A Look Inside the Nugget Theater

Jack Mourouzis has a conversation with the manager of The Nugget.

Jack Mourouzis has a conversation with the manager of The Nugget.

For years, The Nugget Theatre has been a staple of entertainment in rural Hanover, New Hampshire and the Upper Valley. The theatre was originally petitioned for by F.W. and F.F. Davison on April 6, 1916. The Davisons promised that they would have at least three presentations a week, and while the College was in session, they would offer six evening shows and three matinee showings. Permission for the theatre was granted by the Precinct Commissioners, with the stipulation that the theatre would stay closed on Sundays; by 1918, the Nugget was actually used as a venue to hold church services. This religious role of the Nugget would continue until March 1943, when the state law changed and allowed for Sunday matinee showings.

A mere six months after receiving permission to erect a theatre, the Nugget officially opened to the public on September 13, 1916 boasting ten-cent admission prices and a showing of The Alien. The Nugget’s business model did not last for long, however; in July 1922, the Davisons decided to donate the theatre to the town, with all its proceeds going towards town improvements. At this time the Hanover Improvement Society was established in order to operate the theatre and comply with the state laws.

In a nasty turn of events, the Nugget was set on fire and its roof was blown off by an explosion on January 28, 1944. The story behind this freak occurrence has remained a mystery, but some presume that cigarettes and peanut shells may have been a cause of the disaster which ultimately caused $75,000 in damages. Nonetheless, the Nugget rose from its ashes and continued to pursue its business. This time, the theatre was rebuilt on South Main Street during the fall of 1950. Attendance quickly surged, reaching 216,000 annual patrons by 1953. This was a milestone for the theatre and continues to be one of the Nugget’s greatest years in terms of attendance. This trend would not last for long however; in 1958 the Nugget was warned by Joe MacDonald, the Dartmouth College Dean of the Students, that the increasing academic rigor of the three-term schedule would impact attendance. This proved to be all too true, and attendance began to steadily decline for many year. In 1974 the Daily D reported on the theatre’s woes, citing the main culprits for the declining attendance as lackluster film showings, difficult course work, and outside competition from the Hopkins Center, in addition to television.

Unwilling to give up, the Nugget continues to provide high quality entertainment to the Upper Valley Community. In 2001, the theatre celebrated its eighty-fifth anniversary in Hanover and fiftieth year on Main Street. In 2010 it even added a new digital projector and silver screen, done in pursuit of introducing 3D capabilities. The Nugget continues to improve its services and serve as an independent bastion of film appreciation as it approaches its 100th anniversary in the coming year.

The Review recently sat down with M. Kaufman, Manager of the Nugget Theater, to discuss the history of the theater’s relationship with the College, issues with its business, and importance to Hanover.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): How is the Nugget important to the students of Dartmouth? How has the relationship with the College worked in recent years?

Kaufman (MK): I’ve been here nineteen years. When I first started, at least a couple times a term, would have midnight shows that the Programming Board (PB) would put together. We would show a midnight movie that they requested and get a copy of it, bring it in and only open our doors to Dartmouth students. They got to see the movie for free and the organization paid us a fee for getting the movie for them and showing it for them. That was a very regular thing. Slowly, it happened less and less. When I first started here, we would be turning students away because we were full. 360 students and both of the theaters would be full. Certain events were extremely popular. There would be one hit and miss here and there. Then, the Programming Board had a large chunk of their budget go to the cable in the dorms that would allow students to watch movies. About a decade ago, I sat down with someone from the Programming Board who said to me, “Every year, the price keeps going up and up and up. So much money is going to this that we did a survey to see who’s using this.” All of a sudden they realized that this was barely even being used and they were spending an exorbitant amount of money. Then the impetus was brought by the Programming Board and they said, “If we set up a discount with the Nugget Theater, would you charge us if it wasn’t being used?” and we said “No.” So you show a valid student ID, you get X amount off a ticket, and we track how many tickets we sell, and we bill the Programming Board however much was used. At first it was literally half price tickets and students came like crazy. We were doing, in a busy month, 5,000 or 6,000 student tickets. But we’re a title driven business. If we don’t have a movie you want to see, you’re not going to spend money to see something you don’t want to see. So some months when we didn’t really have something that was geared toward that audience it might drop down into a thousand or two thousand tickets.

But every year, things sort of shift, the budgets, how much money the PB has, and money kind of got tight. We went through a very difficult economic time that we’ve come out of a little bit in the last few years, but there was a stretch of a few years there where everybody was tightening their belts. And when that process was happening, if we shifted our prices, or things were changing, every single time the onus was put heavier on the student in terms of what the discount was. Our price was raising, the discount goes back and forth, both ways, and by about two years ago, we had gotten to the point that it was down to $2 a ticket and the PB was talking about making it $1 a ticket. When I had a meeting with whoever was in charge then, they said they decided to create a punch card. We’re going to make it $2, we’re going to ask students to come pick up the punch card, because the punch card has five punches and means there can only be so many cards out there a month and so many punches so the bill can’t ever reach X. That way they could control what the bill was going to look like. So we tried that, and of course, no one went to get the card, and it fell apart. We went from a thousand or so students using the discount to under a hundred in a month. It was the nail in the coffin for this program. That’s when the student discount officially was stopped. We’ve had a long standing relationship [with the College] that now appears like it has nothing to do in the students’ favor, but are we open to that changing again? Yes, of course we are. We’re very open to whatever helps it happen.

TDR: Could you describe the Nugget’s place in Hanover?

MK: We’re owned by the Hanover Improvement Society, which was created by the man that started the Nugget Theater a hundred years ago. The bulk of the attendance at that time were the students on Dartmouth’s campus. A few years into running the business, he decided that he had had enough and didn’t want to do it anymore. But it was very popular, and going well, so he went to the town. The charter of the town of Hanover does not allow the town to own a business, so a bunch of town elders said they didn’t want to say no to the idea, but the town couldn’t own it. So the Hanover Improvement Society was born. It’s a nonprofit organization that has operated the Nugget ever since then, and it has since build and opened Campion Ice Skating Rink and also Storr’s Pond Recreation Facility. We look at ourselves as a very vital part of Main Street, to keep the night life alive on Main Street in Hanover. Whether that means the Upper Valley, the residents of Hanover, or the campus of Dartmouth, it means that to everybody. That’s what the Nugget sees as the core of its purpose: to be a viable option for entertainment in the evening on Main Street in Hanover.

TDR: How does your history as a small, independently owned theater impact your day-to-day mentality and business?

MK: A lot of people don’t realize that the film industry is a title-driven business that doesn’t make the product they sell and is not in control of what it is and how good it is. And on top of that, the Hollywood distributors set up geographic zones based on population density. We fight Entertainment Cinemas in Lebanon for every title we get because both our theaters are close enough that we can never have something while they have it, and vice versa. There are a lot of theaters that don’t have that problem. That puts us in even more of a difficult position when it comes to not even getting a choice as to what product we want to show out of what’s available to show. The niche that we’ve created regardless of those barriers is that we concentrate on quality rather than what’s going to sell popcorn and soda. We tend to show most if not all of the Oscar-nominated films every year. We tend to have the best picture winner come from a film that we show every year. We focus on the quality as best as we can and we fight the battles that we have to fight down the road as best we can.

TDR: What other struggles come with being an independent theater in today’s world?

MK: To add to what I just elaborated on, Lebanon Entertainment Cinemas is not an independent theater. They’re part of a chain, and most of the rest of their theaters are in southern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts. They have about ten other theaters, most of which have more screens than the Lebanon theater has. When they sit down at the table with their buying power trying to convince [film distributors] to give them a movie, and we’re trying to convince them to give us the same movie, Entertainment Cinemas can blanket this region with the movie, we’re raising our hand and saying, “We’d like one showing!” Claremont, just down the road, another independent theater, is far enough away from Lebanon that they can pick whatever movie they want to show and show it. They’re not fighting anybody to get whatever movie, and their six screens are filled with whatever movie they want to show every single week.

TDR: Are there particularly big days or times of the year?

MK: We’re hitting the beginning of one: summer blockbuster time. We’re getting Mad Max, we’re getting Pitch Perfect 2, Tomorrowland, so we’re moving into summer ourselves. May, June, July, and into August is always a time that you hope to be really busy. Then you’ve got the Holiday-Oscar period of time, which is November, December, January, and into February, so those four months are a bread and butter time for us because of the quality coming out. Those eight months are when we’re geared up and ready and expect to be busy.

TDR: Would you say the theater receives more patrons from Hanover/Upper Valley than Dartmouth students?

MK: Yes. Even ten years ago when we were doing 6,000 tickets a month it wouldn’t have been true, and over the course of general attendance year by year, it’s definitely Upper Valley as opposed to campus.

TDR: Have there been issues with regards to the College’s Hopkins Center and movie screenings there? Has this affected business?

MK: Not really. One reason is because technically they’re not a first run theater. They have to wait for a film to be out for three or four months before they’re able to show it. Usually, a lot of what they show is either in Lebanon or here before it shows there. Every once in a while, we miss the boat on something and they grab it, and good for them. A film like Whiplash is an example from recently. When we had a screen for it, they didn’t have a print they could give us. Turn around a month later, and we’re rock solid with pictures, they turn around and say “Hey, do you want it?” and we really can’t right now, and the campus played it. That happens periodically, and it turns out it’s a sellout, and that’s great. But no, we don’t see them as competition because we’re a first-run theater.

TDR: Anything else you’d care to add?

MK: I think it’s important to say that September 13, 2016 is the hundredth anniversary of the Nugget Theater being in existence. To me, to Hanover, New Hampshire, to Dartmouth, where we are and what that means over a hundred years to still be here, is enormous. I’m thrilled to be here and be able to be a part of that particular moment in time. We are gearing up, putting a committee together, and we are looking to make 2016 a year where we bring in special films or do some sort of special pricing on certain events, anything and everything we can do and make sure Hanover realizes what a gem the Nugget is and that we’re a hundred years old.