90 Years in Reel Time: No Biz Like Show Biz for the Paikos Family

Martha Paikos says you have to love a job if you’re going to work seven days a week.

Spend a few minutes with her, spot the twinkle in her husband’s eye as he staffs the ticket window, talk to her son, Nick, and you’ll be convinced that all of them love every minute of what they do: Run the Diana Theatre in Tipton.

It's been their family business for 90 years. It's been the delight of audiences night after night, decade after decade.

“More than 300 people erupting in laughter is one of the most satisfying experiences you can imagine,” said Nick, whose first job at the Diana was cleaning, followed by usher, concession seller and projectionist. 

He’s now co-manager with Martha and his father, Jim, whose first job was filling bags of popcorn. He had to stand on a box his father made him to reach into the popper.

Hamilton County residents grew up with the Diana and love the bargain prices -- $5 for adults, $3.36 for a large buttered popcorn, and 10 cents to $1.87 for candy.

“We sometimes go out and check the license plates in the parking lot. It’s often 29, 29, 29,” Nick added, referring to the Hamilton County number on the plates. Many nights, more than half the vehicles are from outside Tipton County.

The Paikoses are able to keep prices low because the Diana is a family business and they own the building at 137 E. Jefferson St. Nick’s children and grandchildren often work there.

“I have been going there since I was a baby,” said Stephanie Coy-Lykes, a department manager at Always In Stitches in Noblesville. “My mother, Georgia Harmon, owned a restaurant in Arcadia. Back in the day, the Diana had posters they would post in storefront windows and in turn the store owners would get some free passes to go to the movies.” 

Coy-Lykes takes her grandchildren there now. “It is one of the few things you can do with kids that doesn't break the bank. I love the Tipton Diana.”

The early days

Diana TheaterTickets were 25 cents when the Diana opened on June 26, 1926. Accounting for the cost of inflation, those tickets would be $3.36 today.

Another Nick Paikos, Jim’s father, bought the former vaudeville theater – the stage is still behind the screen -- to start a cinema when it was new technology. He, the Tipton mayor and some other civic leaders chose the name “Diana” through a contest open to residents. Portraits of Diana flank the stage, a portrait of Nick, a Greek immigrant, is flanked by yellowed news clips and memorabilia hanging in the lobby.

The Diana’s first movie was “The Devil’s Circus,” produced by a then-2-years-old MGM. Talkies wouldn’t debut until October 1927, so for more than a year the Diana had a piano player, a couple of horn players and sometimes a drummer, depending on the movie.

During the Depression, Nick bought several other theaters. The family owned the Diana in Noblesville in the 1960s.

A fire ripped through the Tipton Diana in 1947, causing $20,000 in damages. The city’s total losses due to fire that year were $23,995, according to the Tipton Tribune.
But the Paikoses couldn’t be stopped. They rebuilt. Surround sound arrived in December 1989, a new screen was installed in March 2001, and the Diana went digital in 2013. Saying goodbye to film reels wasn’t easy for the younger Nick; he still has “Mary Poppins” on film that he shows to his grandchildren.

Free movies

Gimmicks, giveaways and giving back are part of the Diana’s storied past and current operations.

In appreciation of the community, the Diana started offering a free movie at Christmastime in 1926. The tradition has never stopped, and isn’t likely to do so anytime soon.

Like many theaters in years past, the Diana had bank nights and shows when the audience could win prizes.

People that were kids at the time still talk about the elder Nick holding a turkey giveaway around holiday time. Joan Wray was one of the winners and recalled the day in a 2001 “Remembering the Diana” feature in the Tipton Tribune: “I was so excited that I ran down (the aisle) and gave Mr. Paikos my ticket. Nick knew everyone, including all the kids who went regularly to the movies, by name. He informed me I could pick up the turkey the next day.”

Her surprise at pick-up? It was a live turkey. “My mother and I tied the legs together until we could get it home.”

Years later, Wray’s youngest son would win a live rabbit from the Diana, given during the city’s Easter festivities.

The theater will offer door prizes to movie-goers on June 26 and 27 to celebrate its 90th anniversary. Nick is mum about what the prizes will be. Probably no live turkeys or rabbits this year, though.

Challenges, opportunities

One of the biggest challenges to running the Diana today is probably the thing most would think would be the most fun: Selecting the movies.

The industry requires theaters wanting movies when they’re released to book them for at least three weeks. It doesn’t take an economist to predict the impact of that policy on a one-screen theater in a small city. The Diana gets first-run shows, but has to wait a few weeks before they’re available.

Nick remembers when he and Jim would visit the Indianapolis offices of major producers to book movies. Now they use a booker that works with the companies. On Mondays, they choose the film that will be shown Friday through the following Thursday.

“Being with the people” is the best part of the business, said Martha, who does a little of everything but also is keeper of movie posters. The Diana gets two for each show.

She’s been cataloging them for about 30 years and sells them for $5 each.

Audiences “are like our second family. We know them,” added Martha. Remember the “Noooorrrrrmmm” greeting on “Cheers?” Spotting regulars at the Diana’s doors is the cue for the concession stand to start getting their orders ready.

In early 2001, two regulars from Noblesville stayed in their seats after the feature ended, Martha recalls. Unbeknownst to his date, the man brought his own film to show. It ended with “Will you marry me?”

He went to the Diana. She said yes. It is one of Martha’s favorite memories.

The Paikoses often have been told that movies won’t last. Prognosticators said TV doomed the industry, then VCRs, and then cable and satellite. The people this family listens to are their customers, and they’re still coming seven nights a week, twice on Friday and Saturday.

Now that’s a Hollywood ending.

By Rosalyn Demaree