Painted Stave Distilling Honors a Storied Past in Smyrna

From silver screens to spirited sips, Painted Stave Distilling honors the history of the old Smyrna Theatre.

Pull back the curtain on Painted Stave Distilling, and you’ll unveil a storied past that Smyrna locals fondly remember. Behind the brick facade of the bespoke watering hole, the spotlight once danced upon silver screens, and the scent of buttery popcorn wafted through the air of the old Smyrna Theatre. Today, the echoes of cinematic tales have given way to clinking cocktail glasses, but traces of the theater still linger.

The Smyrna Theatre, which operated for roughly 27 years, first opened its doors in 1948 and became the area’s prime single-screen, first-run movie house. It would connect the divide between the ornate theaters of the 1920s and the multiplex hubs that began to emerge in the 1960s. The 600-seat venue featured theater standards such as a red velvet curtain, projection booth, arc light and old-fashioned soda fountain.

Kent County resident Kenneth Steele recalls his time as a projectionist at the movie house, when the screening process was much more complicated than it is today. He says just unboxing the spools was a nerve-racking process. “You’d have to make sure nothing was broken and that all the splices were good. It’d take about 45 minutes, depending on how many reels there were,” says Steele, who worked weekends at the theater in 1965. “I had movies that came in, and when I opened the cannister, the film was in pieces inside. The Mylar-type material could get brittle and break. We had movies that we couldn’t show because of that. Not a lot, but we did.”

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Even if the reels were intact, it took finesse to loop them seamlessly. “If you’ve ever watched old movies on TV, you can see the cue marks. A lot of people have no idea what they are,” Steele says. Those cue marks were used to signal the projectionist that a particular reel of a movie was ending. “It’s interesting because each reel is about 15 to 20 minutes long. So, if you get an hour movie, you’ve got three reels of film that you’re showing to make up that hour.” When done just right, one reel would flow right into the next, and the movie would run without any breaks.

The Smyrna Theatre, which operated for roughly 27 years, first opened its doors in 1948 and became the area’s prime single-screen, first-run movie house.

Steele also remembers some of the more unique details about the Smyrna Theatre—particularly the cry room, which was intended for mothers and children. “You could close the door, and they had a big window so that you could see the screen. But they would be separated from everybody else, so if the babies were crying or whatever, they wouldn’t disturb everybody else watching the movie.” A second private screening room depicted a fox hunt scene on its wallpaper. According to hearsay, moviegoers could enjoy a private screening in the themed room for one extra quarter.

Although it thrived in its day, the Smyrna Theatre closed in 1975 and was eventually sold to a local family who consolidated their plumbing-supply business in the space from 1985 to 2005. The building sat empty for seven years, until Ron Gomes and Mike Rasmussen set their sights on the space for the small-batch distillery of their dreams. Renovations started in January of 2013, and the duo opened their doors as Painted Stave Distilling on November 8 of that same year.

Painted Stave Distilling—now a charming, industrial-style haunt for cocktails like the Lemon Drop and the Pravada Cocktail (in addition to a revolving list of seasonal sips)—still honors its theatrical roots. One obvious nod to the theater is the neon Smyrna sign on the building’s exterior. In addition, Gomes cleaned up six of the original sconces, which are now hanging in his production space.

“They add character,” he says. “And of course, the original stage is still there, as well as the original columns, and we left the original ceiling paint along with the damage that had happened before we put a new roof on the building. It all adds to the feel of the space.”

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Smyrna Theatre cry room bugs bunny wall
Bugs Bunny still adorns the walls of what was once the Smyrna Theatre’s cry room.

Gomes even kept the cry room’s Bugs Bunny wallpaper. “It’s in really good shape,” he says of the still-intact chamber. “Some of the characters are kind of odd-looking, but you can tell what the intent was.” There’s also a rather robust Popeye and a vintage version of Dumbo still on the wall. Gomes says people appreciate the nostalgia. “Over the last 10 years, people have come in and said, ‘I went to the theater here!’ or ‘My parents brought me here back in the day.’” Although the plumbing-supply shop did extensive renovations, Gomes has tried to preserve what remained. “We kept as many of the original pieces left behind as possible, even down to the old air-handling system.”

Though the Smyrna Theatre dimmed its lights long ago, the building’s revival by Gomes and Rasmussen has kindled a new chapter—one where inventive cocktails flow alongside sentimental remnants of cinema. As patrons revel in the ambience, the owners’ commitment to preserving the original elements of the theater shines through, creating a spirited fusion of past and present in each visit.

Painted Stave Distilling | 106 W. Commerce Street, Smyrna | paintedstave.com

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