The Speakeasy is only 14 years old — young by Breckenridge standards — but this year a tide of changing technology and a new era in the movie business threatened to leave the town's only movie theater behind.
The business, tucked in the basement of a 100-year-old schoolhouse, faced closure when Hollywood announced plans to convert to a new digital format, ending the days of film projection for theaters across the country.
“They're going completely digital in their distribution, which means all small theaters have to … convert or die,” said Karin Litzmann, owner and operator of the Speakeasy for the last four years. “Every small theater in America is faced with this choice and it's really expensive so a lot of them are being forced to close.”
Unable to come up with the money to change her system over, Litzmann would have had to shut her doors as well if help had not arrived at the perfect moment in the form of a major town renovation project.
Breckenridge and the Summit County government joined forces last year to restore the Old CMC building, which houses the Speakeasy, as a renovated space for a library, community center and digital movie theater.
The conversion to digital will be included in the renovation, allowing the community theater to return to its former glory at the end of a nearly two-year closure, which began Friday.
Members of the Breckenridge Town Council prioritized theater's conversion — expected to cost $183,000 — as part of the project, saying the theater was an asset for the community that they did not want to lose.
“This council and the council before it and the council before that all seem to have valued the Speakeasy that the town really wants to embrace and nurture,” Breckenridge Mayor John Warner said.
“If our community wanted to have a first-run film, the only way to do that is ultimately to end up with a digital projection room. This council really thinks that's important.”
The Speakeasy said a temporary goodbye to its patrons with a pizza party Friday night and a showing of Casablanca, it's last feature film presentation before it reopens after the renovation. Crowds packed the small theater for the event.
The party included a presentation by Warner on the history and future of the theater space as well as a silent auction to support the renovation.
The estimated $7.4 million cost of the building upgrade will be split between the town and the county and supplemented with private donations.
For Litzmann, the closure will mean an extended vacation, which she said she plans to spend traveling.
“I'm buying a backpack and I'm going to see parts of the world I haven't seen,” she said. “It will definitely be a nice break and it's great that I have something positive to look forward to. It's not just time off, but something really wonderful to come back to Breckenridge for.”
Opened in the late 1990s, the Speakeasy plays up its historic location in both name and décor, with an interior dedicated to the old-time glamour of an earlier era in the film industry.
Its refreshment lounge is cozy and dated, the walls are papered with movie posters and hand-painted renderings of Hollywood legends and the lone auditorium packs only a few dozen seats, flanking a red carpet.
The transition to digital will impact that image in a way. Conversion will mean cleaner film projection, comparable to the difference between vinyl and compact discs.
“It will be crisper, sharper and maybe not as rich a medium,” said Litzmann, who spent 20 years editing movies and began her career working with actual film. “It's kind of sad for me. I'm old school that way.”
The renovated theater will feature an upgraded auditorium, snack bar and restrooms.
This council and the council before it and the council before that all seem to have valued the Speakeasy that the town really wants to embrace and nurture,