Tradition-laden Springs Theatre ushers in change you can’t see |

Tradition-laden Springs Theatre ushers in change you can’t see

The year John Buxman bought The Springs Theatre, “The Last Emperor” and “Fatal Attraction” were big hits.

It was the summer of 1987, recalled Buxman. The theater had originally opened in 1972 and had sat abandoned since its owner walked away, quite literally, from the downtown Glenwood Springs business in 1984.

“The popcorn was still in the machine,” he said.

As if it were last week, Buxman remembered the first movies he showed: No. 1 was “Roxanne,” with Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah. No. 2 was “La Bamba.” No. 3, “Full Metal Jacket.”

Fifteen years and hundreds of films later, little has changed at the Springs, except, perhaps, the movies themselves. But even those are still shown at 24 frames a second, like they have been for decades.

“It’s the same popcorn machine, the same butter machine, so many things are the same,” he said.

Buxman made one major change, however. Last month he replaced the theater’s mono sound with a Dolby Digital Stereo Surround system.

“It’s a far cry from what we had before,” said Buxman. “We went from one to 18 speakers overnight.”

Buxman donated the old system to Glenwood Springs High School. The system is of very good quality and can easily be transported and used for outside or inside events. “It’s had a full life already,” he said, “but it will continue to live on right here in Glenwood Springs.”

First introduced in 1992, Surround Sound is still considered the best in theater sound innovation Dolby has to offer. Buxman gave a demonstration, including film clips with early Dolby sound from the 1970s; a trailer from the new movie, “Ice Age;” a film called “Precious Images,” that flashed bites from hundreds of movies made throughout film’s history; and “Carrotblanca,” a classic Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Describe the difference in sound from mono to Dolby Digital Surround? Hmmm.

It has to be experienced.

“It’s a thrill to listen to,” said Buxman. The sound, which moves across the theater like an ocean wave, is clear and crisp, and when the noise stops, it’s dead silent. This Friday, “The Scorpion King” opens. The movie is filled with special effects and will offer a great example of the system’s capabilities.

It’s not just the new sound system that makes the Springs movie experience so unique, explained Buxman. It’s the theater itself. From top to bottom, front to back, the 50-by-100-foot building was designed and built as a movie theater. The speakers, placed along its arced and baffled fabric-lined walls, help boost the sound into the auditorium, and sand-packed walls soundproof the auditorium from any outside noise. “Nothing, nothing can soundproof a room like sand,” said Buxman. The building is “practically a bomb shelter.”

Most theaters simply aren’t made like this, said Buxman.

What’s a movie without snacks?

The Springs offers 16 types of candy, teas, sparkling waters and fresh orange juice. You can even get fresh lime with your club soda.

Only the best kernels are used in the 50-year-old Manley popcorn popper, and popcorn is topped, at great expense, with real butter.

“We hold nothing back when it comes to the concession stand,” said Buxman.

The Springs holds nothing back in its film capabilities, either.

The screen, framed by real theater curtains, offers a sharp image. In addition to standard 35-millimeter films, the Springs can screen BHS, Beta and 16-millimeter films. That capability has helped Buxman bring Aspen Filmfest to Glenwood Springs. The program doesn’t make Buxman a profit, but that’s not the point, he said. It does turn the theater into a classroom.

“I’m just really proud to be a part of that, to make sure it has a place in Glenwood Springs,” he said.

Last December, students from Rifle and Glenwood Springs schools watched “Fire on the Mountain,” a documentary on the 10th Mountain Division. 10th Mountain members founded several of Colorado’s ski areas, including Aspen and Vail, and were instrumental in making skiing a major industry in Colorado.

Students also had the opportunity to meet former 10th Mountain member Bil Dunaway of Aspen, who shared with them his experiences with the 10th Mountain during World War II.

“It was a meaningful experience,” said Buxman. “It’s so important, as we lose that generation … for kids in this area to see the beginning of what we all take for granted now every time we go skiing.”

Skiing has been a “huge” part of Buxman’s own life. His family moved to Vail from Denver when he was 7. He raced with the U.S. Ski Team for 10 years, starting at age 16.

For 10 months a year he raced and trained in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile, and throughout Europe and the United States. He was a World Cup racer at a time when the circuit was dominated by Western United States skiers like Steve and Phil Mahre of Washington.

Buxman turned professional in 1987.

At one of his first pro races, in Stowe, Vt., he got a call from his father saying he had found a nice piece of real estate in downtown Glenwood Springs.

It seemed like a good idea, said Buxman, who had spent his college years skiing and had no formal training in anything else.

Buxman ran the theater and skied on the pro circuit until spring of 1993. At his last race, he said, “I came through the finish line and proposed to my wife.”

His wife, Regina, is a translator for American Airlines. They have two children. For several years he put skiing behind him. Now, he said, his 7-year-old daughter “is re-kindling my love for skiing.”

The Buxmans also own the Slickrock Cinemas 3 in Moab, Utah, which for five years has been run by one of their former employees.

In anticipation of the summer movie season, Buxman will remodel the Springs lobby and replace the roof. Neither project will close the theater (it hasn’t closed in 15 years, except for technical difficulties), and will not affect the theater or the customer’s experience.

Surprisingly, Buxman isn’t a movie buff. For years, he said, “I just loved everything I saw.” Only recently has he become astute enough to know whether a film is worth watching or not.

But a person can’t watch hundreds of movies over and over and not form some sort of opinion about what is good and what is bad. Fortunately, he said, he does have qualified people deciding which films will run.

Some of his favorite flicks include “Moulin Rouge,” with Nicole Kidman; “Out of Africa,” with Robert Redford and Merryl Streep; and “Pulp Fiction.”

It’s a violent film, he said of “Pulp Fiction,” and he normally doesn’t care for the violence. But, he explained, after watching the film about 15 times he started to understand it, and to like it. After 40 or 50 times, he said, it really grew on him.

Going to the movies, said Buxman, “is not so much about the movie, but the shared experience.” Some nights people want to stay at home, but most nights they want to go out and be among friends. Going to the movies is about sharing an experience. There is no replacement for an afternoon or an evening at the theater, he said.

Home entertainment systems are fine, he added, but movies are made to be seen in a movie theater. Sure, he said, after it’s shown at a theater it can be rented and seen on a home entertainment center, “but it’s difficult to match the presentation of a film on a home system. Once it’s gone from the theater, you’ve missed that chance forever … Not to mention the fact that you cannot make popcorn at home like I make it here.”

Buxman holds great pride in being a part of the community. Unbeknownst to John, Regina put “Happy Birthday John” on the marquis last week. People would stick their heads in the door and holler, “Happy birthday,” and people driving by would honk and wave.

“It made me realize that we still live in a small community,” he said.

Going to the show brings community members together to share an experience, he said. And it’s still a good value, considering the cost of entertainment these days.

“You can still take your gal to the movies for $13.”

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