“The theater is the heart of the community,” said Allred Theatre owner, Gene Oliver.
As in many small towns, the Allred, located on Main Street, is the heart of Pryor. Photographers Tony and Eve Worobiec, of England are hoping to capture the beauty of small town cinemas in their new book “Icons of the Highway: Celebration of Small Town America.”
Tony Worobiec has published several books including “Rhythms of the Land,” “Beyond Monochrome, Toning and Handtinting Photographs” and “Photo Art.” Together Tony and Eve have published “Abandoned America: Ghosts in the Wilderness.”
“The book (Abandoned America) itself was about the abandoned homesteads that you might find in America. Then we thought we needed to do a follow up book,” said Tony.
Their publisher was also interested in what would follow.
“We kept coming back to the state looking for a new project. We just couldn’t see it at all. Then we realized that each time we went to a diner, we went to a hotel, they were disappearing. The ones that we used to go to were disappearing. Then we thought the whole downtown seems to be shifting out toward the motorway,” said Tony. “Then we suddenly realized that these lovely old fashioned cinemas were doing the exactly the same. They’re moving to these mega complexes. This is really a culture we associate with America, we’re thinking about the 50’s and 60’s. It’s when America was set aside from the rest of the world. When America was really at its peak as far as culture is concerned. So we thought let’s see if we can discover it. Let’s see if we can find it. We decided what we needed to do was cinemas.”
Eve said that maintaining an interest in small towns is really the goal of the couple as they work on their book. They want to capture the things “Europeans would associate with the U.S.A. like movie theaters, motels with great big showy (signs), diners ... symbols of America,” Tony said.
Oliver agreed with the concept of the Worobiec’s new book.
“They are here to present Pryor as part of that Americana,” Oliver said.
Once their idea was conceived, Eve went to work doing research.
“Just by chance I came across two or three informative Web sites. One is by a woman who travels a lot around the state with her dogs. She was taking her dogs to some kind of show and in doing so she ... started a Web site. She set up Web site links that took me to Cinema Treasures,” said Eve.
By using those sites, Eve said she was able to find contact information and reach local chambers of commerce as well as make appointments with small town cinemas including Pryor’s Allred.
The couple broke down the nation into five routes. The first is the “High Line” which included North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. The second was a route called “Rockies to the Prairies.” The third was “Route 66” which included the New Mexico and Arizona areas. The fourth is the “Southwest Dessert” route. The final route is called the “Yellow Brick Road” which includes the Allred and will end somewhere in Kansas. These will also be the five sections of their book.
As the Worobiecs approached Pryor, they traveled through some of Pryor’s neighboring towns.
“We drove into Claremont (Claremore) and we thought we’re not too sure about this place and it didn’t offer an awful lot. We knew there was this cinema in Pryor. So we thought forget about Claremore and came straight to Pryor,” Tony said.
Once in Pryor, Tony said they had to work fast to get the right shot.
“The problem is we only have a very short window of opportunity. When we photograph, we literally have about 20 minutes in any day. In those 20 minutes as the sun goes down ... we got to get it right,” said Tony.
The reason the window is so narrow is all related to the lighting.
“We’re trying to photograph the cinemas in all their glory which is usually as the lights are coming on and the sun sets,” Eve said.
The theater was built in 1917. In its 90-year history, the Allred has been owned by only two families, the Allreds and the Olivers. The Olivers bought the theater in 1963.
“Every movie that is historic has played in this theater,” said Oliver.
From silent movies to the new digital format, the Allred has played movies for crowds from all around the Pryor area. Originally, the theater had one large screen with 653 seats. Now the theater has expanded to five screens and has 506 seats.
Oliver said the Allred is the oldest continually operating movie theater in the state of Oklahoma.