Behind the Cinema: A look into the Palm Theatre

The Palm Theatre has been a part of the Downtown San Luis Obispo community for over 20 years. You’d think a business that has been there longer than most of the students at Cal Poly have been alive would be more of a household name, but most students don’t even know what the Palm is. No one in my group had ever been, so it was particularly important to find out why we should start going.

“The most interesting part about this experience is finding a hidden gem in SLO.  I feel like I was investigating for not only the story but for myself as well.” – Group member Audra Wright

My roommate Leila is an avid Palm Theatre goer.  She doesn’t miss the chance to rave about her experiences watching movies that she loved. So, I wanted to find out more about this not-so-hidden gem.

The Palm Theatre is located on Palm street in Chinatown of Downtown San Luis Obispo.

Opening the door to the Palm on the day of our interview with the owner, Jim Dee, led us into a new world of celebrity faces painted on the hall way wall, popcorn for a dollar and a cash only operation.  It felt kind of like being transported back into the time of our grandparents. It is a breath of fresh air from the expensive and crowded cinemas that most cities have.

“It was really fun going to the Palm theatre to see how the experience there is different than the normal movie theater goer experience. It was interesting to learn about how cinema can shape a community,” said group member Sara Portnoy.

Audra Wright snapping some pics during one of the Palm’s busy Monday night showings.

Turns out, Dee,has a huge passion for film starting back when he was still an undergrad at Cal Poly and part of “CinemaZoo“, a film showing club, consisting of him and his friend Paul Karlen.

“So we called it the San Luis Obispo Zoopraxographical Film Society or CinemaZoo. I want to say we did about 10 screenings.” – Jim Dee, Owner of the Palm Theatre

Charging about 75 cents a ticket, Dee and Karlen broke even or made enough to purchase the film for their next showing.

The process of “shining a light on a wall” as Dee calls it, has changed a lot since his college days. What was once a projection room full of equipment and film and requiring an attendant, is now replaced by a simple hard drive, electronic key and touch screen.

Even though he doesn’t handle film anymore,  Dee is still the beating heart of the Palm Theatre. He picks each movie that gets shown. “Hopefully they’ll see something that’s either thought provoking or a film was able to get to you on a certain emotional level,” said Dee on what he wants the audience to get out of the films he selects.

Dee does not shy away from controversy.  He has shown films such as Fahrenheit 9/11 that brought about some opposition.  Most recently he participated in the showing of 1984 on April 4th in protest of the election of President Donald Trump.

Sara Portnoy capturing the sounds and life of the Palm Theatre.

So now the issue the Palm still faces, a decline in student patrons. Maybe it is because of the Netflix craze, HBO boom or Amazon Prime rush.“I want to say since about 2005, 2006 the younger audience is slowly disappearing, unfortunately. I would say 80-90% of our patrons are middle-age and above,” said Dee.  I think anyone that goes to the Palm will fall in love with its originality and unique personality and shut their laptops, turn off their TVs and leave the movies to the big screen.

Josh Munk interviewing a patron of the Palm Theatre.

Getting to meet Jim Dee and learn about the processes behind the workings of the Palm Theatre was an amazing experience and definitely pushed us to become avid Palm Theatre goers like Leila. “I’m really glad that we got the chance to work on the Palm theatre because it is something I’ve always been curious about and now i have more incentive to go and see a movie,” said group member Josh Munk.

I think I can  speak for my group when I say the Palm Theatre is  an important piece to the Downtown SLO puzzle and one we can’t wait to frequent.