Saturday, November 3, 2012

Van Summerill, Oct. 2, 1987

Van Summerill, 1987
By DONALD PORTER
Standard-Examiner staff


Moviegoers can be divided into two groups: those who enjoy movies, and those who love movies. Then there's Van Summerill, whose regard for movies transcends even love. For him, it's a passion, an obsession.

Walk into the living room of Summerill's modest home, and the pictures on the walls give an early hint of this devotion. Hanging behind a love seat are movie posters and placards trumpeting various movie theaters like Radio City Music Hall. And if that isn't enough to tip you off, he's wearing a tan T-shirt with a blue Paramount Pictures logo stenciled on the front.

Still, even that isn't adequate preparation for what's downstairs. At the bottom of the stairs and to the right there's a concession stand, a restroom and more movie posters on the walls. And straight ahead, through a draped doorway, is a movie theater.



In the age of VCRs, giant-screen TV and video rental shops on every corner, it's rare for someone to go to the effort and expense of building a 12- seat theater and stocking it with prints of classic films. And although it's odd, there's comfort in knowing there are still people around who don't let technology steamroller their first loves.

There's that word again -- "love." But that's exactly how Summerill said he feels about movies. Otherwise, why go to all that trouble?

At 19, Summerill got his first job in the movie business, as assistant manager of the Egyptian Theater.

"And at that time," said the 45-year-old Ogden native, "the Egyptian was still a very nice theater. It was still a showplace." Summerill said he's been pushing for restoration of the landmark movie palace for the past 15 years, serving as president and vice president of the Friends of the Egyptian, which is still working to save the theater from demolition.

Summerill used to go to the Egyptian when he was a kid, in the late '40s and '50s, to watch Saturday matinees. After high school, the theater manager offered him the position of assistant and Summerill jumped at the chance. "He said I spent most of my spare time there, anyway," Summerill joked.

As the years went by, Summerill moved around to various Ogden theaters -- including the North Star, the Movie and the Orpheum -- working as a projectionist, primarily.

"It was just too hard to make a living at it," he said. So he hooked a job at Weber State College, where he is currently the assistant director of printing services. Still, he's always worked part-time as a projectionist, and has belonged to the projectionists' union since 1975.

For the past several years he's been loading film and pushing the buttons at the Wilshire Theater in South Ogden. Being a projectionist, he explained, means most of his weekends are spent working at the theater instead of out having fun. But, then, being a projectionist is fun for Summerill.

"I joke with people that I plan my whole life around my part-time job," he said with a smile. "It gives me a big thrill to see 600 or 700 people in the theater and me pushing the buttons."

The thrill in the big theaters wasn't enough, though, so Summerill forked out "about $900" and his father helped him build a 10x16-foot theater -- it's not just a screening room -- in his basement. In addition to a projection booth off the theater and a screen with adjustable matting so he can show films in the full splendor of Cinemascope (a wide-screen projection process that most theaters can't accommodate), Summerill has shelves on one theater wall holding all sorts of movie memorabilia. There are autographed photos of Charlton Heston, Phyllis Diller and Paul Harvey, nicknacks from the Egyptian Theater and an old super-8 projector on the bottom shelf.

"That little projector down there is what started all this silliness when I was a kid," Summerill said. He ran the projector in his LDS ward when he was a youngster. "There's just something about the movie business -- once you get in, you never get out."

The idea to construct his own theater, which he has dubbed the Bijou, arose after a WSC professor told him there were two fourseat rows of "theater" seats -- cushioned, spring-loaded seats with armrests between them -- for sale at Deseret Industries. Summerill went to take a look at them, and ended up buying the eight seats for $12.

"They told me the seats came out of the Salt Lake Temple," he said, patting the aqua-colored seats. "Probably took them out during a renovation or something."

Summerill and a group of friends get together each Sunday night to watch films, he said. His collection -- which includes about 60 feature films, costing anywhere between $60 and $ 700, and an assortment of vintage newsreels, cartoons, preview trailers and advertisements – consists mainly of 16mm films, although some are in super-8.

One of his newest and most prized acquisitions is a print of the 1922 silent film "Trapped by the Mormons," which Summerill characterized as an example of the vitriolic anti-Mormon sentiments that existed at the time. The film depicts Mormon men as scheming villains who capture women and force them into plural marriage.

"When I first got 'Trapped by the Mormons' I had to have (screenings on) three nights," Summerill explained, "because so many people wanted to see it. And I also got a taste of what it's like to own a real theater, since I had to sweep up the popcorn on the floor and clean the restroom."

Although "Trapped by the Mormons" wasn't intended as comedy, Summerill says that's what it is. And, as such, it fits right in with most of the movies in his collection. He's got comedies by Abbott and Costello, The Marx Brothers, Ma and Pa Kettle, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and his favorite, W.C. Fields. Some of the more contemporary comedies include "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," "Topper" and "Pillow Talk."

And he's got dramas and thrillers, too, like "It's a Wonderful Life," "North by Northwest" and "Night of the Living Dead."

"The video boom has had a negative effect on moviegoing," Summerill said. "They're still making money at theaters, but (the availability of videocassettes) makes movies very commonplace. They're not special anymore, there's no showmariship."

Except in Summerill's basement, that is, where the seats are comfortable, cartoons and newsreels play before the featured attraction and the whole image can be seen -- albeit in a smaller version -- on the Bijou Theater's screen. (Most theaters, the projectionist said, lop off the top, bottom and sides of the image because their screens aren't the proper size.)

It's a theater that's also part museum, displaying the actual 16mm projector Howard Hughes used to haul around the world with him before he died. The beat-up; oft-repaired projector, which was given to Summerill last year by a former Hughes aide, sits in front of the doorway to the theater, another interesting item for friends and visitors to see.

As for the near future, Summerill said he'll keep screening films for friends and neighbors, and adding to his collection.


"My goal is to have every Laurel and Hardy film in 16mm," he says wistfully, acknowledging that some are probably lost forever. But while most people are plugging tapes into VCRs, Van Summerill will be threading film onto sprockets and dimming the lights in his own theater, making people smile. And he'll be happy, you can bet on that.

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