One day in 1958, Joe Machetta came to town, fresh out of the Navy with a little money to burn. When he stumbled across the one-screen Emerson Theater, all boarded up and looking dismal, he decided to get into the movie business. “At that time, television had really taken a toll on the theater business,” he recalled.
But his grandparents had owned a theater, and he had sold popcorn as a kid. He was betting that the death of movies was greatly exaggerated. He was right.
Joe leased the old theater until 1966; then he bought it. He renamed it the Sands after the famous hotel in Las Vegas (“one of my favorite places”) and because of his fond memories of the Rat Pack and of playing blackjack there with Dean Martin.
Since then, for over 50 years, Joe has brought first-run movies to Brush, Colorado. Family-friendly movies. Movies the townspeople want to see. (All-time Brush favorites: “Camelot” and “The Lion King”) Twice a day–for a matinee and an evening show–he opens the Sands and mans the ticket booth: $5 for adults; $2 for kids for the evening show. Popcorn is $1. “I try to keep prices low so people can afford it,” Joe says.
The Sands still uses old-school reels of film, and Jonathan—young and built like a linebacker—is his projectionist. Upgrading to digital would cost anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000. Besides, Joe loves the tactile quality of film. “You can hold it up to the light and look at the images. 16 shots a second. As long as there’s film, I’ll be here.”
“Water for Elephants” was playing when I was in town. I settled into the comfy, plush seats in this clean and classy theater. No gum marbles stuck under the seat; no sticky flypaper floor; no cinder block walls that feel like a bomb shelter. The lights darkened, and the magic begins. In such a place, who needs surround sound or 3D gimmickry?
Joe’s large and cluttered office is just outside the theater. “I can hear the cries and sounds of the people as they watch the movie,” he says. “Sometimes I think the walls absorb those sounds.”
Like the rest of the theater, Joe’s office is dark with the feeling of red velvet. He has met many celebrities over the years, and his “wall of fame” includes signed photos of stars like Clint Eastwood (“I met him on the elevator at a convention”), Chuck Norris, and an achingly young John Travolta.
The Sands is already on the Colorado Registry of Historic Places, and Joe is working toward the national registry. In order to qualify, buildings have to retain their original features. So, the Sands has two tiny one-seaters—for “Actors” and “Actresses,” and neither have sinks because, well, I guess they weren’t considered necessary in 1916. (Don’t think too hard about the ramifications of THAT.) You can use the sink behind the popcorn counter if you must.
So, how has he fared running a tiny theater in a small town? Joe hesitates. “Sometimes it’s been tough,” he admits, “but I have some very loyal customers.” Joe’s never been in it for the money, however. “I just love doing this,” he said. “I guess it’s the magic of the movies.”