In July of 1928, at 10 S. Lewis Ave. -- then the location of Tulsa's first shopping mall, Whittier Square -- the Circle Cinema opened its doors. A classic theater in every sense, floored in terrazzo and sporting a pipe organ for silent films, the Circle has since stood guard as Tulsa's only existing pre-1960's theater.
It has re-opened many times over the ensuing near-century, once as a porn theater, and had many owners. But its latest masthead, Clark Weins, has been taking this amazing nucleotide of Tulsa's cinematic DNA into the 21st Century.
In October of 2004, the Circle Cinema was reborn as Tulsa's only art house theater, having acquired non-profit status. The building has changed much over time, as has the neighborhood. Chuck Foxen, the Circle's latest theater manager recalls a bloody memory.
"[In the space next door] there was an Anthony's and also a blood bank. People might know it from when The Outsiders filmed here."
The scene in question actually appears in the Director's Cut of The Outsiders, but Foxen loves geeking on S.E. Hinton, Coppola and Tulsentricity (that's a word now) just that much. It's sort of a prevailing attitude amongst the entire staff. They love this place.
The Phases of the Circle have been laboriously coming to fruition ever since the re-opening. At that time the original architecture of the Circle's single theater was still intact, a cavernous space bulwarked by the newly renovated Circle One and the theater's offices.
With the renovation of the theater begun, the original design, which had enough steel to withstand the construction of two additional floors atop its existing two floors (the second being apartment space), demanded that management call in a now defunct local contractor to re-design the theater, tearing out the old apartments. Apparently, there was a snag.
"They didn't support the building," Foxen said. "As they were working they were knocking out supports that were holding the building up and they dug down into the footers. So the whole building was compromised."
Beyond the frustration of fruitlessly suing an out of business contractor, the ruination of a gorgeous 1920's edifice would have been the obvious tragedy.
"The [new] theater was supposed to open up shortly after that, when the Circle One opened," Foxen recalled. "But they ended up going into a two-year process of litigation. It's a historic building. It's priceless. How do you rebuild that?"
Eventually, the litigiousness paid off and renovation began to move into Phase Two, but the re-supporting of the building and the pouring of the new foundation took its toll on the non-profit theater's funds.
Ticket sales from the Circle's sole operating theater are a small part of its income. Fortunately, the ongoing renovation, which splits the original theater's space into a duplex, has some well-known benefactors including George Kaiser.
The Circle also recently received a $75,000 grant from The Westby Foundation, which originally donated the theater's current screen and seats. Meanwhile, the Circle's Board is always diligently seeking funding. The theater's non-profit status and the philanthropy that engenders has been a boon -- but the construction set back was just that.
"When people think about a construction process they think that you have all of the money to finish it to the end," Foxen said. "This hasn't been like that at all. Just because of the circumstances. No one ever expected the integrity of the building would be compromised."
Matching grants have enabled the Circle to move fully into Phase Two, and the completion of the first 120-seat theater. That will still require the wiring of both theaters for network readiness and the pouring of the seating frames. The front lobby will be refurbished right down to the classic emblem in the terrazzo floor and the original box office.
Wait: Network readiness? Yarp. This is where the 21st Century comes in.
Both new theaters, with 30 and 40 foot screens respectively, will boast the state-of-the-art 35mm film and digital projection. The second, 268-seat theatre will even sport 3-D projection (along with the original pipe organ). The new seats are integrated in both theaters to enable anyone to exhibit their media though the Circle's digital network and its projectors. Whether it's an audience seeing a great flick or a group of filmmakers exhibiting (or even editing) their work from their laptops, the Circle is future-proofing itself.
"The patrons come here for a reason," Foxen said.
It boils down to a value-added philosophy. The very early 2009 premier of Tim Blake Nelson's directorial debut, Leaves of Grass saw the hometown guy at the podium to introduce it. Recently, they brought in Bob Ingersoll, one of the first researchers to befriend Nim Chimpsky (and get him baked) for the Circle's opening of the touching documentary, Project Nim. Upcoming events include the Tulsa premiere of Kevin Smith's atypical Westbro-inspired horror film, Red State, with Smith doing a Twitter Q&A. Their venerated Midnight Movie slate keeps things interesting with the upcoming HeckleVision presentation of Napoleon Dynamite.
Yet, still, after nearly seven years, the time frame for completion of Phase Two is nebulous. And that leaves Phase Three in the wind. Roll credits on a shitty economy.
"I've heard some optimistic dates of like next year," Foxen ruefully said. "But it all depends on what the fundraising is -- and the support of the community."
For more information on how to support the Circle Cinema visit circlecinema.com
The latest news from Admiral Twin Drive-In owner Blake Smith regarding the expected 2011 rebuild of the Tulsa icon is that everything is still a go but some delays have moved reopening to the spring of 2012.
"We had a few issues that were unforeseen," Smith said. "It's been a lot of natural project delays due to the permitting process and we're not able to navigate through it quite as quickly as we thought."
The drive-in, a historic spot for Tulsa due to its appearance in The Outsiders -- the 1983 cult-classic -- fell victim to a fiery blaze in September 2010 and was expected to reopen as early as Independence Day 2011.
The Admiral Twin is holding an event on site Oct. 22 to help kick-off Turn Tulsa Pink, a local effort to raise awareness for breast cancer.
"The sentiment is that Tulsans want it (Admiral Twin Drive-In) back, but things took longer than expected; and we're still committed to getting it done and looking forward to 2012," said Smith.
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