Connecticut's Historic Movie Houses

 

Everything old is new again—or so the adage goes. Torrington’s Warner Theatre (860/489-7180; warnertheatre.org), pictured above, is about to “get back”—in part, anyway—to the purpose for which it was first constructed in 1931, to be “Connecticut’s Most Beautiful Movie Theatre.” On July 18, the Warner will lead off with NBC Universal’s new shot-in-Connecticut film Beneath, to herald the first time films have been a significant part of the Warner schedule since the late 1970s. It’s all become possible thanks to a $300,000 grant from the Diebold Foundation of Roxbury.

Originally built and owned by Warner Bros. Studios (in the days when the big movie studios were allowed to monopolize film distribution), the Warner was designed by renowned architect Thomas W. Lamb, who also designed the original Madison Square Garden. “His papers are archived at the Smithsonian,” says Warner director of operations Kyle Passaro, “so we’ve been able to find his theater drawings. We’re trying to recreate the original design as much as we can.”

In the 1950s, the federal government mandated that companies like Warner Bros. divest themselves of their theater holdings, and shortly after the Warner was sold, it was ravaged in the Connecticut Flood of 1955. In the decades that followed, it was unable to fully recover against the rising tide of expenses and the growth of suburban multiplexes. Slated for demolition in the early ’80s, it was saved at the 11th hour by a citizen’s group. The Warner reopened as a performing-arts center in 1983 and underwent a major restoration completed in 2002.

The current challenge is to install the theater’s new cinema capabilities in a way that complements the previous restoration. The Warner’s most striking feature, says Passaro, is its enormous proscenium, 57 feet, 4 inches wide: “That’s more than three feet wider than the Metropolitan Opera House.” This created the potential to install a really big screen, but at the same time, he adds, “the Warner doesn’t have a fly system”—which means the new screen would need to be automated, one that would appear and disappear at the push of a button. Happily, the Warner found the one company, in Germany, that could make such a screen, which will be 50-by-20-feet. “It’ll definitely be unique for the Northwest Corner of Connecticut,” says Passaro. “You’d have to go to an IMAX theater to find a screen that big.”

Installing the screen alone will cost more than $100,000—a significant bite, but no bigger than that of purchasing and installing the projection equipment. The looming new film industry standard—which all movie theaters will be expected to comply with—is digital. No longer will new releases (or even the great majority of archival films) be available in 35 or 70 mm. The independent theater operators who have been able to keep up are of many minds on the change.

“I find it phenomenal,” says Arnold Gorlick of Madison Art Cinemas. “The light saturation on the screen is even, from the corners to the center, and there’s great color saturation and depth of field.” On the other hand, for all its advantages, Sidney Koch of the Bantam Cinema fears that a lot of indie cinemas will be driven out of business due to increased conversion costs. “It doesn’t bring one penny more from the studios,” he says.

What impresses Passaro is the flexibility of digital equipment. While digital projection will work well for the Warner’s 1,800-seat mainstage auditorium, it should also be a simple matter to use it in the theater’s adjoining, 300-seat black box-style Nancy Marine Studio Theatre. He also hopes to be able to repurpose the audio components as a sound system for performances by live bands in that theater. “That’ll reach a demographic we don’t normally hit,” Passaro says.

Right now, the Warner Theatre looks ready and able to unveil the new restoration at an official gala opening on Aug. 1. The process has benefited greatly from the guidance of Andrew Smith, a member of the Warner’s board of directors and audiovisual engineer whose Norwalk company has taken on projects around the world, including Lincoln Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But what the theater will do with its new cinema capability, on what kind of schedule, and whether it will justify the expense is still up in the air. “It’s challenging to integrate a movie schedule with a live-theater schedule,” Passaro says, noting that the Warner might show a lot of classic Hollywood films from the 1940s and ’50s. Or create its own film festival. Or collaborate on projects with local celebrities. “We’re excited about the possibilities,” he says. “It’s going to be a journey with the audience, which is sort of cool.”

As it happens, there are a number of independent movie theaters in Connecticut that have already been on this journey for some time.

Avon Theatre Film Center
Stamford, (203) 967-3660 (avontheatre.org)

How do you spell prestige? The Avon was bathed in it in 1939, when it was purpose-built by architect William I. Hohauser, who made his name designing 19 such movie houses in the tri-state area, only three of which are still open (including the Directors Guild of America Theatre in Manhattan). As with his other designs, the prevailing style of the Avon is Art Deco, though he also worked in some characteristically New England elements: red brick and white pillars outside, and inside, murals and silhouettes depicting Colonial American life. The theater was a proud feature of downtown Stamford’s Main Street until the late 1970s, when it was twinned, and then fell victim to the multiplex phenomenon. In 2001, long closed and in total disrepair, the Avon was bought by childhood fan Charles Royce of Greenwich, and restored top-to-bottom. In top form again, it now operates as a nonprofit art house.

In addition to showing first-run independent and foreign films, the center hosts a “documentary night” at least once a month. “We try to find extraordinary films that couldn’t sustain a week-long run,” says Adam Birnbaum, director of film programming. “We also try to bring in a person featured in the documentary, or one of the filmmakers, or an expert on the movie’s subject, so we can contextualize it and have a Q&A session after the movie.” Other special film series include the French Cinémathèque, presented in collaboration with the Alliance Française of Greenwich, and Shelley Archives Presents the Legends of Rock Live, hosted by musical archivist Bill Shelley, who “has assembled an archive full of raw footage of many of the greatest bands and musicians in rock,” says Birnbaum. “We have to get clearance to show them, but that works because we’re nonprofit.” Lest you think everything about the Avon is high-toned, be advised that one of the film center’s most popular annual events is The Big Lebowski Night—coming your way again July 11.

 

Bantam Cinema
Bantam, (860) 567-1916 (bantamcinema.com)

From the outside, the barnlike Bantam looks like the ideal setting for all those “put-on-a-show” movie musicals like Summer Stock and the Mickey & Judy extravaganzas, but what goes on inside is far more sophisticated. The state’s oldest continuously operating independent cinema, it opened in 1927 as silent-movie theater The Rivoli, and changed hands three times before being purchased in 2006 by its current owner, Sidney Koch. After converting his two diminutive auditoriums (95 and 90 seats, respectively) to digital capability—at a cost of $75,000 to $100,000 per—which also necessitated new screens and sound systems, Koch notes that the next step is going to have to be improved soundproofing. But the movie love of his clientele makes it all worthwhile. “After a film, it’s not uncommon to hear people who’ve never met engaged in avid discussion about it,” he says. “We even have a bulletin board where people can post written comments.” Another well-liked extra is the “Great Wall” leading to one of the auditoriums, which displays art exhibits coordinated with the Behnke Doherty Gallery in Washington Depot.

A “Meet the Filmmakers” series has, over the years, brought in Litchfield County residents such as Arthur Miller, William Styron, Campbell Scott, Mia Farrow and, most recently, Daniel Day-Lewis, who hosted a screening of Lincoln early this year. Koch himself particularly enjoyed a special event the theater did last year with Dolores Hart, the rising young actress of the 1950s and ’60s who is now Prioress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem (and yet retains her membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences). He’s also established an ongoing collaboration with Torrington’s Charlotte Hungerford Hospital—for example, incorporating the Sarah Polley film Away From Her, starring Julie Christie, in an event to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease.

Bethel Cinema
Bethel, (203) 778-2100 (bethelcinema.com)

Talk about yin and yang: Before its 22-year history as Bethel Cinema, this building is reputed to have been both an X-rated movie house and a church (no, not at the same time). In its present incarnation, owner Pam Karpen describes it as “a first-run art house that doesn’t always show first-run art films, but that’s our concentration.” On the third Wednesday of every month, the theater spotlights features previously screened at the Connecticut Film Festival; it also hosts regular Wednesday morning matinees at 9:30. “The first couple of times people come to those, they show up in sunglasses and a hat obscuring their face and say, ‘Don’t tell anybody you saw me here,’” says Karpen, laughing. “A few weeks later, they’re openly embracing it and eating popcorn with friends.”

Five days a week, customers can rent one of Bethel’s two auditoriums for birthday parties prior to the regular matinee schedule.You bring the DVD, management will provide the cake, popcorn and beverages, balloons and even a message on the marquee. As is becoming tradition at independent cinemas, concession snackers will find higher-caliber munchies alongside the usual Junior Mints and peanut M&Ms: popcorn with real butter and a selection of home-baked seasonal sweets, including macaroons and pumpkin and lemon bars. There’s also a full-service tapas restaurant, Cádiz, attached to the theater—spend $25 there and get a free ticket.

Bijou Theatre
Bridgeport, (203) 332-3228 (thebijoutheatre.com)

More than a century after its initial establishment as a three-story movie house-cum-retail store and ballroom (where Daniel J. Quilty conducted his College of Dancing for 40 years), this 1909 Spanish-style brick-and-mosaic building was renovated and reopened as the Bijou, a multifunctional venue hosting live performances, art exhibitions and films. The theater space is a hybrid, too, accommodating 225—94 of which are regular auditorium seats, and the rest cabaret tables and chairs where audience members can order drinks from the bar and dinner at evening performances, with full wait service and food sent over by Two Boots, the restaurant next door.

The Bijou’s robust schedule of select films and film series includes Saturday night Summer Classics, which pairs dinner and a movie for $25, and Opera in Cinema Sundays at 1, featuring a pre-film lecture by the head of the University of Bridgeport’s music department (The Marriage of Figaro will be featured on July 14). Documentaries are also regularly featured; they’ll be the main focus of the inaugural Bijou Film Festival held over Columbus Day weekend (Oct. 10-14), which will screen features and shorts submitted by filmmakers nationwide. Another October event, the Manhattan Shorts Film Festival (Oct. 4 & 5), is one of the Bijou’s most popular—audiences vote for their Top 5 favorites, which are then submitted for Academy Award consideration—as is The Sound of Music sing-along screening (Aug. 18), for which audience members often dress up and receive a gift bag of movie-related trinkets.

Cinestudio
Hartford, (860) 297-CINE (cinestudio.org)

Cinestudio is singular in a number of ways. It’s the only theater on this list that occupies a space—the Clement Chemistry Building on the Trinity College campus—never built to host any kind of arts project. It has operated continuously for 44 years, seven days a week, under the same managers (James Hanley and Peter McMorris), though its operations are critically enhanced by an ever-shifting volunteer corps of 50 or so Trinity students and community members who run the box office, serve as ushers, sweep the floors and act as ad hoc advisory committee.

Moreover, Hanley and McMorris have always programmed its movies (whether current, foreign and classic) like especially discerning kids in a candy shop—and been fearless about embracing films that other cinemas won’t touch. “We were one of the first theaters in the United States to screen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, back in the ’70s when 20th Century-Fox was trying to forget they had it,” says Hanley. For 26 years, Cinestudio has also hosted the Connecticut Gay & Lesbian Film Festival each June. Part of what has made this possible is that Trinity has never owned, or had jurisdiction over, the theater. “We have a very close relationship with the college,” says Hanley, “and do all sorts of cooperative things. But right from the start we had a very strong sense that we were going to show what we wanted, and if anyone tried to stop us, we would rather close.”

When entering the 500-seat state-of-the-art cinema today, designed to recreate the look of a 1930s cinema palace, it’s easy to forget that when Hanley and McMorris and six other Trinity undergrads (who later moved on to other things) first undertook the project, the screen they’d planned to put up didn’t arrive in time for Cinestudio’s opening. They were forced to raid the local Bradlees for bedsheets, which they stapled to 2-by-4s hung on the wall. Two weeks later, still without a screen and faced with presenting a movie in Cinemascope . . . they bought more sheets. Clement Auditorium became available to the group when Trinity’s chemistry faculty gave up on it due to what Hanley calls “its dreadful acoustics”—a problem corrected within a few seasons.

For the last 10 years, the theater has operated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, which helped in raising the $200,000 necessary to go digital in 2012. Cinestudio now has the capability to project in 4K ultra high-definition, thanks in large part to a donation from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. The theater officially celebrated this transformation last October with a screening of Martin Scor­sese’s Hugo, and the managers look forward to screening the new 4K digital restoration of the 1969 musical Hello, Dolly! Aug. 7-13. Yet they plan to keep their 35 and 70 mm projectors in working order, says Hanley, “rather than hauling them off to the dump like everyone else. We want to be able to show the few archival studio film prints that are still around.” So, it’s no surprise that two weeks after the updated Dolly!, Cinestudio will screen a new 35 mm print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960).

 

Edmond Town Hall
Newtown, (203) 426-2475 (edmondtownhall.org)

Billing itself as home to “the first-best second-run movie house in New England,” Edmond Town Hall has been a multipurpose municipal and performing arts center since 1930, when it was given to the community by wealthy local benefactress Mary Elizabeth Hawley. It’s still composed of a 526-seat movie theater and reception hall on the main floor and a basketball court downstairs, but hasn’t really been a “town hall” for the last few years (those offices were moved to the grounds of the former Fairfield Hills Hospital). Though it hosts live performances by Newtown Friends of Music and Flagpole Radio Café, the movies are the main event year-round, thanks to the irresistible $2 admission fee.

Theater manager Tom Mahoney says his focus, particularly during the summer, is on family fare for all ages. “I book as many children’s films as I can get my hands on because we make quite a bit of money on those,” he says, adding “since the shootings in Sandy Hook last Dec. 14, I’m trying to avoid anything too violent.” Selections also run to Academy Award nominees such as Silver Linings Playbook and the occasional R-rated film, as well as movies not widely seen elsewhere—in early June, Edmond Town Hall featured Lore, an Australian World War II thriller that was submitted for 2012 Oscars consideration as Best Foreign Film.

Lyric Hall
New Haven, (203) 389-8885 (lyrichallnewhaven.com)

A labor of love for local antiques restoration expert John Cavaliere, Westville’s tiny Lyric Hall is resplendent in its centennial year. Opened as a vaudeville house and silent movie theater, it operated for only five years before slogging through decades repurposed for several unrelated businesses, including an auto repair shop. Cavaliere acquired the building seven years ago and has been renovating it ever since, much of it with elements from other former movie palaces. “When they tore down the Hyperion Theater building, which used to stand behind Union League Café, I recovered the balustrade and used it to create Lyric Hall’s balcony,” he says. His crowning achievement may well be the 1912 Beaux Arts crystal and bronze chandelier, strung with more than 1,000 crystals, that he found in a local junk shop and spent six months restoring. It, in particular, won the admiration of actor and antiques enthusiast Danny Glover on his recent New Haven visit.

Lyric Hall hosts a mixture of live performances and screenings, but its unique offering is its Silent Film Series overseen by conductor and composer Steve Asetta. He selects the films, which have ranged from Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928) and It (1927), featuring Clara Bow, to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and The Unknown (1927), starring Joan Crawford and Lon Chaney and directed by Tod Browning, who later filmed the talkie cult-classic Freaks. Asetta and his Lyric Hall Theater Orchestra compose and perform a new musical score for each movie, which “takes about five to six weeks from start to finish,” he says. “I’ll begin by watching the film with my tuba player, and impressions and themes will come to me. I like to change it up. I always use a tuba, trumpet and trombone, but sometimes I’ll feature accordion, as I did for Nosferatu, and sometimes a string section.”

Madison Art Cinemas
Madison, (203) 245-3456 (madisonartcinemas.com)

Arnold Gorlick will gladly admit he’s particular. When he signed the lease in January 1999, he didn’t want to restore the Madison Art Cinemas (simply the Madison Theatre when it opened in 1912) to be just an ordinary art house. For design consultant, he had to have Vladimir Shpitalnik, set designer for the Moscow Art Theatre and Yale Repertory Theatre. For color scheme, it had to be offbeat-by-cinema-standards shades of Ming red, aquamarine and gold. For sound, only Dolby 7.1 will do: “I think we’re the only movie theater in the southeastern part of the state that has that,” he says. As for concessions, they had to be top-of-the-line as well. “Personally, I’m a coffee fetishist,” Gorlick says. So, the Madison staff grinds the theater’s own blends and brews every cup to order; there’s also a full-service espresso bar, and ceramic cups for espresso and cappuccino. Not to mention Big Nanny’s Soft Biscotti made in Guilford, which he calls “the most extraordinary I’ve ever tasted,” “life-changing” cluster cookies, and a little café space for enjoying it all.

In addition to its regular first-run schedule, Madison hosts a select special series called “The Sunday Cinema Club” that bills itself as the “the nation’s premier sneak-preview society”; only seven other theaters in the U.S. participate. During two sessions a year (September to December and February to May), audience members get to see movies in advance of their release dates, before any reviews have come out, and fill out comment cards that are sent back to the film companies. There are also discussions led by John MacKay, chair of the Yale University Film Studies program, and Michael Kerbel, director of the Yale Film Studies Center. “We’ve also had critics from Variety and National Public Radio,” Gorlick says.

Real Art Ways
Hartford, (860) 232-1006 (realartways.org)

Downtown Hartford’s alternative, contemporary multidisciplinary arts organization—better known as RAW—brings an infectious sense of play to the special film series that augment its regular nightly schedule of indie flicks. Take, for example, the Science on Screen program, running September through May, that recently paired a talk on carnivorous plants by esteemed evolutionary biologist Sir Peter Crane, dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, with Little Shop of Horrors. Or Matinee Mondays, the first and third week of every month, at which the mostly senior audience is served finger sandwiches and salads from Hall’s Market with their 1:30 p.m. show. A clear staff favorite seems to be the annual New York International Children’s Film Festival, held this summer July 13 through Aug. 4. “It’s really fun,” says RAW cinema coordinator Diana Rosen. “There’s lots of animated films and some silents, and they’re all really cute and adorable.”

In conjunction with local schools, RAW offers a Film Field Trips program during the school year—teachers can book an opportunity for their students to see educational documentaries such as Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks and A Place at the Table, an experience offered with teacher’s discussion guides and guest speakers “who can create a context for students,” says Rosen. “They tie in their own life stories, talk about how these events affected them.”
 

Connecticut's Historic Movie Houses

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