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As pandemic roars, the credits may roll for a small-town movie house

It’s a scary suspense thriller worthy of Alfred Hitchcock’s wild imagination

Owners Michelle and Bret Hardy posed for a portrait at the Cameo Theater in South Weymouth. They miss the days when the theaters were crowded with moviegoers.
Owners Michelle and Bret Hardy posed for a portrait at the Cameo Theater in South Weymouth. They miss the days when the theaters were crowded with moviegoers.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

He rubs elbows with Hollywood royalty now, but a part of Billy Dowd is still that little kid from Scituate.

The young boy who would go bowling with friends on rainy Saturday afternoons and then purchase a ticket at his local movie theater’s box office from classmates who worked there behind the glass.

He’d buy a box of popcorn. Settle into his seat as the lights dimmed.

And then he’d be transported.

To an exotic planet in a universe far, far away. To the center of a heartbreaking love story. Into the driver’s seat during a hair-raising car chase.

He’s become a sought-after casting director so, naturally, he still loves the movies.

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And he loves the places that project them — cinemas whose audiences have now dwindled dramatically as the deadly COVID pandemic rages on.

“What do you do on a rainy Saturday afternoon? Gee, let’s go to the movies,” Dowd told me the other day, when I reached him in Oklahoma where he’s at work on Martin Scorcese’s latest film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” starring the likes of Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Cameo Theater in South Weymouth.
The Cameo Theater in South Weymouth.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“Nowadays, it’s all changed, of course,” he said.

Yes. Get me rewrite. Everything’s changed.

Squeeze into seats in the middle of a row in a crowded and darkened theater? No thanks. Share some popcorn? I don’t think so.

You don’t have to tell that to the couple who run the latest incarnation of Billy Dowd’s old movie cinema.

People are lining up for vaccinations, not movie tickets. There are more death notices than film reviews.

It’s a horror show that would even frighten the bejesus out of Alfred Hitchcock.

Few people know that as well as Bret and Michelle Hardy. They now operate the Mill Wharf Cinema in Scituate, where Billy Dowd once watched Natalie Wood star in “West Side Story.”

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They also operate the Cameo Theater in South Weymouth, where the lobby wallpaper is imprinted with images of Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne, of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable.

Both 51 now, they met at a movie theater. And, as screenwriters like to say, they were simply meant for each other. Cue the romantic music.

As a teenager, Bret worked as an usher at a cinema in Pembroke, working his way up to a job as a manager and projectionist. Michelle studied communications and film at Boston College.

One of two theaters at the Cameo Theater in South Weymouth.
One of two theaters at the Cameo Theater in South Weymouth.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“I liked movies. He liked movies,” Michelle told me as we talked at the South Weymouth cinema. “He worked in a movie theater. So that kind of brought us together.”

And how did their early, personal love story end? The way Hollywood would script it: happily ever after.

Bret now works as a marketing director for the US division of an Italian mechanical equipment company. Michelle is a freelance copy writer. They’ve got three children.

In 1998, when the company that had operated the movie theater in Scituate decided to exit, they raised their hands, leased the building. And a new venture was launched.

“I always hoped that I would have my own movie theater,” Bret said. “I enjoyed working at them. I just liked being in theaters. I always kept my eyes open for opportunities.”

“People are always very happy when they come here,” Michelle said. “Everyone’s so nice.”

It was going so well. And then history stepped in. A killer medical tidal wave. A pandemic. And a sea of empty seats. And red ink.

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And now, closed doors.

“We would announce the show times on the phone,” Bret said. “So instead of that, I said, ‘I’m sorry. We’re temporarily closed. We plan to reopen on April 1.’ That was March 14th last year. We thought we were going to be closed for two weeks.

“And here we are a year later.”

What’s this been like? An absolute disaster. Revenues down over 90 percent since last March. There’s hand sanitizer on the counter. There are small round disks on the lobby’s carpet with images of red shoes accompanied by this instruction that no one now reads: “Please stand here. Keep social distance.”

Welcome to the movies in 2021.

“It became a chicken-and-the-egg situation, where the theaters couldn’t be open so the studios didn’t want to release movies to empty theaters,” Bret said. “And because there were no movies to show. …”

His voice trailed off into his empty theater.

“The bottom line is even right now the studios just aren’t putting out enough product to make it viable to open,” he said. “There’s no mainstream movies. Nothing that would be able to generate enough business to make it worthwhile.”

They miss the old place. The laughter from the audience. The hubbub in the lobby. The applause after the final climactic scene.

They’re waiting for that against-all-odds ending of their own. They’re longing for those days when lines of customers stretched toward the box office. When the popcorn machine worked full blast. When the lights dimmed on a packed house.

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The landlords, however, are asking officials in Scituate to allow them to convert the movie theater there into four condominium units, and room for 900 square feet of retail space — space where the Hardys used to work.

All of that sounds like curtains for the movies and those who make a living showing them.

“I do believe movies will return,” Michelle said. “I have faith that people are going to want to go out and see the movies. It’s a community experience. And it is special when everyone claps at the end of the movie. We’re still happy we did it.”

She turns to her husband and adds: “A little hiccup, right?”

“A fairly big hiccup,” he said.

There’s no denying that.

For now, they’re following the COVID news and the orders that come from the State House in Boston or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Capacity is still limited in the auditorium and there are changing guidelines on food,” Michelle told me in South Weymouth. “It’s not feasible to run the theaters.”

They’ve devoted much of their lives to this endeavor.

They’ve watched couples on date nights return later as married couples. They’ve watched teenagers on those awkward first dates. They’ve welcomed senior citizens into the embrace of a warm theater that, to them, had become a familiar entertainment parlor.

They miss all that.

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Billy Dowd misses all that, too.

“I miss the movies,” Dowd said. “Going to the movies where you’re sitting with 100 people or with 500 people. And you all laugh or cry at the same time. I miss that. I miss movies terribly.”

With a classic line like that, it’s tempting to say: Roll the closing credits.

But Dowd and people like Bret and Michelle Hardy would prefer, instead, to borrow Arnold Schwarzenegger’s catchphrase from the 1984 science fiction movie, “The Terminator.”

“I’ll be back.”

But in these uncertain times, they know it’s probably safer to embrace this familiar cliffhanger tag line:

“To be continued.”




Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.