Screen Saver

Bijou baron Dan Harkins renovates Tempe's historic Valley Art Theatre

"You'll be the first journalist in the Valley that I'll walk right up to the spot where I was conceived," Dan Harkins says over the phone. He's inviting New Times to tour the Valley Art Theatre, which is in the final stages of renovation before its grand reopening later this month, 60 years to the week after it opened as the College in 1940. Thankfully, there will be no reenactment, and plans are made to meet Harkins and Randall Blaum, his marketing representative, in Tempe.

From out front of 509 South Mill Avenue, the boarded-up Valley Art doesn't look much different than it ever did, and this is by design. It's by requirement, actually, according to Harkins; to retain the status of a historic building, the exterior must look the same. Blaum points, for instance, to a doorframe on the north side of the box office that must remain as part of the building face, though the door will no longer lead anywhere.

Inside, however, it's a different story. The theater, now shrouded in dust and inhabited only by guys in hard hats, is virtually unrecognizable. Gone are the decrepit seats in the cavernous auditorium. They've been replaced by the newfangled "stadium seating" of high-backed rocker loveseats with retractable cup-holder armrests. There are fewer of them, too -- in 1940, the College seated 480; the Valley Art 2000 accommodates a mere 290 asses, but does so in grand style. The screen, which has not yet been installed, is to be 36 1/2 feet from side to side, enormous for the size of the house. "If you were to lay our competitors' ticket stubs back to back, it would take a jillion of them to fill the screen," Harkins gushes, in full ballyhoo mode.

Dan Harkins in the renovated Valley Art Theatre in downtown Tempe.
Leah Fasten
Dan Harkins in the renovated Valley Art Theatre in downtown Tempe.
The Valley Art Theatre returns to life on Mill Avenue.
Leah Fasten
The Valley Art Theatre returns to life on Mill Avenue.

The most remarkable -- and perhaps most promising -- innovation in the auditorium proper is a wooden live-performance stage in front of the screen. Harkins points to large openings in the auditorium's back wall that will serve as the light booth and spotlight bay.

"I decided to pull out all the stops and make the Valley Art a moviegoer's dream come true," Harkins boasts. "No amenity spared. Stadium seating, THX digital sound, all-digital formats, restrooms in floor-to-ceiling marble. The lobby will be adorned with marble on the floor and on the walls. It's going to have a much larger lobby, with a large vertical mural, and a gourmet snack bar."

He proudly shows off the unfinished lobby and restrooms. Even the box office, though it will remain out front, will be freshly equipped with air conditioning and computerized ticketing.

Then it's upstairs to the radically renovated projection loft/office suite, and yes, Harkins points out, in rough estimate, where his parents' bedroom was back then.

He isn't kidding, you see, when he says he probably was conceived there. The theater was originally the pet project of his father, Dwight "Red" Harkins, who lived with his wife in a small apartment next to the projection booth. As a child, Dan played in the aisles and around the box office, where his mother worked.

The Valley Art closed about a year and a half ago, after more than a decade under the management of Krista Griffin, during which time a lack of financial resources eventually left it in serious disrepair and without a strong enough repertory to hold an audience. Dan Harkins had purchased the Valley Art in 1991 from Griffin minutes after she, with his backing, exercised a buyout clause on the property, which was being eyed for demolition. Harkins has long felt a strong sense of attachment to the venue. Though Red Harkins had sold his interest in the theater by the mid-'60s, and it had changed hands several more times before Griffin came to manage it in the '80s, Dan Harkins had always hoped to put his name on it once again.

"This is the result of sentimentality," he admits. "If it wasn't for how much I loved my father, this wouldn't have happened, 'cause the budget doesn't make sense with a modern profit/loss scenario. We're spending more per square foot to bring the Valley Art back to life than we do to build a megaplex."

In the era in which single-screen theaters, especially in urban areas, are as rare as the California condor, this does seem a quixotic project for a successful businessman to undertake, especially since the renovation required was so extreme. And unlike most multiplexes these days, Valley Art won't have a spacious parking lot surrounding it, so patrons in vehicles will have to hunt for a spot in downtown Tempe.

"I originally thought this might cost us $100,000 to $200,000, but it came out to be more than a million. But I'm looking at the million dollars as a gift to my dad. Besides, if we're making money in this business, hallelujah; now it's time to give back to the community. 'Cause it's gonna be a jewel on Mill."

 
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