The County Theater is back.
The small Doylestown theater resumed screenings last weekend after closing in January 2020 – a lifetime ago, thanks to the pandemic – for a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion.
New, larger seats were installed in the theater’s two existing theaters and a new, 180-seat theater was added.
As with virtually every other aspect of life these days, the return to normal at the theater will be gradual. For the next few of weeks, there will be an afternoon and an evening screening on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The theater expects to start a full seven-day schedule “sometime in July.”
“We expect to show a lot of classics, lively arts presentations, and interesting recent features during our first few weeks,” a message on the theater’s website says. “As time goes on, there will be more new films released by distributors.”
A gala marking the theater’s return is being planned for the fall, according to John Toner, the County Theater’s executive director.
While the timing of the reopening aligns with the larger return to normalcy across the Delaware River Towns, with COVID-19 restrictions lifting and vaccinations progressing steadily, the last 18 months haven’t been completely seamless for the theater. Prior to the closure, the County Theater, a nonprofit, had a membership of more than 5,000. Today, that number stands at about half that, Toner told the Bucks County Herald.
These are also uncertain times for the theater industry. Movie theaters and production studios temporarily closed last year in response to the pandemic. And as millions quarantined, they were forced to stay home for their video entertainment. Coinciding with the pandemic was the host of new streaming services in what was already a crowded market in the Before Times.
Theatrical revenue dropped from $42.3 billion in 2019 to $12 billion in 2020, according to an annual report from the Motion Picture Association. Meanwhile, the number of streaming service subscribers worldwide rose 26% in 2020, to 1.1 billion, according to Forbes.
But the County Theater was never really in competition with mainstream theaters. It provided more of an art-house experience – beyond its slate of featured indie movies, the theater also hosted Saturday matinees for kids and discussions with local filmmakers, along with screenings of classic films, like Casablanca – and appears poised to do so again once it returns to a full-time schedule.
The County Theater is also uniquely rooted in Doylestown Borough. It opened in 1938. The next three decades were its golden years. But it came undone in the seventies when it ran up against the proliferation of multiplexes and TV. The theater was on life-support until late 1992, when it was leased by Closely Watched Films, a local film society. The group reopened the theater in February 1993 as a nonprofit.
The community responded in kind, rushing in to restore the building, an effort that culminated on April 1, 1997, when the nonprofit County Theater, Inc. bought the building and became the official owner of the County Theater after a 10-month capital campaign that far exceeded its goals.
In other words, the County Theater’s been here before. And while streaming services may spell the end of the multiplexes, it’s safe to say the County Theater’s truly been missed.