Jefferson native Sarah Nicholson is the new manager of the Sierra Community Theatre. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALD

Sierra gets new manager

Nicholson takes over her hometown theater

By ANDREW MCGINN
a.mcginn@beeherald.com

The role of manager at the Sierra Theatre is a lot like Tarzan or Batman.

A lot of people have played the part — some good, others best forgotten.

At one point in recent history, the local theater cycled through six managers in a two-year span.

But every so often, a studio nails it, and so does the Sierra.

With Sarah Nicholson’s recent appointment as manager, she takes over for Dustin Gustoff, which is a lot like Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman relieving Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.

A Jefferson native, Nicholson, 30, understands thoroughly just how vital the single-screen theater is to the community.

The Sierra is where her love of movies was born.

“For me, this is kind of church,” Nicholson said, describing a place where things like deadlines and bills don’t exist once the lights go down. “I got to be anywhere in the world for two hours. It’s kind of an old-fashioned idea, but it became my sanctuary. And that started here.”

Nicholson graduated last month from Buena Vista University in Storm Lake with a major in digital media and a minor in English.

Managing her hometown movie theater will give her the time she needs to finish work on a novel.

A 2006 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School, Nicholson first worked at the Sierra while in high school, when the theater was still part of the Fridley Theatres chain.

Gustoff, who began managing the theater for Fridley in 2009, stayed on as the theater made the transition to a community-owned nonprofit, giving the Sierra the most stability it had since the days of manager Lois Jean Brant in the 1980s and ’90s.

Gustoff estimates the Sierra had at least a dozen managers between his tenure and Brant.

Gustoff, who recently took a job at Scranton Manufacturing, has agreed to continue booking films for the theater.

“With studios, you have to build a relationship,” Nicholson said.

“They have a lot of rules that take a long time to get used to,” Gustoff added.

Needless to say, managing a theater in the 21st century comes with its share of new challenges.

Back in Brant’s day, a kid throwing Lemonheads was Public Enemy No. 1.

“She was serious about no feet on the seats,” Nicholson said. “Cellphones would’ve driven her nuts.”

Piracy now presents such a threat to the film industry that the studios encourage theater employees to notify police if they catch someone recording a movie with their phone, Gustoff said. Thwarting piracy comes with a $1,000 reward.

Even in Jefferson, it’s a concern.

Gustoff recently was informed following a show that a juvenile girl was seen recording a movie with her phone. He said he confronted the girl as she exited the auditorium and made her delete the movie.

The worst part, Gustoff said, was that an adult was with her the entire time.

At stake is the Sierra’s basic ability to receive and show movies.

While in Storm Lake, Nicholson worked at Fridley’s three-screen Vista 3 theater.

“You almost consistently have to go in and check for cellphones,” she said.

She got the job there in the first place when, as a customer, she alerted employees to the way a projector bulb was flickering.

She went to the counter and told them the bulb was about to go out. (Shades of HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” when he predicts “100 percent failure within 72 hours” of Discovery One’s AE-35 unit.)

“All the employees just kind of looked at me,” she said.

The next day, that auditorium was closed for maintenance.

She was offered a job.

Nicholson was in junior high when she was “infected with the movie bug.”

“Then I was lost,” she said.

That was the year she saw John Waters’ “Cry-Baby” with Johnny Depp.

“It’s the moment I went, ‘Who’s that actor, and how’s he doing it?’ ” she recalled.

Like other local movie buffs, the Sierra’s former video rental area provided a window to the world.

“It was culture, travel and experiences I could never afford to have,” she said.

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