A Step Back in Time at the Nugget

Anyone still go to the movies? We speak with students about Hanover’s one and only movie theater, the Nugget.

by Eliza Dunn | 11/10/21 2:10am

by Hannah Li / The Dartmouth

Tucked in the middle of bustling Main Street is one of Hanover’s hidden gems: the Nugget, a cozy brick movie theater that has been serving the town since 1916. In the age of streaming services and COVID-19, the role of the Nugget and other small-town cinemas has changed considerably. Still, over a hundred years after its opening, the theater is still operating and hosting a steady stream of moviegoers.

Last week, I went to see a movie at the Nugget for the first time since the pandemic. As I walked down Main Street with my roommate, I felt myself growing excited, not only for the movie but for the general experience of the theater — the popcorn, the comfy seats, the two hours I would have apart from the homework that awaited me. As we stepped into the Nugget, I couldn’t help but feel like we were stepping back in time — to a world before both Netflix and COVID-19.

The lobby was warm and welcoming, and we picked out some popcorn and candy before settling into our seats for “Heart of Champions,” an undeniably cliche (but surprisingly emotional) sports drama. Looking around, it was clear that we were the youngest people in the theater — besides another pair of Dartmouth students, the rest of the audience consisted of entirely older adults. 

The Nugget experience hasn’t always been that way — according to the Valley News, the theater was a landmark for the Dartmouth campus for decades. In its early years, the theater was well-known among undergraduates at the College — many of whom would attend shows three or four times a week, jeering and throwing peanuts at the screen. In a Valley News feature from the theater’s centennial in 2016, the Nugget experience was summed up in its promise of “Good pictures, active peanuts and plenty of puns.” 

Today, small-town cinemas play a much different role. No longer a hub of social activity or a popular on-night destination, the Nugget attracts a much smaller crowd. Over the past year in particular, the theater has been forced to grapple with further dwindling numbers. Signs in the lobby explain the new COVID-19 protocols: Masks must be worn at all times, social distancing is required where possible and the theater is operating at 50% capacity. Inside the screening rooms, every other row is blocked off with caution tape to reduce contact between moviegoers. These hallmark signs are familiar by now, as businesses have been forced to grapple with almost two years of economic and social instability. Small cinemas were hit especially hard by the pandemic as many former moviegoers remained hesitant to return to the theaters, even after restrictions were lifted.

The Nugget was no exception. In March 2020, the theater shut its doors, and didn’t reopen until June 2021. After an unsuccessful attempt to open in July 2020, the theater offered free popcorn in hopes of attracting donations — allowing it to stay afloat until it could permanently reopen this summer. 

After a tumultuous year and a half, though, the Nugget still stands on Main Street. It is a testament to the enduring charm of a small-town movie theater, especially in a close-knit community like Hanover. Today, Dartmouth students still attend movies at the theater — albeit without the peanuts and the puns. 

This fall, Molly Fried ’25 saw “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” at the Nugget

“I actually enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, given it’s a much smaller theater than the ones I have near me at home,” Fried said. “The people who worked there were nice, I had some classic movie theatre popcorn, and the seats were comfortable. What more could you want?”

Abby Salzhauer ’24 agreed. “It was really nice,” she said of her experience seeing a movie at the Nugget this fall. “It’s a cute little movie theater, and such a nice thing to have in Hanover.”

Still, the demographics at most Nugget movies are skewed. Each of the students I spoke to described seeing more Hanover residents and families than Dartmouth students. 

“There were definitely students, but it felt like more Hanover [residents],” Eli Friedman ’25 told me. “I know some of my friends have gone [to the Nugget], but sometimes, you forget it exists. It’s not really a common thing for Dartmouth students to do.”

For many, the Nugget — set back from the sidewalk of Main Street — is little more than another storefront. Many people I spoke to about the Nugget knew of it, but had never actually been; a few others had never heard of it at all. 

“You might go out to see a movie that just came out, or it’s a nice rainy day activity,” Salzhauer said. “But I think theaters and small venues, like the Nugget, are on their way to becoming obsolete, which is really sad.”

The decline of small-town theaters can be largely attributed to the rise of streaming services, which was accentuated by the pandemic. 

“COVID-19 has changed how movies are released to the public,” Fried said. “Most movies that people would see, such as Dune, are released through streaming services in addition to theaters — and while I love the movie theatre experience, I think it’s a lot more convenient to stream it.”

The presence of the Hopkins Center for the Arts’s theater right on campus may also divert student’s attention away from the Nugget. While we regularly receive blitzes about new releases there, the Nugget is lesser known and doesn’t receive the same amount of attention on campus. 

“It’s still expensive to go see a movie, and other activities around campus are free,” Fried said. “That being said, I think it’s a great thing to do every once in a while to switch things up.”

Compared to its glory days of bad puns and rowdy students, the Nugget now provides a far more sedated experience to a more homogeneous crowd. You have to go looking for the Nugget, but maybe that’s its charm, that it allows you to intentionally step away from the world for a few hours. While small-town cinemas haven’t had an easy go of it over the past few years, theaters like the Nugget play an important role in communities like Hanover — and their presence will hopefully last long into the future, providing a welcome escape back in time for both Hanover and Dartmouth.