This is part of a weekly series introducing readers to individuals who are passionate about our Mid-Valley community.
Loretta Miles’ father, Keith, was going deep sea fishing with a couple of guys he met on a job he was working on.
It was 1970 and Keith was a welder and machinist who was working on logging trucks in the around Newport and rivers in the Oregon Coast range.
Her father “begged” 12-year-old Loretta to go with them. “I was too cool to go fishing with three old men,” she said.
The job he was working on was the filming of “Sometimes a Great Notion,” and her father’s new friends were Paul Newman and Henry Fonda.
Things like that happen to Loretta Miles.
For more than 30 years, Miles has owned Salem Cinema, the city’s only arthouse movie theater. One of the few female movie theater owners in the country, Miles has overseen it through good times and bad.
She still loves the theater and its patrons and is determined to see it go on.
But even before she became the owner, she learned, “It’s not an easy business to make a living in.”
A defining cinematic experience
Miles was born in Dallas and moved to Deelake on the Oregon Coast at a young age.
Her father was a city councilor when Deelake and other communities were combined into Lincoln City in 1965.
As a child, she did things like appear on the Addy Bobkins Show in a Beatles pantomime contest, and spent a “ridiculous” amount of time on the beach.
Miles was 11years old when she watched the movie Town Without Pity at the theater that is now the Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City.
The movie starring Kirk Douglas was about a 16-year-old German girl who is raped by four American soldiers and the ensuing trial. Miles says it was inappropriate for a girl so young to see the movie, but it made her aware of the vulnerability of girls and women. And it was the first time she realized a movie could be more than an entertaining distraction.
“My reaction to that movie and how long I carried that movie with me, to this day, I was clearly destined to own an arthouse movie theater because it’s the kind of stuff we show,” she said.
Discovering a passion in California
Miles married her high school sweetheart at age 18 and had two children. They moved to Bellevue, Washington and then to the San Francisco Bay Area before divorcing.
At that time, Miles was as a statistician. She would daydream that when she was away from work the numbers she put into boxes on spreadsheets would, “run amok and have fun.”
“I was not cut out for that kind of work,” she says.
While living in Palo Alto, she discovered an arthouse movie theater called the New Varsity Theater.
“Down there I was seeing Fellini and Truffaut and Bertolucci, and really falling in love with those types of movies,” she said.
In 1981, she moved back to Dallas to live with an aunt and uncle and eventually started attending classes at Chemeketa Community College.
While studying communications and living in Salem, she worked a mismash of part-time jobs including in the arts and photography department at the State Fair, working for the art gallery and running the ceramics studio at Chemeketa, and as a clerk at a “hippie” store in Salem.
The launch of Salem Cinema
Judith Schoap launched Salem Cinema on Dec. 25, 1982. Initially it was a 185-seat theater at the Pringle Plaza Parking Structure on High Street.
Miles became a regular on Sundays, at Salem Cinema and took a job there in January 1984. A few months later, Schoap asked Miles if she would be interested in owning it. Miles made a deal to manage the theater and eventually buy it.
“The bathroom was conveniently located next to the screen,” Miles said. “You could hear the squeal of tires overhead. If skate boarders started coming down, it sounded like jet planes. But we were there until 13 years ago.”
According to a newspaper article from the time, it was only movie theater in town not owned by movie theater magnate Tom Moyer.
Miles saved money for years and finally purchased the business on Nov. 1, 1990. She didn’t change much. It still showed arthouse films and left the big movies like Titanic and Jurassic Park to the chain theaters in town.
But it had its moments.
The Napoleon Dynamite phenomenon
In 2004, an independent movie was being released that starred an unknown first-time actor who frequented the theater while growing up in Salem.
Miles booked the movie exclusively to play at Salem Cinema and its star – whose father, James, was her mother’s doctor – to do a week of appearances at the theater.
That movie, Napoleon Dynamite, became a cultural phenomenon, and its star, Jon Heder, was even surprised how well it did.
“So probably about the third day that he was with us … it had sold out every single show,” Miles said. “When I went out to introduce him to the audience, I said, ‘This little movie just broke $1 million today.’ And John had no idea. He’s standing there and his mouth fell open.”
In Salem, Napoleon Dynamite played solely at Salem Cinema for about 20 weeks. She only stopped showing it so she could play her normal fare of movies that were contentions for awards.
Moving to it’s current location
While most of the theaters in Salem became part of the Regal Theaters chain, Miles looked into expanding Salem Cinema, but couldn’t find the right space.
Developer David Glennie of Telos Development approached her at the end of a screening and asked if she had considered expansion.
On April 17, 2009, Salem Cinema opened at its current location at 1127 Broadway Street with three screens that can hold 141, 64 and 40 people.
“Well, let me tell you, it was not popular with my patrons,” Miles said.
She decorated the space with accents like carpet that was reminiscent of the old Salem Cinema space and decorative pieces that were part of the long-closed Capitol Theater.
“And it did not take people long to fall in love with the place,” Miles said.
Surviving COVID-19-related downturn
Over the years, Salem Cinema carved out a niche among movie goers. From events like movie festivals and appearances by movie stars, the theater built a reputation as the place to watch a movie, and get popcorn with real butter on it.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Salem Cinema was closed for about a year. Ever since it reopened for good in 2021, Miles said, business hasn’t been what it once was.
Some of Miles’ former regular customers still don’t feel comfortable returning to the theater. Others got used to screening movies at home.
There are screenings where one person pays to see a movie.
“The last statistics I saw is that most of us are operating at about 50% of where we were pre-COVID,” Miles said. “On an exceptionally good week, maybe 55%. On most weeks probably less than 50%.”
Cineworld, which owns Regal Cinemas and its three Salem megaplexes Regal Cinnebarre Movieland, Regal Santiam and Regal Willamette Town Center, has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy since September 2022. And Independently-owned Northern Lights Theatre Pub transitioned to first-run movies from second runs in September.
The COVID-relief funds from the federal and state governments for movie theaters are gone.
During the pandemic, some patrons started giving money to Salem Cinema on a monthly basis to help the business survive. Some still do.
“It’s nothing like we used to get, but you have no idea how much I appreciate them,” Miles said. “I know that one couple that sends monthly money, they have returned to the theater only for a couple movies. They still don’t feel comfortable. They want to make sure that theater is there when they’re ready.”
These days, Miles has other people running most of the day-to-day operations at Salem Cinema.
She says she can’t stand and work at the concessions stand. She sits in a director’s chair for question and answer sessions before movies.
Miles still loves the theater and movies, but she doesn’t know how much longer she’ll continue to own it.
“At 72, I think I’m probably heading in that direction,” she said.
Bill Poehler covers Marion County for the Statesman Journal. Contact him at bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com