True believer in film banks on cinema's magic

April 04, 1993|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,Staff Writer

At 15, Bob Weinholt lied about his age to get his first job in a movie theater as an usher. He never left the theater business, working his way up to manage concession stands, run the projector, manage a theater, then head a district full of theaters.

Today, the Bel Air 40-year-old is one of the biggest independent movie theater owners in Maryland, with nine theaters, 44 screens and 150 employees.

"Movies," said Mr. Weinholt, "are here to stay. They have survived two world wars, a Great Depression and the advent of television. Movies still provide the best value for the entertainment dollar."

Mr. Weinholt, who in 1982 opened four cinemas in what is now Tollgate 7, added three cinemas to Tollgate in 1986, the same year he opened Beards Hill 5 in Aberdeen.

Now his company, Greater Baltimore Cinema, plans to expand the Tollgate movies with a 340-seat theater, equipped with a four-track stereo system and a 12- by 28-foot screen. The theater could open by mid-summer.

Mr. Weinholt said he can compete with the much larger chain-operators such as Loews, United Artists and General Cinema because of his knowledge of the market.

"I have observed Baltimore movie-goers for nearly 25 years and have a real feel for what they want," he said. "If I'm allowed to compete on a level field with the large chains, I believe I can beat them."

He gets annoyed when he hears complaints about ticket prices.

He points out that the top ticket price at a Tollgate theater is $5 and asks, "Can you purchase the best seat at Oriole Park at Camden Yards for that price? How about at the Baltimore Arena for indoor soccer, ice hockey, indoor lacrosse, wrestling, the circus or a rock concert? The answer, of course, is no."

Concessions, which provide a major source of income, are also in line with the market, says Mr. Weinholt, who at 10 sold popcorn to the kidswho came to his Highlandtown house to watch cartoons he showed with a toy projector.

"I've read that a family of four will spend approximately $100 attending an Oriole game. That same family wouldn't spend half that much" at a movie, he says.

In 1978, while he was working at the Strand in Dundalk, JF Theaters announced the chain was going out of business. He soon became aware that the new owner was looking for a buyer for the Strand. "I loved that theater and decided it was a perfect place to start my business," said Mr. Weinholt.

It took a few months to negotiate a lease and get financing. Then in June 1979 he opened his first theater, with "Grease" as the first attraction.

Now the original seats from the Strand are being reconditioned and will be installed in the new Tollgate theater.

In addition to Tollgate and Beards Hill, Mr. Weinholt owns the Perry Hall 7, the Edgewood Twin, the Elkton 4, the Waldorf 5, the Southside 4 and two cinemas in Pennsylvania -- the four-theater Cinema '83 in York and the Lancaster 6.

Also on the drawing board is a six-theater complex in Howard County on U.S. 40 at the former site of The Enchanted Forest.

Plans call for one 400-seat theater, two with 200 seats and three with 150 seats. The complex could be complete before Christmas, he said.

"I'm always looking for areas to expand," he said. "I really believe in this business."

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