PRINCETON — For many movie-goers, the Apollo Theater located on Princeton’s main drag is a place to escape down Memory Lane.
The landmark stands as a nostalgic reminder of times when life seemed more simple, and going to see a movie on a Friday or Saturday night was a treat to look forward to after a long, hard week.
Like a tangled roll of movie film from the past, the Apollo Theater is also tangled in the many memories of days gone by. Was it at the Apollo Theater where a first date took place — maybe your first kiss in the back row of the theater? Was it your first job, where you helped usher people to their seats or popped popcorn for hungry customers? Was it the place you saw your first movie?
Not much has changed appearance-wise since those days, and that’s what makes the Apollo Theater the gem it is today.
The building itself holds a plethora of history. It dates back to 1883, when it was first used as an exhibition hall before being transformed into an opera hall and Vaudeville stage. It marks the practice place for the famous organist Virgil Fox and the hangout spot for Academy Award nominee Richard Widmark.
In 2009, the Apollo Theater fell into the laps of Lara and Joachim (Jay) Schneider, who have since showed commitment to preserving the history of the business, while at the same time incorporating a state-of-the-art movie experience for their customers.
Jay Schneider is quick to admit he never dreamed of ever owning a movie theater, but with a hospitality business background, he knew he would once own some sort of business.
While between jobs, he spent time looking at businesses for sale — usually hotels, restaurants and bars. When he came across the Apollo, it was the first time he’d even considered the entertainment business.
But after six months of scoping out the work involved, the Schneiders made their move and decided to carry on the tradition of the small town theater.
“I don’t know why I never thought about (the theater business) because I love movies and candy,” Jay laughed. “I knew I would love it, although I had a little bit of convincing to do with my wife.”
Jay claims to have been a huge movie fan even before the Apollo slipped into his radar. He can recall taking the bus with friends to the movie theater in a nearby town back in Germany, his native land.
The decision to take on the business has never held any regrets for the Schneiders.
“I always had, what my wife called, the two-year itch. Whatever job I did after two years, I got bored and just had to do something else,” Jay explained. “This is our sixth year here, and I still do new stuff on a daily basis, which is great. I like having to fix a toilet on one day and then come up with a new promotion idea for the next day. This job covers a wide spectrum of skills, and I love that.”
But taking on the old the theater, Jay admits, does have its challenges. The most obvious, of course, is keeping up with a building that dates back well over a century ago.
Under the Schneiders’ ownership, it’s undergone several major improvements including a new roof, the reconstruction of a fallen wall, installation of new seating and the replacement of flooring in the theater rooms. The list of needed projects to get done is a long one, and expenses are not minimal when it comes to maintaining an antique structure.
“I sometimes feel bad because I still have the old sound curtains in there, and it’s on my list of things to do. But if I have a choice between fixing the foundation and fixing the sound curtains, the foundation will come first,” Jay said.
In September 2012, the Schneiders made the biggest investment to the Princeton landmark yet when they were forced to replace the 35 millimeter film projectors with digital technology.
“There was a big move in the movie industry when all the large film distributors said you have to go digital because we’re going to stop the 35 millimeter movies,” he said. “Lucky enough, in the four years we had the business, we built enough goodwill with the bank, and we were able to borrow the money needed to go digital.”
The transformation came with a price tag of around $150,000 — which is almost as much as the Schneiders paid for the business itself.
“The alternative would have been closing down and not having a movie theater,” Jay said, which just wasn’t an option in his mind.
Along with digital film, came the 7.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound System.
“I hope people notice how much better the picture is. It’s focused; it’s bright; and the sound is awesome. I love it,” he said.
More improvements are on their way in the future, costumers will see new seating, new additional flooring and eventually new sound curtains. A far off long, long term goal might possibly be a third screening room.
“But that’s a super long time off,” Jay laughed.
Show times at the Apollo vary on the movie; usually a matinee takes place around 4 p.m. A second showing is around 7 p.m., and in the summer, the theater offers 9 p.m. showings. The box office opens daily 15 minutes before the first advertised movie show, except on Tuesdays when the theater opens 30 minutes prior to the first movie.
Movies playing or coming to the theater can be seen at www.apolloprinceton.com, call 815-875-1707 or checkout Facebook — Apollo Theater Princeton.
Popular promotions include BYOB “Bring Your Own Bucket” Tuesdays when the theater will fill it for 75 cents. Also, BNFOBM “Buy Nachos For One Buck Monday” just started.
Children 3 and under are free; children 12 and under are $4; adults are $6; seniors 65 and older are $4. Matinee shows (before 6 p.m.) are $4.