David Kimball, former Williams Center Cinema manager, returns to arthouse cinema in Tulsa
It doesn’t take much effort for David Kimball to recall the heyday of the Williams Center Cinema, going back to his working there at age 16 in 1980.
“It was so exciting. It was so beautiful,” he said of the experience at the 700-seat luxury theater inside downtown’s Williams Center Forum, where “the ice rink was so busy, and there were the shops, and the Magic Pan for crepes....It was all great people-watching.”
Give him more time, and Kimball — who went from self-described “popcorn pusher” to managing the theater — can remember the world premiere for “The Outsiders,” the movie shot in Tulsa and based on local author S.E. Hinton’s beloved novel.
“I remember (Hinton) being there, with Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell, and the place was packed,” he said.
“I can remember during the filming, actors like Diane Lane and Matt Dillon coming in as customers to watch a movie. Matt was unmistakable, with his pack of cigarettes stuffed under his T-shirt.”
The theater eventually closed in 1990, and Kimball left Tulsa to work for the next quarter-century as a regional publicist for Landmark Theatres, a national chain specializing in foreign films and indie cinema.
Kimball returned to Tulsa last year to be closer to family — he lost his mother, brother and stepfather in a short span of time.
He ultimately decided to go to work at — where else? — Circle Cinema, the city’s historic arthouse theater, where he’s handling publicity, building the nonprofit’s membership and currently organizing the annual Oscar-watching party.
The irony isn’t lost on Kimball, who was raised in the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood, that he’s now employed by the neighborhood theater.
“I can remember walking to Circle Cinema, with 25 cents and a coupon from the newspaper, to see movies like “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster” in the 1970s, he recalled with a chuckle.
And he can’t help but wonder, considering the Circle’s success with programming arthouse cinema films similar to what he tried to do at Williams Center Cinema decades ago, if that theater in that location might be a success today.
“It’s really something to see this whole (Kendall-Whittier) area redeveloping, and what the Circle has done with four screens and an art gallery,” he said, “and now after 5 p.m. the downtown area is just bustling.
“What I remember about downtown in the mid-1980s is people just scattering out to the suburbs. What I see there today makes me think: What if that theater were still standing? Like maybe it was just ahead of its time.”
We asked Kimball a few more questions about movies and more.
Is there something that you can point to as having influenced your love of cinema?
When I was 12 and my mom and dad were divorced, he lived right around the corner from the Will Rogers Theatre at 11th and Sandusky. My sister was 16 and worked there (and) they let me help out cleaning the parking lot, tearing tickets, popping corn. I spent every weekend enjoying the offerings of the latest B-movie the theater had to offer. I probably saw each film 10 times or more. This is where I discovered Woody Allen’s “Love And Death,” the satire “Smile,” Charles Bronson dramas and all kinds of other R-rated movies that my mother luckily had no idea about....Driving past the location now I can’t help but smile and think of all the movies I saw and the mischief I got into there as a child.
You graduated from Will Rogers High School. Any fond memories?
I had the best music teachers from elementary through high school, all of them women. I always think of my being in a barbershop quartet at Will Rogers. We would also sing during the Olio portion of “The Drunkard” at Spotlight Theatre. My mom was involved with Spotlight a lot. I met two of my stepdads through the Spotlight, with one who played played the villain Harvey Green, and the second was an emcee there.
What are some of your best moments working at the Williams Center Cinema?
It was all of the experimental programming we tried, like our “Sunday Night Special” having a different new indie film, like “Stop Making Sense” playing so loud and people literally dancing in the aisles. We’d create fun events around films, like having the French Hen recreate the feast in “Babette’s Feast,” one of our many foreign films. Or having (Oklahoma native) Clu Gulager at the theater for “The Last Picture Show” and having barbecue catered for that screening.
What is your favorite film?
My favorite has always been “Manhattan” by Woody Allen. I love that black-and-white filming, up on a wide-screen. I love that Gershwin music. And what a great cast.
How is planning going for the Feb. 26 Oscar-watching party at the Circle, and is there a film or person you’re rooting for?
I think our “Oscar Experience” party is going to be a lot of fun. We’ll have food and beverage, and giveaways and entertainment. Hopefully attendees will feel they walked into a party that celebrates films. We’re looking forward to a fun evening, and I’m looking for “Moonlight” for an upset in a category or two. That was my favorite of the year.
Where do you like to eat out, and what do you order?
I still think there’s nothing like Ike’s Chili. Thank goodness it’s still here, but it’s probably one of the reasons that I’m gaining weight, from ordering the three-way chili. My mother, to her dying day, was trying to figure out their secret ingredient.
What’s your idea of a good weekend in Tulsa?
My sister has turned me on to all these little art shows and little festivals. There are so many in the city and the state, I’m ready for spring to go back to even more of those. And live theater, I’m looking forward to that. I’ve only been back eight months, so I’m really looking forward to exploring all of Tulsa again.
Of course, you’re seeing a few movies, too?
I know it sounds like something I’m saying because I work there, but the Circle Cinema shows the kinds of movies I love. If I didn’t work here, I’d still probably be there every week as a member.