Connecticut's Historic Movie Houses
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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.
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.”