Wickenburg’s only single-screen movie theater attracts more than just the town’s residents to watch a film.
Scott Zimmerman, owner of the Saguaro Theatre, said residents from Peoria, Glendale, Surprise and the Sun Cities drive up to the Western town just to see a movie.
“They’ve always loved the charm and history of the theater,” he said.
But they might not have that opportunity by early next year. The historic theater is in danger of closing its doors if they don’t raise $50,000 to replace the old film projector with new digital movie equipment.
Production companies eventually will phase out film completely, with theaters only showing digital movies. But for theaters such as the Saguaro, this comes at an expensive cost.
“It’s almost impossible for a small theater like this to come up with that type of money,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman can’t produce the money on his own, so he’s launched a fundraising campaign and collected $1,200 so far.
“We have a long way to go, so who knows what’s going to happen, maybe a miracle will come through for us,” he said. “This theater has so much history behind it and means so much to our community and folks outside of the town that it would a shame if it closed.”
The Saguaro Theatre is one of six remaining one-screen movie theaters in Arizona and the fourth oldest, just behind the Valley Art in Tempe.
Other single-screen movie theaters in the state are in Springerville, Holbrook, Winslow and Morenci.
On April 9, 1948, the Saguaro Theatre opened in Wickenburg as one of the original Harkins Theaters, built by Red Harkins, the father of Dan Harkins.
“The first movie that they showed here was ‘The Mating of Millie’ starring Glenn Ford,” Zimmerman said.
The original seating of the theater held 600 people but after renovations, it only has 270 seats. But what has not changed is the exterior, with the original marquee, box office and large Saguaro cactus that can be seen from a distance perched on top of the building.
As a child, Zimmerman made road trips with his family through Wickenburg and often noticed the Saguaro Theatre.
“It’s such an iconic building that I had no idea I would end up owning it one day,” Zimmerman said.
Several years ago, Zimmerman sold his drive-in movie theater in Kentucky and moved to Arizona. He wondered if the Saguaro Theatre still existed.
“That’s when I decided to volunteer here, then I decided to purchase the building, which wasn’t up for sale at the time,” he said.
Zimmerman bought the theater and began to make improvements from the roof to the seats. Many of the old rooms, such as a cry room for babies and a smoking room, have been converted to storage areas.
The theater is operated by Brian Deveny and plays movies from two to four weeks at a time.
“I don’t have the money to invest in it anymore, and you can only put into it what you can,” Zimmerman said.
For this reason, Zimmerman doesn’t have the funds to convert from film to digital.
“I’m not sure what we’re going to do, but we are getting some money and hopefully people will respond even more because it’s a community treasure,” he said.
Diane Lowe, who has managed the theater for 11 1/2 years, said she doesn’t want to see the theater close.
Lowe said the closest theater to the community is the Surprise Digiplex, which has 14 screens and involves a 30-minute drive.
“Every once in a while, or if you’re looking for choices and wanted to see something right away, people go to Surprise and before that it was Arrowhead,” said Lowe. “But it’s nice to have this because we consider it a community theater.”
Julie Brooks, executive director of the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce, said the Saguaro is a part of the town’s lifeline and history.
“It’s important that we keep the Saguaro here because it’s part of our heritage,” Brooks said.
Daniel Lozano, a 16-year-old senior at Wickenburg High School, has been working at the Saguaro for a month and loves the theater.
“This place is so unique and one-of-a-kind, not like those big, overrated movie theater complexes,” he said.
Glenn Jackson has lived in Wickenburg since 1993 and doesn’t mind the wait for movies to come into town.
“This is what we have in this town, so I’m satisfied,” said Jackson. “I always love coming in here, plus it’s a little cheaper than the bigger multiplexes and saves me some money.”
The average movie ticket at the Saguaro is $7 for adult versus almost $10 at a multiple-screen theater. A family of five, two parents and three children, walked into the theater and bought tickets for “Fast & the Furious 6” for $29.
Jackson said he would miss the Saguaro if it closes.
“I know we would have to travel to see a movie, or in my case, I might wait until it comes out on Redbox unless it’s something I really want to see,” he said.
In the meantime, Zimmerman said he’ll continue to raise money for the digital equipment.
Many small theaters like Zimmerman’s recently have held fundraisers to convert from film to digital. But he is concerned they might not meet the deadline in February.
“We’ll do what we can, but if it doesn’t happen we might have to close it. Then I’m not sure what would become of the theater,” he said.
• Mitchell Vantrease can be reached at 623-876-2526 or firstname.lastname@example.org.