A Life at the Movies

Taking tickets at the Ganado Theater.

Alvin Svoboda, age 74, is not omniscient. Still, to those who live in Ganado, population 2,003, he knows an awful lot.

“She has been here to see The Avengers three times!” he said loudly to me as a local woman passed through the crimson doors of the 192-seat, single-screen Ganado Theater in mid-May. “She must have a thing for one of the guys.”

The woman nodded. “Thor,” she said, heading to the concession stand for nachos.

His observations are not coincidental. Svoboda has been working at the Ganado Theater since he was fifteen years old, and now, as its owner, he continues to greet the customers at the door every night. “This is my usual perch,” he said, pulling himself onto a stool in the lobby. Like his customers, he was dressed casually: a striped, short-sleeved polo shirt and beige shorts. His short, wavy gray hair rippled across the top of his head. When an older gentleman wearing blue Dickies coveralls walked in with two young guys, Svoboda perked up. “Bill, your eyes doing okay after surgery?” he asked.

“Yeah, they’re in good shape,” the man replied. One of the man’s companions shook Svoboda’s hand. “Hello, sir. I haven’t seen you since I was a boy.”

“Well,” Svoboda said, “I’ve been here fifty-nine years.”

The theater opened when Svoboda was three years old; when he applied to be the relief projectionist twelve years later, he already had a few years of experience. “I had a toy sixteen-millimeter projector at the house, and I used to show the neighborhood kids clips from Abbott and Costello movies—comedies that ran about four minutes. They were silent, of course. The kids would watch even if they’d seen the clip one hundred times,” he said. “It just gave me a thrill that I was able to entertain the children. I was ‘the guy.’ ”

Since there isn’t much to do in Ga­nado besides go to the movies, he is still “the guy.” Everyone in this little town 35 miles northeast of Victoria knows he runs the theater. They’re also probably aware that he speaks fluent Czech, lives three minutes from the cinema, cooks gallons of sauerkraut, and makes his own muscadine. Those who don’t recognize him from the theater he’s owned since 1980 might recall him from one of the odd jobs he’s held to supplement his income over the years, such as school bus driver, carpenter’s assistant, and bookkeeper for a local Catholic church. During the eighties, when would-be customers began renting videos, he even sold watermelons out of his truck.

These days, he retains five employees, and thanks to his cheap ticket prices ($5 for adults, $3.50 for kids and seniors) and cheap concessions ($1.75 for a large popcorn), business is good—at least by Ganado standards. He also credits his healthy sales to his investment in modernized equipment. He recently spent $70,000 on the latest digital projection system and $8,500 on a subwoofer that shakes the walls of the Ganado Cafe next door, which is owned by the mayor. (At the mere mention of the thunderous Phantom of the Opera , which Svoboda has been known to show to friends after hours, the mayor winces.)

It is Svoboda’s job, of course, to forecast which movies will be a hit with his customers, and though more than 60 percent of them now drive in from the surrounding areas, his intuition is still pitch-perfect.

“Action movies are good,” he said. “Family movies and comedies. They do the best. The Chipmunks movie, that’s going to do well.” His choices sometimes confound movie sellers. “Ganado does not care for Harry Potter. British accents, that’s why. And they don’t like fantasy. The film company was upset, and I said, ‘I’m sorry! It doesn’t sell. It might sell in California, but not in Ganado.’ ” As he said this, he unrolled a poster of a black man wearing a scarf and large, stylish sunglasses. “This is going to be a good movie for us,” he said. “Tyler Perry in witness protection. Do you know Tyler Perry? He dresses like a woman. He’s obnoxious and loud, but people love him. He’ll do real well here.” (And indeed he did. When Madea’s Witness Protection showed from June 29 to July 12, Svoboda had to turn people away at the door.)

Ten minutes before the seven o’clock show, one of the concessions girls approached Svoboda, concerned. “We only have ten hot dogs left,” she said. “We had thirty.”

“Let’s put another dozen on,” Svoboda said. He turned to the ticket seller, who also acts as manager. “Where are we?”

“Thirty-seven,” she said. “What we had last night.”

“We’ll have a few more,” Svoboda said. “We have people who never miss a movie.”

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