CHECOTAH — The single stoplight in Carrie Underwood's song is just steps away from where the Coleman family found its little movie theater. The humble theater is rich with stories of bug-eyed, fanged creatures let loose, Underwood sightings and segregation undone. The shoebox building offered the family a ticket to the simple life.
At first, it seemed that renovating and running the theater was just meant to be. But struggling beneath pressures from the economy, health issues and insurance, the Coleman family is reluctantly putting the old theater up for sale for $285,000. Richard Coleman first spotted the plain green theater on a Web site, cinematreasures.org, that showed closed theaters. In a photo on flickr, he could make out a “For Sale” sign that eventually led him to the Realtor, lots of market research and, at last, a trip to check out the property. “I'd always had a dream to be a business owner, be my own boss,” Coleman said. When he got to Checotah, he was intrigued by the crumbling facade, sheet metal patch, missing marquee and out-dated sound and projection system. It was perfect — price-wise. They practically snatched the theater from beneath the city's bulldozer. Coleman said as he researched the theater, the city was going through condemnation work. Coleman quit his job in Texas with the U.S. Department of Defense, and the family — Richard and Elena, with Nova, now 7, and Samuel, now 6 — moved to Checotah in 2007. They began the adventure of their lives. “I moved because I want to see that sparkle in his eye when he is happy and everything is great,” Elena Coleman said of her husband. They poured their cash into the business. “We put so much money into renovating and opening it, we basically spent everything we had, plus everything we could borrow,” Richard Coleman said.
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The Gentry Theater began as the W. Morgan Hardware, Furniture store in the late 1890s or early 1900s, according to the wood facade that new owner Richard Coleman uncovered. Sometime around 1940, the building was converted to a theater and became a stage for vaudeville acts and local talent shows. “I'm sure in the ‘40s it was a rocking joint. There was nothing else to do,” Coleman said. “It could be successful again.” The building reopened briefly as a clothing and alterations store but was mostly vacant until 2007, the year the Coleman family bought it. Townspeople stopped by during renovations to reminisce about the theater. Rick Smith said he was 11 when he began working in the 1960s as Gentry's theater projectionist for $2.50 per night; he sometimes worked in concessions and sold tickets. His brother worked there, too, and they sold tickets in the early 1960s for 35 cents for adults and 25 cents for 12 and under, as he remembers. Ticket prices have risen over the years and are now $7.50 for adults and $6 for children and seniors. One visitor told the Colemans about how, when the town was segregated, Checotah's black residents would wait in the alley to sit in the balcony because they were forbidden from walking in the white moviegoers' entrance. So they figured out how to make movie-going more equal. When they wanted popcorn, they paid the alley ticket taker to get some bags from the concession stand, Coleman said. While the ticket taker was gone, they'd run upstairs and settle into their balcony seats. Then there was the marsupial incident. A boy named Jerry caught a possum, smuggled the critter into the theater ... and quickly emptied the place, Coleman said. More recent stories surround the theater, renamed Gentry Cinema after the renovations. Coleman said on a weekday shortly after the theater opened, a woman who looked like singer Carrie Underwood visited the theater and had a look around as he talked to someone he thought was Underwood's mother. A couple of months ago, Smith, owner of Western Auto next door to the theater, said he noticed a couple of cameramen walking backward in front of his store, the theater and down the street. They were taping Carrie Underwood with ABC network anchor Robin Roberts, focusing on Underwood donating $117,000 worth of band instruments to her hometown school. “I was kind of shocked,” Smith said. Underwood is part of a Roberts primetime special on country music stars airing at 9 p.m. Nov. 10 on ABC.