Jim Dee is no stranger to the struggle of pursuing one’s passion while running a business. Having spent the last 30 years “shining light on a wall,” Dee stays true to his artistic values by running the Palm Theatre, a local three-screen movie theater in downtown San Luis Obispo known for showing unique and thought-provoking independent films.
Films shown at Palm Theatre range anywhere from kitschy comedies to serious foreign films. Dee has been interested in cinema since his early days, influenced by films such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and various foreign films of the late 1960s. In the early 1970s when Dee attended Cal Poly, he set up screenings of films with his friend Paul Karlen and charged 75 cents per seat. After graduating, Dee decided to go all-in with film. He built a single-screen movie theater called the Rainbow Theatre in 1978, which he ran for 10 years.
Graphic by Audra Wright
At the time, San Luis Obispo was in need of a nontraditional theater, and Dee turned that idea into reality.
“I thought, ‘Not only does this place need a theater, but I’d love to see a theater that does something a little bit different from a multiplex,’” Dee said.
In 1988, Dee moved to a thenclosed employment office and created Palm Theatre.
According to Dee, his goal in creating Palm Theatre was to give moviegoers an opportunity to see a movie that made them say “wow,” and learn something about themselves in the process.
“I just like people knowing that there’s a place where they can go,” Dee said. “We’re not a big movie palace, but hopefully it’s a comfortable environment. And hopefully they’ll see something thought-provoking.”
Graphic by Audra Wright
For the past 25 years, Cayucos resident Ron Goebel has gone to Palm Theatre with his wife Nancy, an accomplished children’s book author.
“We just come when we can, and the films are really good, that’s what draws us in. Out-of-the-box, non-mainstream kind of films,” Goebel said.
According to Goebel, Dee has put more than just emotional dedication into creating and maintaining Palm Theatre.
“I think that Jim has put his heart and soul, and his resources — his finances into this. He sees support from the community, and it endures,” Goebel said.
Dee saw a steady decline in the numbers of college students coming into Palm Theatre over the years, but it’s still some students’ first choice.
For industrial engineering senior Leila Miller, Palm Theatre is as much about the experience of being in the theater as it is seeing the movie.
“It’s a very eccentric, independent vibe. We went in and it was a tiny front entrance, and right behind the box office it’s directly connected to the concession stand. I just remember thinking ‘This is so unique,’” Miller said. “With its smaller theater sizes, I could see pretty much everybody in the theater and it kind of adds to the experience. It’s a much more personal experience.”
Palm Theatre manager Meg Higdon sees her workplace as a creative environment.
“I think it’s just a wonderful place; that’s why I’ve worked here for 11 years,” Higdon said. “I get to work in an environment that is kind of artistic. We talk about interesting films we’ve seen and a lot of us are artists, so we work together and draw together, it’s nice.”
Cal Poly film professor Douglas Keesey manages to support Palm Theatre through his work at the school. Keesey teaches a course with a component that includes screening student films at the theater every quarter. He thinks this particular theater stands apart from others in town.
“As great as some Hollywood films are, they can get boring after a while because they tend to be quite formulaic. Often you can predict what is going to happen next. In addition, they tend to be escapist entertainment aimed at adolescents,” Keesey said in an email to Mustang News. “If you want to see a film that can help you as an adult deal with real-life issues, that can take you deeper into feeling and understand, you are more likely to find that kind of film at the Palm.”
Video by Sara Portnoy
Dee searches for these types of films, focusing on subject matter that might not be seen at other theaters. When asked why he thinks students should go to Palm Theatre, Dee broke it down to one word: curiosity.
“I think, especially for students, the key word is curious. Maybe there’s a film [there] that you never heard of, just be curious. There’s a lot of amazing cinema out there beyond the multiplex,” Keesey said.