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Theater company to expand into other states

Jan. 12, 2008 @ 11:01 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Derek Hyman smiles and laughs to himself.

It doesn't matter how many years they've known him, but there are some community members who have approached him lately and asked him what he's doing now that he's not in the movie theater business. They assume that since the Keith-Albee and Camelot theaters closed, he's just kicked back or moved into a new field.

But the Greater Huntington Theatre Corp. thrives.

A simple visit to www.ourshowtimes.com shows that the theater corporation is still running Park Place Stadium Cinemas in Charleston and Fountain Place in Logan, as well as the Cinema discount theater on 4th Avenue in Huntington. And the corporation looking to open a new theater, Pierce Point Cinema, just east of Cincinnati in June.

It's true that without the Keith-Albee and the Camelot, "what we have is not enough to keep me busy until we retire," said Hyman, president of the corporation. "Our organization is bigger than what we need to run Charleston, Logan and the discount house here."

So the new theater in Pierce Township, Ohio, will help address that, and it probably won't be the last new addition either.

While the business started in Huntington, this is not its first multi-state venture.

The Greater Huntington Theatre Corp. was opened by Derek's grandfather, Abe Hyman, and great uncle Saul Hyman. They came to Huntington in 1906 from the West Virginia coalfields and were in the tavern business, but when the city went dry shortly afterward, they turned to nickelodeons for their bread and butter.

That's how they came to be in the entertainment business.

They opened the ornate Thomas Lamb-designed Keith-Albee Theatre on May 7, 1928, as a movie house and vaudeville stage. After 1939, it was home to the Marshall Artists Series -- and Tri-Staters enjoyed the talents of a rich diversity of entertainers from Les Brown and his Band of Renown, singers Rudy Vallee and Harry Bellafonte and hillbilly radio team Lum and Abner to comedians Tim Conway and Don Knotts.

The theater corporation was handed down from Abe and Saul Hyman to Jack Hyman, who ran it until the 1990s. Derek started in the family business at age 15, taking tickets and working concessions. He went away to West Virginia University without plans to come back, but when his father fell ill for a while, he came back to run the show. And he's glad he did.

Along with the theaters downtown and the current theaters, the business has had others, including drive-ins. There was the East Drive-In along U.S. 60 near the current site of HIMG. There also was Starlight in South Point.

Drive-ins were the height of popularity in the 1950s "when everyone was in love with their cars," Hyman said. They lost their luster as years passed, and as suburban sprawl took over, the vast expanses of land they required became too lucrative to keep.

Greater Huntington Theatre Corp. also temporarily owned a theater in Oak Ridge, Tenn., in the 1980s. But shortly after they expanded that theater, an even larger theater opened up nearby and forced them out of business.

In the movie theater business, you just hope you can stay in business for at least 20 years because that's about how many years it takes to pay for them, Hyman said. Choosing where you're going to build one is a game of strategy.

And from now on, they're going to look at smaller, under-served markets that aren't likely to have a 16-screen competitor move in shortly after they open.

As he and Vice President Greg Pauley were looking for such a place, Pauley came upon the Pierce Township area in southern Ohio, which is about eight or nine miles from big theaters on either side.

"I'm very excited (about the new theater)," said Pauley, who has been with the company 32 years, starting as an usher and then becoming manager of Park Place for 18 years. "The population of that area is growing about 2 percent a year -- people are moving from Cincinnati to the suburbs. ... I think we've gotten to this area at the right time, right at the beginning of its development."

It will anchor the 11-acre pad, to be developed by Pat and Joe Perin. Restaurants and other businesses hopefully will follow, Hyman and Pauley said.

Now, the theater corporation is looking for other small, under-served areas in the state and region that need the same boost. They spend a lot of time looking at maps to see where theaters are, and looking at the demographics of an area to see if there's a decent-sized movie-going crowd there. Most of all, they want to make sure the competition is slim.

"I'm tired of looking over my shoulder for the next guy to build on top of me," Hyman said.