Thanks to the hard work of dedicated dreamer Cathy Buck, the Cameo Cinema of St. Helena celebrated its 103rd birthday in May of 2016. This charming venue is now considered utterly quaint in the wake of modern megaplex theaters. And it’s the longest continuously running single screen theater in the country!
The Cameo is both a symbol of grand, old world Hollywood and small town entertainment at the same time. Meaning: Cathy has the unique experience of sustaining a business through offering what a megaplex cannot. As it so happens—under Cathy’s guidance—the charm, charisma, and carefully hand-picked movie line up that the Cameo brings to those who live in or love to visit St. Helena is more than enough.
How did this new chapter in Cathy’s life begin? During a fateful haircut in 2008, Cathy’s friend Sean Labrou overheard that the place was for sale. He told Cathy about what he’d heard, to which she responded, “We should buy it!” It was a brave idea that, sure enough, Cathy intended to follow through on. The pair then set out to get to know the preceding leaseholder, Charlotte Wagner, and the landlady. Quickly all were convinced of Sean and Cathy’s commitment to continuing the legacy that began all the way back in 1913.
“I hope that people realize that part of experience of seeing a movie here is nostalgia.”
Cathy said when asked about the competition the Cameo faces with chain theaters. The Cameo features two films at a time and turns over between ten and fourteen films each month. Every film is painstakingly selected by Cathy. “I start programming for the next month about the 5th of the month I’m in, and it takes me usually about three weeks to go back and forth with studios and agents… it really can be a nightmarish process.”
The Cameo, unlike chain theaters, seriously considers its regular’s preferences when it comes to programming. The films selected reflect the locals’ unique tastes: they enjoy period pieces, films centered on food or wine, anything starring Meryl Streep, and intelligent documentaries. It’s a personal, hand crafted film program every month. And Cathy wants her audience to feel that personal touch.
Beyond the hand-selected line-up of films, the Cameo offers rich, engaging programs that cannot be found in a megaplex. The Cameo hosts the Family Film Festival in May, a Globe Theater series feature every other month, and now the New York Critic’s Film Series. This new monthly program offers a sneak peak of a soon-to-be-released film for one night only. These special screenings also include behind-the-scenes specials beforehand, and a conversation with the actors and directors afterwards.
Comparable to the town’s many historic churches, the Cameo Cinema is considered a cultural landmark in St. Helena. The Cameo is a distinct treasure here in Wine County, thus making it a fitting headquarter venue for the Napa Valley Film Festival. One of the most memorable NVFF moments for Cathy was watching the two directors of Undefeated win the Oscar five months after the movie at the NVFF at the Cameo. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, the directors then returned in May for the Family Film Festival, the heavy gold Oscar in hand.
“They brought Oscar with them, and let the kids hold it, and get pictures taken. That was a great moment that came to us because of the Napa Valley Film Festival.” Beyond that, Cathy loves to see NVFF celebrity guests at the Cameo and not for the reason you might think. “I want the celebrities to come and see what it’s like here, and to be a part of it; what a thrill for our audiences to hear from them up close and personal in a small intimate theater.”
Despite all the struggles that come with being “the little guy” theater in the Valley, Cathy manages to bring the magic of the movies to life for Saint Helenians and beyond. Cathy Buck’s devotion to the Cameo Cinema’s improvement and longevity is a testament to the rich love the people of Napa Valley have for history, community, and the movies. “It is a tough business, and it does take community support. My vision is that this theater is going to long outlast me.” If anyone can set the Cameo Cinema up for eternity, it’s Cathy Buck.