CinéShow 2022: Cinemark’s Don Harton is Variety of Texas’s 2022 Texan of the Year

Photo Courtesy Variety of Texas

2022 marks 10 years of collaboration between Cinéshow and Variety of Texas, which since 1935 (under the name Variety Club of Dallas) has brought together Texas’s vibrant cinema industry in support of at-need children and their families. It is fitting, then, that this year’s Texan of the Year Award—presented at a gala dinner on the Wednesday of Cinéshow—would go to someone who’s put so much time and effort into Variety of Texas’s flagship project, Peaceable Kingdom.

Located in Killeen, Texas, one hour north of Austin, Peaceable Kingdom is a 122-acre summer camp and retreat designed to accommodate children of all mobility levels. And without Don Harton, Cinemark EVP of design and construction, it would look much different than it does today. In 2021, Harton led Variety of Texas in repairing damage done to Peaceable Kingdom’s Theatre in the Woods cinema and arcade by the devastating wave of winter weather that hit Texas earlier that year. Since then, he spearheaded the construction of Peaceable Kingdom’s Fort Walter and helped coordinate projects taken on by a group of Cinemark volunteers.

“Don doesn’t treat us like a charity,” says Stacy Bruce, executive director and president of Variety of Texas. “Instead, he recognizes the impact we make on real kids’ lives. He genuinely wants to serve the community and help make Peaceable Kingdom a better place for everyone. And then, Don does the work to make things happen!”

Don Harton (right) at the grand opening of Fort Walter; photo courtesy Variety of Texas

You’ve been with Cinemark for quite some time. How did you come to work with them?

I started working on Cinemark projects in 1986. I was actually an outside architect working as a consultant to Cinemark from 1986 until 1996. At that time, Cinemark asked me to come inside and work for them directly. So from ‘96 until now, I have worked inside the company.

If a company is keeping employees that long, it’s doing something right. What is it that makes Cinemark special?

It has always been a culture of family. It’s a nurturing culture. [Cinemark founder] Lee Roy Mitchell built a company that is focused on helping people grow up and learn to do a job well. He always encouraged you to find the things that you’re particularly good at and really drive in on those areas. He’s built a flexible company, and he’s built a company that focuses on growth—both of the company, certainly, and also growth of the people. And the company has grown enormously,

Are you from Texas originally?

I was born in Texas. Spent a part of my youth in Florida. My father was part of the NASA mission to put people on the moon. He worked for a couple of contractors, one in Florida—Cape Kennedy—and then one in the Houston area, at the NASA center near Clear Lake. Then I went to school at Texas A&M for undergraduate, and graduate school at University of Oregon. After leaving Oregon, we came back to Dallas. I’ve lived in this area since then.

Harton with Variety of Texas’ Stacy Bruce; Photo Courtesy Variety of Texas

A lot of people in the cinema industry have been in it, in some capacity, since they were children—but it wasn’t a field you were initially interested in. Did you like going to the movies growing up?

I have always loved movies. My introduction to theaters was mostly that I really enjoyed the design of spaces where people assemble. I always thought I would grow up and design churches, but I grew up and designed movie theaters!

There are fewer and fewer spaces for communal assembly. What draws you to them?

I like the idea of people coming together and focusing on something that’s happening together, enjoying that community. People living in communities—that’s what we’re made to do!

Do you remember the first movie you saw in a theater?

I think it was Old Yeller.

Oh, man. That’s a heavy one.

Yes. The Sound of Music was another movie that resonated with me from my childhood.

And what are you getting when you go to the concession stand?

We typically get kettle corn and water. I like the bottled water because I can screw the cap back on and just drink what I want. Sometimes I’ll get an Icee—the Coke and the blue mixed together. I like Junior Mints. Sometimes, if I’m getting popcorn, I like to get M&Ms to mix in with it.

Premium formats are a hot topic of discussion now, with things like PLF screens and motion seating being so instrumental in getting moviegoers back to the cinema. Of course, that relates to the design of the theater. What is it like being on the construction side of the cinema industry in 2022?

It’s always been really fascinating to think about what people will experience and then to follow that process all the way through, and to then actually go into a space that you’ve been a part of developing. That’s a really fulfilling thing. Right now, as we’re thinking about theaters, we’re thinking about how to maintain the wow. Our company was [an early] leader in PLF, with our XD [proprietary large-format] design and our next-gen, wall-to-wall screen design.

We’ve always tried to bring wow. We keep thinking: What are those things that are going to make a real premium experience for our guests? And now we’re really thinking, what other things can we do on the way into the auditorium that can deliver that premium experience? What can we do at the concession stand? Should it still be a concession stand, or should there be some other ways that our guests can interact and experience the thrill of going to the movies from the moment they arrive at the theater, and then the buildup to the big screen as they go into the [auditorium]? We’re also in the era of family entertainment. What other things can we offer our guests if they’re waiting for their movie to start, or after the movie? Is it bowling? Is it laser tag? We’re making gaming a bigger part of [our business]. [See page TK] What are those kinds of things that might be appropriate to offer?

And all these things can have different space requirements.

Right. There’s much more flexibility in an [arcade] gaming complex. Obviously, bowling is fixed, but the arcade area has a great deal more flexibility, because the games are different sizes, and they come and go. Whereas [with] auditoriums, there are certain things that you [have to] put in there. They’re very fixed and rigid, because they have to be. And then, obviously, food service. What kind of additional food can you offer? Pizzas, hamburgers, fries. Right-sizing the kitchen so you’re not too big, but you’re big enough to have the flexibility you’ll need for different menu offerings through the years.

Cinemark has also been on the forefront as far as sustainability is concerned. You introduced solar panels to some of your theaters decades ago.

[Cinemark Vice President of Energy and Sustainability] Art Justice, our “energy czar,” has been leading that effort. I love the fact that we are active, and we are certainly finding ways to introduce other features. Many years ago, we did our first LEED project, and we were even able to introduce a deal [whereby] rainwater is reused in the building. We had to think through the filtration process of how we do that. We always make the provision for solar panels so that when it’s appropriate in that particular location, we can add solar panels to the building. We have lots of buildings around the country with solar panels. Charging stations in our parking lot, so people that come with electric cars can charge their vehicles. That’s definitely a feature that I am happy to be a part of, and I’m really thrilled that Art has brought so many good vendor partners to us so that we can do those together.

“Don just gets us. He understands our needs and he’s invested in assuring we achieve success by maximizing our biggest asset: Peaceable Kingdom by Variety.”

–Stacy Bruce, Executive Director & President of Variety of Texas

What sort of work have you done with Variety of Texas?

It has been really exciting to be involved in the Peaceable Kingdom projects. We’ve done a couple of things there, really led by [former CEO] Mark Zoradi. We had worked with Peaceable Kingdom before that, but Mark elevated that at the corporate level, to where a big group could get involved. We worked on their basketball court, and we worked on their pool area. The next year we worked on the playground, and then over the last year and a half we’ve worked on Fort Walter, celebrating [retired Cinemark EVP of purchasing] Walter Hebert, and then also making a special treehouse. It’s got a great view out over Texas. Just a beautiful place to sit and contemplate.

I am also involved in [various community initiatives], largely through my church. We partner with a community in South Dallas that has a lot of homeless people, and so we go down sometimes on Sunday mornings and help make breakfast for the homeless population there. We do some projects around the community at people’s houses, where they’re not able to sort of take care of their property, and we help out with that. A variety of little things like that.

You mentioned that Cinemark’s work with Peaceable Kingdom really revved up under Mark Zoradi—when was that?

The first project that we ever did at Peaceable Kingdom was a movie theater, that one that Lee Roy pointed us to. It was maybe in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Mark was looking around for something that the company could do together; I think our first trip there was in 2018. We went in 2018, and then in 2019, and then through the pandemic we’ve done a couple of other small things.

During your time at Cinemark, and the work that you’ve done in the Dallas community, what do you look back on that you’re most proud of?

One of the things that Lee Roy introduced us to was a Holocaust museum that was being planned in Dallas [the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum]. Lee Roy, through a variety of different connections, became aware of it and started talking to the organization that was planning to build the museum and said, “Hey, we really think you need to have an auditorium here.” We got involved in the planning for that and were able to spearhead and participate in the development of that auditorium. It was a very fulfilling opportunity to be a part of. I wasn’t the architect of record by any means, but I gave the architects input and insight into how to develop that auditorium.

Not a bad legacy.

It’s being in the right place at the right time and being given the opportunities. And then, wow, the realization that this was an opportunity that was well worth it.

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