The Howell Theatre in downtown Smithfield, one of the Triangle's oldest movie theaters, has been sold.
Chuck and Amy Kirkman, who moved to Wake Forest from New Jersey a few years ago, bought the Howell from Mickey Buffaloe for an undisclosed amount. The Kirkmans plan to keep the Howell's strategy of showing second-run movies for $2.50 per ticket.
The Howell opened in 1935 and has gone through several rounds of renovations over the years. Buffaloe mostly avoided "R" rated movies and worked to attract school and church groups to the four-screen theater with hardwood floors.
"We really like the operation and the family feel to the place," Chuck Kirkman said in a phone interview. "We're not going to raise prices just to make profit-profit-profit."
The Kirkmans, who have children ages 10 and 12, "covertly did the spy routine as customers to see how things were run" before making an offer, Chuck Kirkman added. "I look at this as somewhat recession-proof, with the cheapest entertainment in town. It's a solid investment."
But he added that "it would be foolish not to be a little nervous" given the recession and trend of consumers cutting back. The new owners plan to gradually make improvements such as adding a computerized ticketing system.
Kirkman, who has worked for Panasonic in New Jersey for 15 years, is continuing his day job while his brother David manages the Howell and his wife Amy does the ordering and other office work from home.
Buffaloe, 53, bought the Howell in 1999 but has been distracted by some health problems and family matters in recent years.
"Being tied down seven days a week, I just couldn't ever see daylight anymore," he said. "If I got to bed before midnight, I was lucky."
Buffaloe declined to discuss the exact finances of the sale. "I pretty much broke even with what I put into it," he added. "We put a pile of money into updating things. I've lived off it for 10 years, that says something, too."
Rising costs for concessions, the state's higher minimum wage and tougher competition hurt the Howell's business in recent years. A 10-screen theater in Garner tried $2 tickets and second-run movies for a few months last year but then switched back to showing current movies at higher prices.
Not everyone is giving up on the cheap seats strategy. In November, the Varsity Theater on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street reopened, showing recently released and classic movies for $3.
Buffaloe raised ticket prices at the Howell by 50 cents last summer and that helped fuel a "steady climb back up" despite the economic downturn. "I had to have that before anyone would be interested in buying it," he said.
Buffaloe said he probably could have tried to squeeze a little more money out of the sale, but he found a buyer who would keep the theater going. "I wanted them to feel like they could come in and make a living," he added.