons when they first started out.
Now the grandchildren help out, and Robert Sinnett beamed when he recalled how professionally his 10-year-old granddaughter had handled the rush on popcorn at a recent showing.
Frequent patron Thelma Boedecker said she’ll miss that personalized service while the theater is refurbished. Boedecker always orders a Pepsi and a small popcorn – filled halfway up so she can add salt before the rest of the popcorn is added – and the concession workers have her snack ready as soon as she walks through the door.
The first weekend after the fire, she borrowed six movies from a friend to try to fill the void.
Reller said people who are not from a small town might not understand the feelings they have for the theater.
"But it’s been part of our lives, and to see it go away is just not an option," she said.