People have been flocking to 354 Main St. in the heart of Winsted since 1926, when the building opened as a vaudeville theater.
Alan Nero, now 62, is too young to have been there for those vaudeville performances. But he vividly remembers being on hand as a kid in the 1950s and ’60s, taking in double-feature matinees on Saturday afternoons with his pals.
For many years the theater was called the Strand. But in 1985, when Nero, a former Winsted fireman, acted on his idea of converting the theater into a movies-and-food place, he wanted to rename it in honor of his mentor.
Gilson Cafe and Cinema
354 Main St., Winsted
Admission: $8.50 (no age discounts)
Hours: Doors open at 6 p.m., showtimes at 7 p.m. daily, closed Mon.
And so he called up Warren Gilson, who was then living in a rest home in Texas and terminally ill from cancer.
“I asked him if it would be OK to name the theater after him,” Nero recalls.
“He said, ‘Of course.’”
Gilson, a technician and movie pioneer in the early days of the film industry, had previously taught Nero how to operate the carbon arc projectors in the theater.
“He put me through a rigorous training for two to three weeks,” says Nero, who had bought and began to run the theater, but for a while still called it the Strand.
Nero adds wistfully, “He never got to see me bring the Gilson to fruition.” Gilson died in June 1988.
Some Connecticut residents might remember the Poor Richard’s movies-and-meals places from the 1980s in East Hartford and North Haven, but they had a short run. Nero asserts the Gilson Cafe and Cinema is today the state’s only movie theater where patrons are served meals.
Asked why he is the one and only person doing this, Nero replies, “It’s a lot of hours. There’s somebody making food all day long. I’m here six days a week, 12 hours a day. But I don’t have a problem with that. It’s an enjoyable business.”
However, the days of afternoon matinees are over. Movies are shown at the Gilson at night only.
“We try to avoid children,” Nero says. “One reason is we serve drinks. And there’s a limited time to serve everybody. Children have a tendency to drag out what they want.” (No one under 21 is admitted Fridays and Saturdays. On other nights, children 12 and older are permitted if accompanied by a parent. The Gilson is closed Mondays.)
The Gilson’s old-timey marquee seems to beckon you with its glow. Inside are Art Deco light fixtures, old posters from the Strand — The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton, Road to Singapore with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby — and two cozy screening rooms.
The more spacious one downstairs has 160 seats, while upstairs seats 50. Couples sit at small tables facing the screen and are served food and drinks by waitresses.
When I came to the Gilson with my wife on a Saturday night in January, La La Land was playing downstairs and Manchester By the Sea upstairs. Both were sold out.
Nero, holding down his usual spot as bartender while we talk, notes he usually sells out on Saturdays. (Reservations are recommended for Fridays and Saturdays; call 860-379-5108 or go to gilsoncafecinema.com.)
The Gilson has seen increased patronage over the past several years. Nero thinks that’s because he began showing first-run movies about two years ago and some customers are rediscovering the charms of the place.
“We tend to get older people who come in after their day’s work,” Nero says.
“It’s like a date night.”
Kim Begey, standing in the lobby, considers herself lucky to live nearby in Torrington. She has been coming to the Gilson for about 30 years.
“It’s awesome,” she says. “It’s the only theater around here where you can sit and eat and enjoy the movie. It’s a nice night out.”
Begey adds, “They have top-notch movies. And the food is good.”
My wife and I also liked the servings (a salmon burger for me, an eggplant sandwich for her) and we tell Nero, who beams proudly.
“We make everything,” he tells us. “We don’t buy boxes of things. Our soups, our chili are made here. I do the meats. I make my roast beef, I make my pork loin.”
In addition to a variety of sandwiches, the menu also includes appetizers such as nachos, as well as salads, desserts (peanut butter pie, tuxedo mousse cake, etc.), draft beer, wine, espresso, cappuccino, international coffees with Irish brandy, whiskey, brandy or sambuca (all with whipped cream) and special drinks such as the Gilson Cooler: rum, amaretto and pineapple juice). A meal and a drink will likely run you about $15-$20. You can get popcorn and soda, too, but not candy.
As patrons leave the Gilson, they might notice a photo of Warren Gilson on the wall and this framed message from Nero: “It is in appreciation of his giving heart, his love of show and all that he taught me that I named the theater after him. Warren died in June of 1988. Thank you again and again, Warren.”
Randall Beach is the longtime columnist for the New Haven Register, where his column appears Fridays and Sundays. He enjoys his New Haven neighborhood, running through the city’s streets and parks and hanging out in its coffee shops. At home he plays his many 1960s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll albums and CDs.