Connecticut's Historic Movie Houses

 

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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.

Connecticut's Historic Movie Houses

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