LARAMIE -- In the lobby of the aging Wyo Theater, posters advertised coming attractions: "The Grinch" and "Thomas and the Magic Railroad."
Kit Kats and Whoppers were on display at the candy counter.
The red lights on a sign board spelled out "Welcome to the Wyo Cinema."
The sign on the marquee outside, however, said "Closed."
Trans-Lux Theatres pulled the plug late last month on the Wyo.
Inside the theater, a Laramie fixture for more than 70 years, an estimated 80 or more movie buffs gathered Thursday night to form the Laramie Film Society, a non-profit group that hopes to keep the Wyo alive.
The Wyo is not the first single-screen movie theater in Wyoming to fall on evil days. The Strand in Rawlins, built in 1921, has been vacant since 1984.
Bill and Heidi Cleveland of Lander bought it in February. The city has granted them until Dec. 31 to complete repairs to the roof and secure the building against entry or see it demolished.
A film and former vaudeville theater in Sheridan, also called the Wyo, closed its doors in 1982. It was reopened in 1989 by a community group that operates it as a venue for live performing arts.
Film enthusiasts at Thursday's meeting said there are many possibilities
for Laramie's Wyo. They suggested it could show so-called "art films,"
foreign movies, America classics such as Marx Brothers comedies, or films
in special interest categories such as human rights.
|"It's a big project, and I am not saying that you all can't do it.
But I think it is important not to let your enthusiasm and excitement carry
you away. You need to understand exactly what you need to do financially."
-- Lynne Simpson
Robert Roten, a former Laramie Daily Boomerang movie critic who was elected president, suggested a Western film festival, a science-fiction festival or a series of the top 100 films of the century.
"There are a lot of good films that appeal to a wide audience," Roten said. "I don't think we need to talk just about art films and foreign films."
"It looks as if it's a go if we really work at it," said Brett Glass, one of the organizers of the society.
Lynne Simpson of Laramie, who worked on the seven-year campaign to restore the Wyo in Sheridan, offered words of caution.
"It's a big project, and I am not saying that you all can't do it," said Simpson. "But I think it is important not to let your enthusiasm and excitement carry you away. You need to understand exactly what you need to do financially."
Organizers said the society plans to sell memberships and solicit donations from private contributors and might seek assistance from such groups as the Wyoming Arts Council, the Wyoming Council on the Humanities, the Wyoming Business Council and the Laramie Economic Development Corporation.
The Wyo, one of whose best-known features is the set of identical murals on its side walls showing a cowboy with golden chaps waving from a flying horse, was build around 1925, said owner Marshall Smith.
It was originally called the Crown. Smith's family, which at one time
controlled about 110 movie screens in seven or eight states, operated the
theater as the Wyo from 1950 to 1978. At that time, the family sold its
entire circuit to United Artists.
|"My earliest memories are coming to Laramie to the movies with my father
in the '50s, and sitting in the balcony while he was working. People love
to watch movies from the balcony."
-- Marshall Smith, Owner, Wyo Theater
Smith took a lease on the theater again in 1988, reopening it after it had been closed for a month or two for a roofing job. He bought the theater outright in the mid 1990s and has been leasing it to Trans-Lux. The lease agreement provides that if he sells the theater, the buyer may not show new releases.
The film society hopes to lease or buy the building from Smith.
Smith, who now lives in Hailey, Idaho, said he supports the society's efforts.
"I have sent them a bunch of calendars from art theaters up in our state, have set them up with a possible film buyer for art and foreign films and will do anything else I can to help," he said in a telephone interview.
Smith said the present lobby and concession stand was added to the theater in the 1940s.
"The front of the theater used to be where the back of the concession stand is now," he said. "In the old days, you didn't need to sell concessions. Movies were sold flat, and you could make money. Popcorn was simply an afterthought."
The theater owner said the murals have been redone since they were originally painted, but have existed in their present form for at least 30 years.
Smith, who grew up in Cheyenne, said, "My earliest memories are coming to Laramie to the movies with my father in the '50s, and sitting in the balcony while he was working. People love to watch movies from the balcony."
The 325-seat theater still has a balcony, but it is closed. Smith said he believe it would probably need the addition of a fire escape before it could reopen. However, Jamie Martinez, who has managed the theater for Trans-Lux, said he believes the existing stairways on each side are adequate for fire safety.
Trans-Lux operates 38 screens in the southwestern and Rocky Mountain states including the seven-screen Fox Theater in Laramie.
By telephone from the company's headquarters in Santa Fe, Vice President Bryan Mercer said the theater was closed "because it wasn't making any money. It's happening everywhere. Single-screen theaters are just too costly to operate."
Mercer said Trans-Lux spent $125,000 on new seats and a new projector and sound system. The company has the right to remove these if they are not sold to the building's owner or a new tenant. If this is done, Glass said on the society's Web page, "it is unlikely that the Wyo will ever be used as a theater again."
The film society is planning further meetings. Meanwhile, there is a
"For Sale" sign in the front window of the Wyo.