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Harkins Theatres Celebrates Its History, Unique Position In Valley History

If you were going to the movies 80 years ago, you might have been going to see "King Kong," or maybe you wanted to watch Groucho Marx lead a fictional, yet believably bumbling government in "Duck Soup."

In any case, if the theater you went to 80 years ago was in Tempe, you might have been one of Red Harkins’s first customers. The local chain of movie houses is celebrating its anniversary with a look back and, free stuff. And who does not like free stuff? 

NICK BLUMBERG: We will get to the free stuff later. For now, back to Groucho. Dan Harkins is the current CEO of the theater company his dad started.

DAN HARKINS: My dad and I had a cocktail with Groucho Marx once. I had a Shirley Temple, and my dad and Groucho probably drank martinis. I remember that so well because Groucho’s mustache was painted on with what looked like shoe polish!

BLUMBERG: The mustache may have been phony, but Red Harkins, Dan’s dad, was anything but. Seems like Red always had a way of moving one step up.

HARKINS: He started his first business in the second grade. He sold candy at recess. And with that money, he then bought a bicycle and started a paper route. And then with that money he bought a printing press. And with that money he bought the Model A car that he sold and got the motorcycle...

BLUMBERG: ...that he drove out to Arizona. Harkins tried to go to school, but got restless. He saved up $50, which was enough to pay the landlord to take over a movie theater that had closed down.

HARKINS: And that was the birth of Harkins Theatres, at the State Theatre in downtown Tempe, September 22, 1933.

BLUMBERG: Harkins played second-run movies, all the big names of the day.

HARKINS: Clark Gable and Betty Grable, and back then Hitchcock was just getting started. Through the Depression he was able to save enough money to go around the corner and buy a little piece of land and build the College Theatre, which still stands today as the Valley Art.

BLUMBERG: Red also started Channel 12, ran an FM and an AM radio station, and kept expanding his chain of theatres. He opened the luxury Cine Capri in 1966 with the movie "The Agony and The Ecstasy," starring an overacting Rex Harrison as Sistine Chapel-obsessed Pope Julius II.

POPE JULIUS: Michelangelo will paint it! He will paint it or he will hang!

BLUMBERG: Michelangelo was played by an overacting Charlton Heston, who actually came to the theatre’s premiere.

MICHELANGELO: I will paint man as God made him! In the glory of his nakedness!

BLUMBERG. Red Harkins was 59 when he died in 1974, and Dan Harkins dropped out of college to run the business. When he took over, Dan learned the company was going through a really rough patch. It was basically broke. Through the 70's and 80's, business got worse and worse. Dan did just about whatever he could to survive.

HARKINS: And I sold down to having just two theaters and five screens at one time, so it’s quite a leap because now we’re at 440 screens, 31 locations in five states. And did I brag that we’re the largest privately owned theatre chain in the country?

BLUMBERG: Um, he did brag, but the company is pretty unique.

DAVID LIEBERMAN: I think it would be very tough for a mom and pop operation to break into the market now.

BLUMBERG: David Leiberman covers media and finance for the entertainment industry website Deadline. He says theatre chains are consolidating more and more, to survive an increasingly tough market.

LIEBERMAN: Studios are phasing out distribution of film prints. Instead, they’re sending out digital copies on a hard drive, or sometimes via satellite. It’s a lot less expensive for them. But for the theatre owner, it means they’ve got to spend about $100,000 to upgrade to a digital project.

BLUMBERG: That’s exactly what’s happening in Tucson and Wickenburg, where small independent theatres are trying to survive. But Dan Harkins says despite the challenge, he’s not selling. His chain is also unique because of its commitment to independent and art film. Jason Carney is executive director of the Phoenix Film Foundation, which runs the Phoenix Film Festival. Since 2004, it has held the festival at the Harkins at Scottsdale and the 101.

JASON CARNEY: It really creates a community of film lovers and filmmakers.

BLUMBERG: Carney sees Harkins as an important part of Valley culture, because it is not just the latest blockbusters, it also screens independent and foreign and arthouse movies.

CARNEY: You want to watch the Oscar contenders, you hear all this buzz about these films coming out in New York and L.A. when’s it going to be at Camelview? That’s your question, that’s what your wondering. Without a Camelview type [it] would be really tough.

BLUMBERG: Unfortunately for Carney, Camelview may be on the chopping block. Dan Harkins leases the land from Camelview’s neighbors, Scottsdale Fashion Square. The mall wants to expand, and that might mean tearing down the last theater Red Harkins helped build. But Dan Harkins says the theater’s lease won’t run out for another couple years, and that even if the Camelview itself goes away, indie movies in Phoenix won’t be dead.

HARKINS: My vision is that someday, we could combine Fashion Square with Camelview and make a nice 12- or 14-plex, giving us some much more latitude to book the theater correctly, and book the art and foreign films, too. I predict that a theater like Camelview will always exist in this market. That’s something I’m very focused on.

BLUMBERG: Harkins thinks Camelview might stay put -- and that he’d actually like to expand it to at least ten screens. And, as promised at the beginning of the story -- the free stuff. To celebrate the 80th Anniversary, Harkins Theatres are giving away drink upgrades and showing a series of free movies starting Friday at locations around the state and the Southwest.

Updated 9/23/2013 11:15 a.m.