100 YEARS - Robey Theater Owners Work To Restore Its Glory


As part of its centennial celebration, the Robey showed "Gone
With The Wind" Sunday for the original admission price - a nickel.

By Bill Lynch

SPENCER — Aaron Richardson and John Rogers look unlikely, cast in the roles as the keepers, protectors and saviors of the historic Robey Theater, the oldest continuously operating movie house in America.

Such a task would seem to fall to middle-aged film history professors in tweed jackets, instead of a couple of guys from the Internet generation.

Yet, the two of them (with some help) watch over the 100-year-old Robey Theater in Spencer. Richardson is a gentle, Star Wars-obsessed 28-year-old who owns the theater and the building. Rogers is the 29-year-old bearded, tattooed metal-head who runs the video store in back of the building.

"My dad was really into movies," Richardson said. "I can't even remember the first one I saw. My parents started bringing me here when I was an infant."

"I think the first movie I saw here was "E.T.," maybe," Rogers said uncertainly. "I can tell you that since I've been able to drive, I've only seen two movies in Charleston. The rest were here."

Richardson began work at the Robey after graduating with a business degree from West Virginia University at Parkersburg.

"I started in 2002," he said. "I became a projectionist in 2003. Eventually, I was doing everything except the books."

Robey Theater owner Aaron Richardson sits in
seats that have been used since the Great Depression.
The movie house in Spencer turns 100 this year.

According to Richardson, then-owner Mike Birch had run both the movie house and the video store for two decades. He wanted to pass it on to someone else.

"Birch wanted someone he could trust," Richardson said.

In 2004, Birch agreed to lease, then to sell the building to Richardson. Rogers got involved a short time later. The two had been friends since high school.

"I had just finished nursing school when he asked me to come work for him," Rogers said. "He was putting in 40 or 45 hours in the video store every week, then putting who knows how many hours up front. It was just too much. So, I took [the store] over."

Both men agree the Robey needs work. One hundred years has taken its toll on the building. The boarded floor creaks. The threadbare carpet is stained and during the '90s, the roof leaked. Rainwater streaked the walls and damaged some of the second floor.

The equipment is a hodgepodge of the 20th century. The projector is 50 years old. Most of the wooden seats are 70 to 85 years old. Some of the heating is from a vintage 1910 gas heater.

"It's the only place in the state you can watch a movie in front of an open flame," Richardson joked. "It works, but I don't turn it on."

The Robey Theater keeps current by showing
the latest blockbusters and must-see movies.

In Backstage Video, which was originally a backstage and dressing rooms generations ago, hidden closets are stuffed full of clutter. Some of it is junk. Some of it is history. Beneath boxes and assorted debris, a dust-covered antique piano that played accompaniment to the silent films of the 1920s and 1930s sits silent. In another space, they still have the original soda fountain from the movie house.

In the attic, Richardson and Rogers have found stacks of old film canisters, framed promotional photographs from the 1950s featuring long-forgotten singing cowboys and comedians Martin and Lewis are piled on shelves. Near the old sound system, 8-track tapes used in the '70s and '80s for filler music are set to the side.

In the dark, dank basement, there's a 19th century printing press. Used to print posters and handbills for upcoming shows decades back, it's stayed downstairs because it's too cumbersome to move it up toward the light.

"We don't know what to do with some of this stuff," Rogers said. "But a lot of it is awfully cool."

They have made some progress. Just over a month ago, Richardson replaced the neon sign in front of the building. There is an ongoing mission to replace the 80-year-old wooden and iron seats with new chairs made from heavy plastic.

"Those old seats aren't the most comfortable," Richardson said. "And they were pretty close together. We took some of them out and spaced the others so that people have legroom. We're trying to replace seats as we can."

They've also put down plaster and repainted, but it took months just to catalog the repairs needed. Richardson has done a lot of the work himself, with some help from Rogers. There have been many late hours spent working.

Richardson credits the Roane Economic Development Council and the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Council with helping raise funds for projects associated with the building.

"I really appreciate what they've done," he said. "I think that people around here get that the Robey is an important historic icon of the town. It's been an important part of people's lives."

Chad Coon agreed. He worked at the Robey through his high school years in the late '80s. Working at the theater had a profound effect on his life — he met his wife here.

Standing in the lobby, he called his wife to ask what movie they saw on their date.

"Father of The Bride," he said, looking over from his cell phone.

"We hear that a lot," Richardson said. "People have met their husbands and wives here. This is where they came for their first dates. We've even had three or four weddings here."

Richardson and Rogers want to keep the theater prominent in the area. To do that, they have to do more than get the building in shape and keep the Hollywood blockbuster sequels showing on the neon-lit marquee.

So far, they've sponsored a film festival and an open mic night. Today, as part of the theater's 100-year celebration, the Robey is continuing its weekend offer of a special showing of the classic "Gone With The Wind." Admission is the 1939 price — a nickel.

"If it can be done, I want to give it a try. I'd like to bring a vaudeville troupe in. I think that would be amazing," Richardson said.

To contact staff writer Bill Lynch, call 348-5195.