By Jerelyn Craden
The marquee of the landmark Highlands Cinemas in Kinmount stands tall and proud on a hillside leading up to the unique some say “magical” five-screen cineplex and museum in the woods built by local visionary Keith Stata.
“I was born loving film” Stata said. He was six when he got his start as a theatre operator in the family woodshed. “The show ended when a skunk came in.”
C elebrating the cinema’s 40th anniversary on June 29 filmgoers enjoyed cake and the $8.50 combo (popcorn drink and a chocolate bar) for just $3. The extraordinary 4000 square foot museum which is always part of the ticket price – a maze of movie memorabilia the largest vintage movie projector collection in Canada dating back more than a century original movie posters more than 100 mannequins dressed in period clothing Horror Hall with life-size monsters from every major horror film Memory Lane displaying 10 decades of photos headlines clothing and toys covering the past 100 years – continued to enliven the memories of older moviegoers and inspire the imaginations of the theatre’s younger fans.
But it wasn’t always like this.
Back in 1979 thirty-two year old Stata with years in the construction business embraced his love of cinema and designed and built his Kinmount home which included a 58 seat theatre where the rec room would have been.
“When we first opened nobody came” he said. “People thought there was just a TV in the basement because it was in a house.”
Gradually word got out and by the mid-1980s Stata’s little theatre had outgrown its demand with people lining up along the highway. That’s when he decided to expand and add a second screen then a third fourth and by 1996 a fifth screen resulting in a total of 550 seats in theatres comparable in size to those found in multiplex cinemas in an 18500-square foot building.
“If you’re going to put in a theatre” Stata said “never mind five theatres in a town of 300 people then you’re going to have to make it something so special that people will talk about it.” He did that too.
As 450 small movie theatres across North America were closing their doors Stata purchased a huge amount of equipment projectors and vintage décor – sold what he didn’t need and with the rest turned Highlands Cinemas into an unforgettable destination experience.
Filled with art deco wall and ceiling pieces and large reupholstered seats each of the five theatres transcends time for older audiences and instills a sense of wonder in younger ones.
“When cinemas were first designed” Stata said “theatres were really the cathedrals of the motion picture decorated with gold marble velvet. The guy who didn’t have very much could go to this cathedral this grandeur and watch this flicker on the screen and hopefully identify with something he saw and leave with a good memory.”
Stata’s visionary “world of cinema” made a great impression on Toronto filmmaker Matt Finlin director/partner at Door Knocker Media.
“Keith is part of the reason I wanted to make movies” Finlin said. “I first went to his cinema in 1991 as a boy and was taken by the building and the movie going experience he had created. Going to the movies is something that is fading in a world of Netflix and Amazon. Gathering in a space with people for a few hours to experience something as a collective is going away.” Finlin is working on a documentary on Highlands Cinemas and aims to share its story with movie audiences worldwide.
Without hesitation Stata a lover of fantasy said: “My favourite film The Time Machine .” The most popular film shown over 40 years at Highlands Cinemas: Pirates of the Caribbean . “We lucked out and got a print and took in $65000 in tickets over a 10 to 12 week run.”
But in 2012 a major challenge confronted Stata and his business partner Roland Hamilton when movie projectors went digital. “Either we had to borrow $300000 to put digital projectors in each of our five theatres or close” Stata said. “Between a small grant from the government and money we were able to put together we kept the cinema alive.”
“A lot of people have been coming up to me and saying ‘we want to thank you for keeping this place open.’ It’s kind of gratifying to think that you’ve provided something that they’ve found interesting.”
What is also gratifying to Stata is taking care of his 41 rescue cats. “The humane society wouldn’t take them and neither would any other places.” he said. “Since they wound up here and would have died they have been given a second chance and a new permanent home. And given the cost of food housing vet care and considering my age it is impossible for me to add any more.” The cats go through 5000 cans of food a year. Feeding them and cleaning their litter takes Stata 42 hours a week.
And their caregiver does more than that. Walking around the cinema grounds one can see the extensive system of enclosed cat bridges and play areas as well as numerous houses that Stata has built for their comfort and enjoyment.
“The cats are more important than the theatre” he said. “We’re only travelers. We’re only here for a short period of time. And movie projectors are more than just a hunk of metal. Projectors to me reflect the memories of millions and millions of people who sat in the dark and experienced that special moment whether it was shedding a tear when Bambi’s mother was dying or Lana Turner in Imitation of Life.
Highlands Cinemas shows first-run movies in a world of nostalgia. Unique. Magical. It’s a place that takes you back in time and back again. No wonder Keith Stata’s favourite film is The Time Machine.