Phil Calderone at the chess board in the Rustic Theatre lobby. Photo by J.P. Crumrine
Phil Calderone at the chess board in the Rustic Theatre lobby.
Photo by J.P. Crumrine

Despite the Rustic Theatre building’s more than 50-year existence and the new owners having taken over last February, this Saturday, Nov. 30, is Idyllwild’s only movie theater’s grand opening. Barbara and Phil Calderone bought the business earlier this year but spent all this time making revisions.

“We’re inviting the public to help us build the longest popcorn garland in Idyllwild, the goal being to make one that extends from the theater to the Tree Lighting,” Phil said. “There will be free popcorn bags and mulled cider for those who visit and help string popcorn.” The event begins at 11 a.m.

He spent weeks researching popcorn for the Rustic’s movie patrons. After experimenting with several new varieties and testing them with several customers who felt the previous popcorn did not meet their standards, he now offers new popcorn and specialty drinks. Only now, after these kinds of intensive and thoughtful changes, does he feel comfortable staging a grand opening, meaning the business reflects his changes and is more than new ownership.

One of the many changes is the expanded use of the stage and live performances. Earlier this month, “Throw the Goat” performed at the theater and Calderone has stage events planned through New Year’s Eve, when Pinkie Meringue returns for the gala he and his troupe performed two years ago. Local improvisation and comedians use the theater regularly and the Greg Jones Band will perform on Dec.13.

Some of the other major additions the Calderones have made include:

• A green room that works for artist staging, costume changes and more. Soon to come are lighting and mirrors for side-by-side makeup stations.

• Lighting around the stage and dedicated 1000-watt concert speakers mounted over the stage. This means the movie speakers are no longer used for concerts, which eliminates the microphone feedback.

• Sufficient electrical wiring for a six-piece band comfortably, including the proper monitor speakers on stage for the performers.

• A new mixing board to control all of this and a first-line audio engineer.

• A presenter can now use a laptop to project content (like a PowerPoint presentation) on the big screen.

Phil has plans — such as more lighting, sound baffling, more power and another speaker — for the future, too.

“Our first purpose will always be as a studio movie theater,” he stressed. “But we have added the ability to be a high-quality performance theater for everything from concerts to stage plays, albeit around the movie schedule.”

Phil also wants the film schedule to meet the community’s interests. During the summer, there will be the major blockbusters, but he also has fall programming with films such as drama, horror and animated to attract local demographics.

The Rustic’s ambiance has subtly changed, too. The lobby not only provides the transition to the theater’s seating but has become a social center itself, largely due to the efforts of employee Cheryl Vladika. She began an after-school program on Tuesdays from 3 to 6 p.m. In the future this may expand, too. Games such as chess are available. In fact, Phil said, during one movie a couple came in but played chess for two hours.

Finally, Phil, who has always been a film buff, said, “I always sat through the credits,” he said. “I always watched the film, its ads and talked about it. It just happened as a natural interest.” Complimenting this avocation, he has significantly improved the DVD rental choices.

“Everything with an IMDb rating less than 5 is gone and I’ve added about 30 great movies such as ‘Amadeus,’ ‘Fight Club,’ ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and ‘Juno,’” he said. “I view this as a high quality collection such that, if you pick any disk at random, you’ll find a good movie in your hands. New releases are still brought in every week, here, too, with higher standards; only the best.”

J.P. Crumrine can be reached at [email protected]