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Now showing: A risky new path for Northampton's historic Roxy Theatre

Rick Wolfe Roxy.jpg
Tom Shortell
Rick Wolfe discusses the changing film industry from his office in the historic Roxy Theatre in Northampton on Friday, May 10, 2024. Later that day, the Roxy began playing movies on their first run for the first time in decades.

NORTHAMPTON, Pa. — At 7 p.m., the lights inside the Roxy Theatre dimmed, and "Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes" projected onto its screen.

And while the film is 10th in a movie franchise that dates to 1968, it marked a historic night for one of the Lehigh Valley's iconic theaters.

The popcorn flick about talking chimps building a society amid humanity's ruins marks the first time in generations that the Roxy has played a film during its first run.

It's a change that owner Rick Wolfe avoided for decades.

But with Hollywood in a period of transition, Wolfe said he had little choice but to alter the business model on which he's relied at the Roxy for 54 years.

"It's a little bit scary," he acknowledged Friday afternoon. "Not only am I gambling more on these first-run films as to what they're going to do, but now I'm going to be paying twice as much for them."

"I was happy to see the response from the community. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of comments, and they were all positive.... It certainly makes me feel really good."
Rick Wolfe, owner of the Roxy Theatre in Northampton, on the switch to first-run movies

For decades, discount theaters such as the Roxy made modest profits by attracting reliable crowds, Wolfe said.

Owners and managers would have weeks of information about how a film had performed on its first run and could cherry-pick the ones they thought would best appeal to their customers, he said.

And because those theaters played only films that had already been out for weeks, the studios took a smaller cut compared with theaters playing films on their first runs.

Wolfe said that for most of the 21st century, the Roxy consistently attracted 1,350 patrons a week. With ticket prices around $3 over that time, nearly all the revenue came from selling refreshments at the lobby, he said.

A wallop from COVID

The profits have been enough for Wolfe to live comfortably and invest back in the historic theater and preserve its art deco design, he said.

He said he's replaced the theater's seats, curtains and rugs; installed a concession stand while trying to preserve the lobby's character and added an organ similar to the one that accompanied the silent pictures when the theater opened in 1921.

But the movie industry has taken a wallop since COVID-19 arrived. At the peak of the pandemic, theaters like the Roxy were forced to shut down to avoid spreading the virus.

"Right now, we are doing about 60 percent of what we did pre-COVID. I'm hoping with the move to first-run that will improve. Time will tell."
Rick Wolfe, owner of the Roxy Theatre in Northampton

In an effort to limit their losses, studios began releasing films directly onto streaming services, creating more competition for second-run theaters once they reopened.

"Right now, we are doing about 60 percent of what we did pre-COVID," Wolfe said. "I'm hoping with the move to first-run that will improve. Time will tell."

Wolfe may have tried to hang on as a second-run film house longer if not for labor unrest in Hollywood throughout 2023.

SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America spent months on the picket lines as they fought for a share of the new streaming revenue.

While those were resolved last fall, the steady flow of films being released has been slowed to a trickle as studios try to catch up on months of missed work.

As a result, the Roxy would have gone more than a month without a new film if it didn't switch to first-run movies, Wolfe said.

The latest adaptation

This isn't the first time Wolfe has needed to amend his business strategy at the Roxy.

When multiplex theaters such as the Regal Northampton in Lower Nazareth Township and the recently closed AMC Allentown on Catasauqua Road opened in the mid-1990s, the teenage customers that had frequented the Roxy on Friday nights disappeared, Wolfe said.

At first, it was a reason for concern, Wolfe said. Losing 100 to 150 customers took a significant bite out of his business.

But the teens had patronized the Roxy less for the movies and more for the social experience, he said; other customers regularly complained about them talking through the show and making a mess.

By shifting to films that appealed more to his remaining customers, Wolfe eventually returned to his normal business numbers.

"In the long run, it paid off because we lost the rowdy audience and our older audience and families continued to grow and grow," he said.

Wolfe said he hopes he'll be able to find a new normal with the switch to first-run movies.


On May 4, he teased the changes with a post on the Roxy's Facebook page, leading off with, "THE END IS NEAR!"

Hundreds of people shared their concern the business was closing and expressed their love for the historic theater, which dates to 1921.

Wolfe said he realized he'd created a panic the next day and
disclosed the switch to first-run movies and that he would have to raise ticket prices to $5.

That post reached more than 50,000 and drew overwhelmingly positive feedback from relieved supporters.

"It certainly makes me feel really good."
Rick Wolfe, owner of the Roxy Theatre in Northampton

"I was happy to see the response from the community," Wolfe said. "There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of comments, and they were all positive.

"It certainly makes me feel really good."

In Friday's interview, he emphasized he has no plans to add advertisements to the previews ahead of the showings. The Roxy will continue to show trailers for the films scheduled to appear at the theater and a classic cartoon.

Another change that's not under consideration? Wolfe's retirement.

While he's due to turn 76 this year and is in an industry in upheaval, Wolfe said he plans to stay at the helm of the theater he's owned for nearly 54 years.

"As long as I'm physically and mentally able to do it, I will do it," Wolfe said. "I have no desire or intent to retire."