A conversation with Dwain Wacko, owner and operator of Jasper’s Chaba Theatre
On a road trip through the Canadian Rockies in the autumn of 2013, I came across this charming-looking cinema in the town of Jasper, Alberta. I wanted to explore it, but was in town just for the night. And since my trip wasn’t connected to the Projection Project and no previous contact had been made, I assumed I’d get nothing more than a few exterior shots. However, I took a chance and knocked on their door and boldly invited myself in for a visit…maybe a quick photo shoot indoors if they’d let me, and – if it wouldn’t be pushing my luck too much – an interview with someone on staff. Dwain Wacko, the owner, soon put me at ease: not only wasn’t I pushing my luck, but in fact given complete access for taking pictures. Dwain was extremely generous with his time and happy to talk about the Chaba – his cinematic Rocky Mountain gem. (photos & interview by Silmara Albi)
Projection Project – When did the Chaba first open?
Dwain Wacko – 1928. I started here in 1972.
PP - What are your day-to-day duties at the theatre?
DW – The office here serves as my base. When not away, I stop in at the Chaba every day. This keeps me in touch with box office performance, as well as stock and staff issues. I do some of the maintenance work and arrange for tradesmen for the projects that require specific skills.
PP - What is your favourite part of the job?
DW – Working the snack counter when we are short-staffed and busy!
PP - How about least favourite?
DW – There is nothing here that is my least favourite part, actually. There are challenges that must be dealt with, though, like training new staff, power failures, removing graffiti on the building, booking movies when there are no suitable titles for the time of year, and so on.
PP - What have been the biggest changes you’ve noticed in peoples’ movie-going habits over the years?
DW – Generally speaking, movie-going is not a habit anymore. It is an event. We have many loyal adult customers who appreciate a good story, but our largest segment is from children to young adults. We are also fortunate to have a thriving tourist industry in Jasper that supports our business. Tourists have leisure time and appreciate the opportunity to watch a movie.
PP - Besides tourists, who still comes? What’s the attraction or advantage of seeing movies at the theatre over watching movies on video or online at home?
DW – The advantages of watching movies at the Chaba are the same as theatres anywhere nowadays: we show current titles, we have 3D capabilities and going to the cinema still offers affordable out-of-home entertainment.
PP - What are the unique challenges of running a theatre in a small town?
DW – Surviving rising costs, including real estate, building costs, equipment upgrades. We, fortunately rebuilt when costs were reasonable. Careful planning is essential. For example, we started saving for the digital conversion over ten years ago.
PP - Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on the digital versus traditional 35 mm projection debate? Some argue that, like vinyl LPs, film itself is a warmer, superior sensory experience even if DCP is sharper and free of scratches and skips. Is this simply nostalgia, or is there something to it, in your opinion?
DW – From an operational perspective, digital projection is superior. Its advantages far outweigh any nostalgia for film. The training required to competently operate film projectors was rigorous. I learned by making every mistake possible at all stages from licensed projectionists in the booth, through 6000-foot reel automation to platter automation. No matter how hard I drove home the point when teaching an operator to never become complacent or overconfident, it was not until they’d made a mistake and damaged a print that they understood how important it was to double check everything. I was never able to fully have confidence in a new operator until they made that mistake. From this experience I can appreciate the necessity for the very vigourous training for licensed operators in the early days when film was hazardous and the source of potential danger in theatres.
But even so, in our smaller second-run market, we relied on used prints which often came to us already scratched. This was a regular, unsolvable problem, because picture quality is so important. This is no longer a problem. The coming technology advances such as higher frame rate or laser projection will further enhance the cinema-going experience.
PP - And yet there are other factors in that experience. For example, many single-screen theatres in the States have become multi-purpose event venues, serving beer and gourmet food to keep people coming. What do you think the future of the small-town, single-screen independent movie theatres in Canada will be?
DW – There are many small towns that have lost their theatres. Unfortunately this trend will continue due to rising costs and lack of committed operators.
PP - Are movies themselves getting worse? More sequels, more re-makes; a new superhero movie seems to get released every other week, more formula, less originality…
DW – Well, there has always been a divide between popular and “serious” movies, but that is driven by audiences that are equally divided. I cannot in general say that movies are “getting worse”.
Yes, there are plenty of sequels and remakes, more comic book-themed titles but these movies are very successful for us. We wouldn’t survive without them. I think script preparation has improved, which is important for popular and serious cinema. The most successful titles are those that are well-written, regardless of genre.
Having said that, distributors all tell us their next title is going to be the next big hit. They are sales people and early in my career I learned very quickly – and after several disappointing buys – to be cautious. With the changes we have seen over the last few years, we are buying titles in a sellers’ market and many titles are disappointing.
PP - Do you have a favorite movie – if so, which and why?
DW – This is difficult. I am asked this many times and I usually respond with L.A. Confidential. The script for this title is so intriguing and requires close attention by the viewer and it has an exceptional cast.
PP - What has been the most successful movie the Chaba has ever screened?
DW – The Lion King.
PP - What was the most surprising sleeper hit?
DW – Two titles come to mind: we showed The Ballad of Cable Hogue several times in the early 70s. it always did very well for us. Westerns were very popular here.
The week after Peter Sellers passed away we were fortunate to have his last film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. We operated a single screen at that time with 300 chairs. It was late summer and each of our two evening screenings was sold out for several days in a row.
PP - You’ve been successful in a challenging industry for a long time, but do you ever think passing the torch…?
DW – Well, first, we are not so successful that staying in business is assured, yet we are successful enough that it provides a decent return. As long as that continues and I am challenged, capable and engaged, the Chaba will continue to operate. I can only be hopeful that it will be survive beyond me.
by Silmara Albi & Curtis Emde