Inside the new Pickford Film Center’s lobby, paper star cutouts dangle from the ceiling. Hanging just above the heads of workers, the delicate ornaments starkly contrast the hammering, sawing and classic rock playing from a dusty radio below. Yet they somehow do not seem out of place, seemingly hinting at the promise of what the room will soon become.
Back in November of 1998, the Pickford Film Center opened in its soon-to-be former home on Cornwall Avenue, in what Alice Clark, board president at the time, called “an experiment” to see if an independent theater would work in Bellngham. By 1999, Clark, who is currently the film center’s executive director, said the theater experienced a surge in attendance, and the small building was not fit to hold large crowds. When sold out shows began to become synonomous with frustration, Clark knew something would have to be done.
“Seeing people annoyed drove me crazy,” she said. “I thought, ‘if we have this many people in Bellingham who are really into what we are doing, we owe them a better experience.’”
This encouraged her to push the staff to look at other buildings around town that could potentially hold a new theater. Now, 10 years later, her vision is finally taking shape, with the new film center set to open in March.
“Bringing this to fruition has been my mission since that time,” Clark said, sitting in one of the newly installed seats in the new film center’s main theater.
Although the will has been there since the beginning to move to a larger space, making it a reality has been a long journey filled with uncertainty.
In 2001, the building that would become the Pickford’s new home became available to lease, and Clark said the staff fell in love with the Bay Street space.
“We all loved the building and we were all really happy that it was potentially going to be availble for us,” she said.
John Jenkins, the building’s owner and curator of the American Museum of Radio and Electricity next door, allowed the Pickford to lease the space at a very low montly price while they explored it as an option for their new location, Clark said. During this time, they worked on removing graffiti and garbage from the building’s upstairs floor so they could lease the studio spaces, deemed the “Dreamspace”, to local artists.
In 2004, after renovations were completed in the Dreamspace, Clark said Jenkins told them it was time to make a decision on the building. So they took the plunge and purchased the space.
“The down payment was a really scary step,” Clark said. “It was a commitment, but it was a really good investment.”
After the intial purchase, the arduous task of renovating the main building began, all the while fundraising efforts were in full swing so construction could continue. Between 2005 and 2007, the main focus was completing big tasks like seismic retrofitting, installing sprinklers and an elevator shaft and cleaning out the building’s sizeable basement.
However, the Pickford and its donors were not immune to the economic downturn in 2008, Clark said.
“Part of the problem with this project has been feeling like we were just about to get done, and then the economy turning around, and a lot of people who had pledged were like ‘I don’t know if I can do it,’” she said. “We’ve had to readjust our budget and fundraising goals for reality.”
Clark said while the original goal was to raise $3.25 million, the theater has accrued close to $3 million thanks to substantial grants from the state and city.
Now, with finishing touches waiting to be applied to numerous areas including carpets and cabinetry in the main room, Clark said there are too many factors to say when the theater will officially open its doors.
“We are super, super close,” she said. “It’s going to be beautiful.”
Besides being able to fit more people, a benefit of the larger space will be the draw it presents to film distributors.
“We now have double the seats we had, and to distributors that means something,” she said. “We’ll get films we couldn’t before because now we are more of a player.”
Now, as they reach the end of a decade-long journey, the Pickford’s focus is still on the films, much like those early days in 1998.
“It’s been a process,” she said. “This will be a superior experience if you’re into movies.”