Connecticut's Historic Movie Houses
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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, (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.
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.
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).