70 Years of Harkins - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

70 Years of Harkins

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Posted: Sunday, September 7, 2003 3:10 am | Updated: 1:43 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Danielle Harkins stands quietly as her father once again points out the spot on the second floor of the Valley Art theater where he was conceived.

‘‘And this,’’ he excitedly tells his visitors, ‘‘is where my mom and dad’s bed would have been. We call this ‘The Point of Conception.’ Right here is where it all happened. Their room was about the size of a walk-in closet.’’

To her credit, 12-year-old Danielle doesn’t flinch when the elder Harkins then leads his guests to the window beside where he was potty-trained. She has heard it all before.

With his trademark bushy mustache, glasses and ever-present tie, Dan Harkins is instantly recognizable.

And he isn’t shy about revealing the intimacies of his history, because in a way he feels that they belong as much to you and me as to himself and his family.

The tale of Harkins Theatres is an East Valley success story of the best kind; like a great movie it is full of adventure and intrigue and romance and tragedy. And it all began 70 years ago this month, when Tempe’s population was less than 3,000 and a boy genius named Red brought the State Theater to Fifth Street and Mill Avenue.

‘‘He was an incredible, amazing man, and just 18 when he started,’’ says Dan Harkins, now 52. It is clear he idolizes his father; if there was strife within the home Dan shared with his parents and younger brother and sister, he certainly doesn’t recall it. Life in 1950s Tempe was, at least for the Harkinses, an idyllic, "Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" existence.

Though his family moved to a ‘‘real house’’ in Scottsdale soon after he was born, Harkins was essentially raised in the Valley Art — then called the College Theater — trailing his father as he tinkered with his many inventions, staying with his mother as she worked the box office, standing on the ledge above the marquee and watching the bustle of Tempe’s main street. And potty training, of course.

He has an amazing memory, recalling events that happened when he was a toddler, and of the day in 1961 when the College Theater was sold.

Fresh as well is the day in 1974 when Red died of a heart attack and Dan — only three years older than Red had been when he launched the first theater — took over the business.

‘‘I wasn’t as smart as him,’’ Harkins says simply. ‘‘There was a feeling of a sense of destiny, and I was naive enough to think I had a good grasp on how to run the company. I didn’t, but I learned quickly. I loved my father so much, I wanted his dreams to come true, to keep him alive through the business.’’

Harkins had been groomed all his life for that day. The 21-year-old wasn’t prepared, though, for the types of difficulties he would face. Most monumental, he didn’t know about the concept of ‘‘splitting.’’

Splitting — when theater owners make a deal with movie studios to obtain sole rights to show first-run movies — was made illegal in the early ’70s. The practice continued, though, and nearly drove the five-theater, eight-screen Harkins chain into the ground.

So began an eight-year battle that ultimately would turn Red’s boy into a man and pave the way for the 22-location, 258-screen empire Harkins commands today.

‘‘In 1977, when I was 24, I filed a major antitrust suit against distribution companies,’’ he says. ‘‘That war made me a better businessman, a better father, a better person. It seems like yesterday I was eating popcorn three times a day because I didn’t have enough money to buy groceries. Now, I have to pinch myself to believe where I am.’’

During the lean years, it was the little films — subtitled foreign flicks and arthouse offerings —— that kept Harkins in business. The result was survival of the company and an enduring link between the Harkins brand and these movies.

‘‘Before I committed (Scottsdale’s) Camelview to foreign and art films right after my dad’s death, the only place they were showing in the Valley was at porn theaters in Scottsdale,’’ Harkins says. ‘‘We showed Fellini, ‘Swept Away,’ films that people here weren’t used to. In the beginning, only one out of 10 made a profit.’’

David Ramsey is a movie reviewer for radio station KMLE (107.9 FM) and president of the Arizona Film Critics Society. He says that what Harkins did for survival turned out to be a huge boon for discriminating moviegoers.

‘‘I remember going to Camelview and seeing my first foreign-language film,’’ Ramsey says. ‘‘It was mindexpanding. The first subtitled film that each of my four teenage children saw and enjoyed were Harkins exclusives. Without Harkins, the Valley would be at the whim of the major studios.’’

Slowly, moviegoers came to agree, warming to the idea that sometimes films without major studio marketing campaigns might be worth watching. And by the time Harkins began settling different aspects of his suit, his theaters had become known as the home for alternative cinema.

‘‘One year we brought in $650,000,’’ he says. ‘‘After I paid all my bills, I had enough left over to buy a filing cabinet. I still have it. It was the beginning of better financial times.’’

Patricia Rhodes has lived in Scottsdale since 1976. She remembers going to Camelview to see ‘‘classy, quiet, amazing films’’ when other theaters were loudly promoting ‘‘Star Wars’’ and ‘‘Cannonball Run’’ and hightech blockbusters that Rhodes says just weren’t her style.

‘‘It’s still just about the only theater I go to,’’ she said recently as she waited in line there to see ‘‘I Capture the Castle.’’ ‘‘I used to think of it as my little secret, but even in the past couple of years it has become more crowded. It’s good that so many people are seeing these wonderful films, but part of me would like to have it to myself, like I did in 1979.’’

No offense to Rhodes, says Harkins, but he is glad she is not the only person in line. Even when the early 1980s brought an end to his legal woes and a beginning to Valley cinema domination, Harkins retained a soft spot for art films and is proud of his commitment to share them with his patrons.

‘‘Before we had children, my wife and I would go to five movies a week, most of them independent or foreign films,’’ he says. ‘‘It is so important that cities always have that option.’’

Still, the option of showing first-run films gave a huge boost to Harkins’ theaters. He leapt at the chance to show movies like ‘‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’’ and ‘‘The Terminator’’ — never at Camelview, though — and his business has grown right along with the Valley.

The turning point, Harkins says, came about 12 years ago. With the antitrust suit behind him, he set his sights on another set of goals — a trifecta of sorts.

The first part of his dream was one that had begun three decades earlier when his father sold the College Theater. Since that time the space had deteriorated and was in disrepair and given a wide berth by those strolling down Mill Avenue.

Despite his triumphs, the man who by then had been named ‘‘Showman of the Year’’ three times by his industry colleagues had never been able to stop thinking about the place he considered his childhood home.

‘‘In 1991 I had three goals,’’ Harkins says. ‘‘I wanted to have children. I wanted to tie up everything on the suit and get it completely settled. And I wanted to get that theater back, as a tribute to my father.

‘‘Within two months, I did all three.’’

Between the end of June and the end of August 1991, Harkins and his wife welcomed Danielle, settled the case and bought back the theater.

‘‘Not many things I’ve done in my business or in my life have felt that good,’’ he says. ‘‘The Valley Art was (gone) for 30 years, and it was so good to have it back where it belonged.’’

Today, Red looks down from a portrait above the snack bar at the Valley Art, in the middle of the building he ran for 28 years. Dan Harkins extols the virtues of the man at every opportunity, but one imagines that the resurrection of the Valley Art would mean as much as any of his other honors and tributes.

Well that, plus seeing the amazing success his son has had over the years.

‘‘Thanks to Dan Harkins, art, foreign and smaller independent films get a chance to be seen in Arizona,’’ says Roger Tennis, vice president and co-founder of the AFCS. ‘‘Other theater chains are now trying to follow in his footsteps.’’

That’s true in more ways than one. Harkins’ closest competitor in the state is AMC, with 148 screens. With only 21 screens, the biggest chain in the country — United Artists — is a distant fourth in Arizona, behind Tucson-based Century. Harkins Theatres’ growth has been steady over the past 20 years, during which all but Camelview, Arcadia and Scottsdale Fashion Square locations have launched.

Besides his influence on the state of independent and alternative films in the Valley, Dan Harkins currently has the most visually stunning theater — at Arrowhead Towne Center in Glendale — and is known for his huge Cine Capri screen at Scottsdale 101, which itself is a modern incarnation of the much-beloved Cine Capri that stood at 24th Street and Camelback Road in Phoenix until it was razed in 1998.

‘‘I believe the Harkins chain has gotten hugely successful because the theaters are so luxurious with all the finer amenities,’’ Tennis says. ‘‘Dan makes each cineplex bigger and better than the last.’’

Harkins’ office has for the past four years been in south Scottsdale, just minutes away from the tiny space that for years had been the headquarters of the Harkins dynasty. His East Valley base is about equidistant from Valley Art and Camelview, two theaters with a history for Harkins and which he calls ‘‘especially close to my heart.’’

About the only thing Harkins gets more excited about than his business is his family. Nine years ago Danielle was joined by a brother, James. The Harkinses are especially close, traveling a lot and, of course, going to movies. Yes, they wait in line and no, they don’t have to pay; recent favorites include ‘‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’’ and ‘‘Finding Nemo.’’

His children live in a different world than he did, but Harkins is proud to be able to tell them and show them their family’s place in Valley history.

‘‘Things have changed since I was a kid. The cities have changed, people have changed, at least somewhat,’’ Harkins says. ‘‘But still, there is nothing more exciting for me than to do what I do. I’m like everyone else — I love the movies.’’

Celebrating its 70th

Red Harkins opened his first theater on Sept. 22, 1933. The Harkins family is celebrating the milestone with a weeklong film festival at many of its theaters, where it hopes to show a combination of Oscar winners, classics such as ‘‘Casablanca’’ and perennial crowd-pleasers including the ‘‘Indiana Jones’’ series. All proceeds from the event, the specifics of which have not yet been announced, will be donated to charity.

Harkins by the numbers

Harkins Theatres dominates the Valley’s cinema scene. Here’s how that translates into numbers:

2: Number of theaters Dan Harkins owned in 1982

22: Number of theaters Harkins owns in 2003

1,810: Number of people currently employed by Harkins Theatres

16 million: Estimated number of Harkins patrons this year

2,275,000: Number of Milk Duds consumed at Harkins theaters every year

1.3 million: Number of pounds of popcorn popped at Harkins each year

1.5 million: Number of gallons of soda poured in 2002

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