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Berkeley Plaza Theatre could reopen in February

January 07, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - The young man stepped in the doorway of the Berkeley Plaza Theatre on Thursday afternoon and asked owner Robert "Bob" Elliott Sr. if he needed any hired help to get the 42-year-old multiplex open for business again.

Elliott didn't.

Though disappointment appeared to cross the stranger's face, he hesitated to leave, lingering long enough to ask Elliott what has become a famous question since the business was engulfed in flames in the early morning hours of June 17, 2006.

"When are you opening?"

His very tentative answer was Feb. 1.

"It's going to be close," said Elliott, who has a controlling interest in the business tucked in the right corner of the Berkeley Plaza shopping center off U.S. 11.

Between now and then, work remains to be done in the concession areas, bathrooms and connecting hallway for the theaters' seven auditoriums, Elliott said. Some of the original 1,200 red cushioned seats still need to be cleaned, too. The bucket-style, metal-backed seats were among the only furnishings salvaged from what investigators determined was an accidental blaze that began next to the multiplex at Duffey's Tavern.

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Elliott said only five of the seven auditoriums, each outfitted with new screens and curtains, initially will be opened for movie showings.

The remaining two need more work because they received the most damage, but he plans to eventually reopen them.

"I want to have a special grand opening," Elliott said. "We're going to work something up."

Elliott hopes former co-owner Elwood F. Lane and his wife will be able to attend.

"He was like a father to me," Elliott said.

After working for Lane for more than 20 years, Elliott said the retired Martinsburg couple decided to give their interest in the business to him for Christmas in 2005. Elliott had been managing the multiplex since 1991.

"I could have taken the insurance money and run," Elliott said. "But I wanted to see this theater back open for him."

He also wants to see the multiplex reopen for the patrons who appreciate the affordable movie tickets - $3 for afternoon matinees, and $5 for evening screenings.

"Not changin'," Elliott said of the prices he charged before the fire.

Reported on June 17, 2006, at 4:36 a.m., the blaze was a "heartbreaking" experience for the 48-year-old Hedgesville, W.Va., man who first worked as an usher at the theater in 1975.

He was paid 75 cents an hour.

"And that's good money for a 15-year-old kid," Elliott said.

He eventually learned how to operate the movie projectors, and before long was managing the Pine Grove and Sky-Vue drive-in theaters, which no longer are in business.

He was "running movies" at Charles Cinemas in Charles Town, W.Va., when he met his future wife, Carol Elliott.

On their first date, Elliott said he took her there to see "Friday the 13th."

"Of course, we left," he said, smiling.

The couple will celebrate 23 years of marriage on June 23.

Since the fire, Elliott said his wife has been very understanding of his time-consuming efforts to reopen the multiplex. Most of the work has been done on weekends and at night after working full time at Continental Brick Co. and coaching recreational league basketball.

"I think she would like me to be home more," Elliott said.

Even with considerable help from his sons, Matthew and Robert, his father, Garland Elliott, and close family friend Bill Kearns, Elliott admitted he hasn't slept much in the last six months.

"Why he hasn't lost all his hair yet, I don't know," Carol Elliott said.

A message left with Frederick (Md.) Business Properties Co., which has owned Berkeley Plaza since 1988, was not returned Friday. Charles Costalo of Springfield, W.Va., who also has a vested interest in Berkeley Theatres Inc., could not be reached for comment.

Regardless, neighboring Berkeley Plaza Barber Shop owner Bob Fowler said Thursday he was glad to see Elliott decide to reopen the theater, which opened in 1965.

"It all works together," Fowler said.

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