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A reel dilemma

Dedham Square, anchored by a popular old-time movie house, fears for its survival if a giant multiplex expands nearby

Moviegoers (top photo) who buy tickets at the 80-year-old Dedham Community Theatre in Dedham Square are used to the off-beat selections at the theater. The Showcase Cinemas complex nearby runs more first-run films. In the old theater's box office (left), a roll of tickets; (above) a sign that hangs in the windows of many businesses in the square. Moviegoers (top photo) who buy tickets at the 80-year-old Dedham Community Theatre in Dedham Square are used to the off-beat selections at the theater. The Showcase Cinemas complex nearby runs more first-run films. In the old theater's box office (left), a roll of tickets; (above) a sign that hangs in the windows of many businesses in the square. (PHOTOS BY ROSE LINCOLN/FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

Merchants in Dedham Square have taped a plea in their storefront windows: "Save Our Screens."

Keeping the movie reels turning at the quaint 80-year-old Dedham Community Theatre, the square's lifeblood, could hinge on having its major competitor, the far larger and sleeker National Amusements Corp., scale back its proposed luxury cinemas planned for about a mile away.

National Amusements has plans for 16 screens, up from the initial 12, in its new home in the upscale Legacy Place development. Merchants and critics fear the additional screens will feature artsy movies, which could force the shutdown of the community theater, long known for its offerings of offbeat fare.

The Planning Board might vote tomorrow on the Legacy Place project. Should it approve the project, the board is expected to attach conditions that could reduce the number of screens.

The showdown between Dedham Square and National Amusements, the nation's fifth-largest, movie-theater chain, is shaping up like a classic Hollywood epic: Beloved downtown theater against gigantic suburban cinemaplex -- but with a twist.

The Dedham Community Theatre is not the only hometown player. The giant National Amusements chain, which holds controlling stakes in Viacom and CBS Corp., also is headquartered in Dedham.

Its corporate headquarters sit on Providence Highway, behind an aging Showcase Cinemas and on the site of one of the company's former drive-in movie theaters. In fact, some locals, who fondly remember watching a splash of Hollywood magic at the drive-in many decades ago, still refer to National Amusements by the name of the family that runs the private corporation, the Redstones.

Today, those who remember the Redstone family are wondering how their hometown loyalties will play out. If the community theater goes, they worry, the rest of the square would be undermined.

"We are sitting here wondering if there will be a last-minute miracle, that their social conscience will get the best of them and they'll say, 'We need to do better than what we are for the square,' " said Peter H. Reynolds, owner of The Blue Bunny bookstore and president of Dedham Square Circle, a downtown revitalization group.

Peter Sheridan, business adviser at Isabella, an upscale bistro next to the theater, said the loss of the community theater would be "real tough."

"If something is playing well, we get a lot of business," he said, "but if something isn't playing well, we don't have as much business."

But National Amusements has stated that 16 screens guarantees the viability of the nearly $30 million Cinema de Lux, which would replace the 12-screen Showcase Cinemas. The additional screens, the company stated, would help it maximize profits on opening weekends, enabling it to show blockbuster movies -- not offbeat fare -- on multiple screens.

"Will we hurt Dedham Community Theatre? No," said William Towey, the company's senior vice president of operations. "There's room for both of us, and each can help the other out. We'll be bringing tons of people to Legacy Place, and there will be an overflow effect. . . . Will it be unheard of for people to have dinner at Legacy Place and then go to Dedham Community Theatre? No."

Both theaters are trying to stay vibrant at a time when cinemas nationwide are struggling, as moviegoers increasingly watch films on DVDs or the Internet. At Dedham Showcase Cinemas, which opened in 1973 and where seats don't have cupholders, annual attendance has declined from more than 1 million in the late 1970s to about 400,000.

In a way, National Amusements is attempting to rebuild its audience in Dedham by tapping the spirit of places like Dedham Square. The company will transform acres of a largely barren parking lot into an almost Hollywood-like set of a traditional New England town center, complete with red-brick buildings and tree-lined streets.

But unlike the mom-and-pop shops in Dedham Square, Legacy Place would feature upscale national chain stores and 10 restaurants, along with the company's new national headquarters. The theater would boast a bar, stadium-style seating, and dining in some cinemas. The name Legacy Place was inspired by the company's 59 years at the site.

"Upscale shopping and theater -- the two will feed upon each other," Towey said.

In a gesture of good will to the square, the company at the Planning Board meeting on Aug. 6 offered to cut one screen and not to show the kind of artsy movies that are popular at the Dedham Community Theatre. The company already had vowed to set up a kiosk to promote the square, run free advertisements before the beginning of some movies, and pledged $30,000 to Dedham Square Circle for parking improvements in the square.

Yet, Dedham Square merchants and supporters remain skeptical about whether National Amusements will play artsy movies. They say the company and Dedham Community Theatre eventually might squabble over what constitutes an artsy movie, and that antitrust laws prevent the two theaters from talking about which movies they plan to book.

And National Amusements has been playing more offbeat films. This year, National Amusements launched a Cine Art program, under which at least two of 18 screens in Worcester are devoted to documentaries and independent films. And Legacy Place is geared toward some of the same consumers who appreciate artistic films -- mostly those from households with incomes averaging $150,000 or more.

A town-commissioned report, prepared in the spring by ConsultEcon Inc., predicted that, if National Amusements successfully lures artsy movies away from Dedham Community Theatre, it "could undermine its viability as an ongoing business concern."

"The margins are very thin as it is," said Paul McMurtry, owner of the Dedham Community Theatre, where he worked as a teenage usher in the early 1980s and was recently elected state representative. "Our existence relies on the top seven grossing movies of the year. If those films go to a national chain, it will make our existence difficult or impossible."

Since he bought the two-screen theater four years ago, McMurtry has tried to improve profitability by focusing more on first-run films, while adding stand-up comedy and a small service bar so patrons can enjoy "a glass of merlot while watching 'The Queen.' "

He also spiffed up the 600-seat theater with paint, a chandelier, and some cafe tables in the lobby. He's now planning to buy a new projector and fix the air conditioner.

Last month, McMurtry landed two highly regarded movies, Michael Moore's documentary "Sicko," on the ills of the nation's healthcare system, and the tony period drama "Evening." Both played at some Showcase Cinemas in Greater Boston, but not the one in Dedham.

As much as McMurtry considers his theater a labor of love, though, he's uncomfortable publicly defending it and his devoted customers because, as a state representative, he worries it might present a conflict of interest in representing all of his constituents, many of whom strongly support Legacy Place. Consequently, during the Planning Board meeting on Aug. 6, he said he could live with a 15-screen Cinema de Lux.

But his supporters contend that anything more than 12 could doom the community theater and the square.

"The happy ending for us," said Reynolds, an illustrator who has collaborated with such authors as Judy Bloom, "would be that the Redstone family and the developers will embrace Dedham Square and become stewards of our historical theater and our downtown.

"You can always dream."

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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