HOT SPRINGS - The smell of hot, buttered popcorn will make its much anticipated return to North River Street in downtown Hot Springs this Friday, Aug. 2, as the Hot Springs Theater reopens with the film “Iron Man 3,” after being closed since May.
The owners of GEJU Theatres – Gerald Bullard along with his children Craig Bullard and Melinda Powell – announced last week that Gerald would personally oversee the operations in Hot Springs as they work towards updating the sound system and replacing the screen in the coming weeks, with plans of converting the current 35mm film projector to a digital projector in about 6-8 weeks.
Just over two months ago, the theater temporarily ceased operations as the company considered the high-cost to update their equipment to digital, due to the increasing difficulty to acquire new movie releases on film.
Powell added in an emailed response to the newspaper that they were having a lot of trouble finding 35 mm film this past winter and spring.
“Many of the film distributors were indicating that film was being phased out and that digital projection would be the only option,” she said. “However, film is still being produced and in decent quantity. We decided to go ahead and reopen with our current technology in order to provide movies to the community.”
While they continue to work out the details for the digital upgrade, Powell said that the family did not raise any extra funds to get the theatre open. “We have not asked for any community involvement to get the upgrades accomplished. One organization has contacted us to see if we need assistance but we have not had any dialogue as of this time,” Powell stated.
Gerald Bullard, who lives in Newcastle, said he would serve as owner/manager of the local theater until a permanent manager can be hired. Previous manager Roy Reitenbaugh, who recently opened Roy’s Black Hills Twin Drive-In theater in Hermosa, will no longer operate the Hot Springs Theater.
The digital conversion in Hot Springs will be the final step in the near complete conversion of all the family-owned GEJU Theaters in the area. Bullard said the process began five years ago when his hometown, single-screen Dogie Theater in Newcastle first made the switch-over.
The Chadron Theater soon followed suit when it converted its four-plex film screens to a three-plex digital offering. Alliance, which is a five-plex theater, currently offers three digital screens and two film screens. Bullard however stated that the company plans to eliminate one of the two film screens and thus reduce Alliance to a four-plex theater.
Hot Springs is the only one of the four locations of GEJU Theatres which operates only on weekends, as Newcastle, Chadron and Alliance all show films seven-days-a-week. The plan is for that to continue as well, with films starting at 7 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Hot Springs, with no Sunday matinee.
The film industry's forced conversion to digital is just one of many changes the Bullard family has seen over the years.
Growing up in Oklahoma, Bullard said his parents were in the theater business. Around that time, theaters were extremely popular, he said, as it was how much of the public saw the news.
“There would be three shows a week, which usually started with a cartoon, then a news reel followed by a sports or travel reel and then the coming attractions,” he said. “And then TV hit. Theaters that were selling 2,000 tickets a week, dropped down to around 900. Forty percent of the small town theaters closed their doors, around 1951 to 52.”
Later in his life, Bullard moved to Wyoming and got involved in oil wells before once again getting the opportunity in 1986 to get back in the theater business when he purchased the four theaters he currently owns. He said he bought them from Common Wealth Theaters, which at the time was the second largest chain in the country.
The name of this new theater company then became GEJU, which goes back to a name also used in his oil business, and combines his first name Gerald with that of his late wife Judy, who passed away in 2008.
With two of Gerald and Judy’s children actively involved in the theater business, and also some of their grandchildren assisting at times, the Bullard’s are a four-generation theater family.
“We would like to thank the Hot Springs community for their patience and understanding as we have worked out the logistics of remaining a viable motion picture presenter in this new era of film distribution,” Bullard added.