ATHENS, Ala. (WHNT) — It’s almost time for a “Cinemagic” goodbye. Later this month, the doors of the revered Cinemagic Theatre in Athens will close after more than 20 years in business.
Ralph Freehauf has owned and operated the theater since 1997. He says when things started out, the site where the business now stands was nothing more than a field and forest.
“It was a partially overgrown field and the rest of it was woods,” Freehauf said. “We brought it up from the ground up.”
“We had close to 10 acres there,” he continued. “We harvested all the lumber and sent it to a sawmill, brought in big pan scrapers… and had the hill cut down and filled in down by the creek, so we’d have a level surface.”
Freehauf, who has been in the movie business since the late 1970s, said the theater started as a drive-in and the initial screen cost $26,000 and could accommodate around 400 cars.
The first film shown at the theater in 1997 was “Jurassic Park.” Freehauf said he believes they still own the original lenticular, or 3-D poster.
“[During that first night] we had space for about 400 cars, and we had the police come to advise us to get the cars off the street,” he stated. “They were holding up traffic. We really filled it up when we first opened the drive-in.”
However, Freehauf said the next year wasn’t quite as thrilling as 1998’s “Godzilla” came out, hampering sales.
“That didn’t do anything, that was just awful,” Freehauf said. “Columbia made us keep it for a month, and that was a third of our whole season… when you take away a whole month, that really cuts into business.”
Freehauf noted that almost all movie theaters make their money during summer, along with Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks when kids are out of school.
He said during that particular summer, Cinemagic added a temporary second drive-in screen to play things like “King Kong” and other movies that people wanted to see.
Cinemagic transitioned into a fully-fledged, five-screen indoor movie theater along with its original drive-in screen in 2006.
When asked what made him make the transition to more than just a drive-in, Freehauf said, “On big moviegoing weekends, sometimes the weather pattern would give us rain, so that would kill our sales.”
“If you put a roof over everything, then the people can come [regardless] of whether it’s raining or not,” he continued.
Despite all the joy Cinemagic has provided for Athens over the last quarter-century, Freehauf said it’s time to close the doors. He cited his being beyond retirement age and the COVID-19 pandemic as the main factors that contributed to the decision to close.
“I’m past retirement age, so that’s a reason [and] people haven’t come back since the pandemic,” Freehauf told News 19. “It’s less than half [and] we’ve got mortgage payments to pay. We’ve only broken even twice in the last two years. The only thing keeping us open now [are] the federal grants from Congress.”
Freehauf said the theater plans to go “quietly into the sunset” and close without any major fanfare. There are no plans for anyone else to take over the theater, and it will be put up for sale in August.
“When we opened there wasn’t a movie theater in Athens, and I’m afraid we’re leaving it the same way we found it,” Freehauf said. “They’ll be no movie theater unless someone else comes into town.”
With the closure coming up soon, Freehauf noted three things that made his vision successful over the last 25 years: sticky-free floors, clean restrooms, and the best possible presentation on the big screen.
The last day for the Cinemagic Theatre will be July 31. See what’s playing at the theatre until then here.