In all too many places, the Last Picture Show commemorated in Larry McMurtry’s novel and the movie of the same name is on the verge of becoming literal reality as small theaters go dark nationwide with the conversion from film to digital.

Like little stand-alone movie venues nationwide, the two-screen Neptune in Long Beach faces the complete nationwide conversion away from old 35 mm film and projectors in the next year or so. The historic Raymond Theater in north Pacific County recently obtained a digital projector thanks to an intense public fundraising drive. Most recently, there is news that the Columbian Theater in Astoria is raising funds from patrons to help fund a conversion.

For people who grew up between the 1940s until at least the 1960s, there will always be a particular magic associated with projectors, projector rooms and the large, heavy metal-clad disks of 35 mm film that made the rounds from town to town. The projectionist in charge of the afternoon’s or night’s presentations enjoyed a mystique not unlike the Wizard of Oz. Hefting film reels onto projectors and adapting to the sometimes-finicky machinery, it was sometimes possible to tell who was in the booth thanks to their idiosyncrasies, expertise and shortcomings.

You could also tell just how low your hometown was in the distribution pecking order by seeing how long it took the latest feature movies to arrive, and by how scratched the film had become. Long white streaks like shooting stars would race across the movie screen, artifacts of tiny sand grains inside other towns’ projectors. The biggest disasters — simultaneously amusing and disappointing — happened when the film paused too long in front of the intense projection light and melted before your eyes. The flickering illusion of reality on the screen would bubble and run and erupt into the blinding light at the end of a pitch-black tunnel. Sometimes the film could be spliced right away, but often you were sent away with a voucher for another night. With luck, you weren’t much enjoying the movie anyway.

It is good to learn that more options are now available to small theaters in the form of used digital projectors and lease arrangements. The Columbian’s strategy of soliciting Kickstarter funds is an additional wrinkle in survival strategy, one that allows movie lovers and local residents actively participate in keeping a small-town institution alive.

See you at the movies.

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