Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The County, The Ambler, Bryn Mawr Film Institute, and The Hiway: 4 Non-Profit Theatres in PA

I spoke on the phone today with John Toner, President of Renew Theaters. Mr. Toner is the Executive Director of the County Theater in Doylestown, PA and the Ambler Theater in Ambler, PA and the Managing Director of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute in Bryn Mawr, PA. He sits on the board of the Hiway Theatre in Jenkintown, PA. Each of these four theatres is a non-profit, community based historic theatre.

I got in touch with John Toner because I hoped a historic theatre expert such as himself could shed some light on The Senator’s precarious situation. We discussed the theaters he works with as well as The Senator.

The County and the Bryn Mawr Film Institute have two screens each. The Ambler has three screens. The Hiway has only one. Mr. Toner told me the more screens the better for historic theatres trying to remain in operation.

The single screen of The Senator here in Baltimore could be augmented by expanding the facility. I know various plans for expansion already exist in Tom Kiefaber’s archives. Mr. Toner said he thought some kind of expansion of The Senator would be a good idea.

I asked Mr. Toner if he feels it is important for historic theaters to be owned by non-profits. His reply:

“It’s the only feasible way that I know to make them succeed. I haven’t seen any commercial large seating theatres that are for-profit, (except for the occasional ones that have bands).”

Such theatres are primarily music venues, having left their roots as movie theatres mostly behind. John Toner told me these music venues also typically have over 1,000 seats. He thought that at around 860 seats, The Senator was a bit small to be a for-profit music venue, though it could work as a multi-purpose performing arts center.

Mr. Toner told me, “I don’t know of any single-screen 800 seat movie theatre that’s operating in the United States that’s a for-profit.” He added that it was impressive that Tom Kiefaber has been able to keep The Senator open as a single-screen for-profit movie theatre for as long as he has.

Since Baltimore City’s steering committee recommended against The Senator being a non-profit on the assumption that a non-profit would require ongoing subsidies from the City, I asked Mr. Toner how the non-profit theatres he works with in PA are funded. He told me that in fact NONE of them gets ongoing subsidies from the cities in which they are located. They raise money from other sources, primarily foundation and private money. I learned from these theatre’s web sites that they receive sponsorships from businesses and sell memberships. Mr. Toner also told me that they have received some state money from the State of Pennsylvania, and that the Ambler has received some county money.

I also did some research on the web sites of these theatres, which yielded additional information.

The County Theater building dates to 1938. It was run by a local film society from 1982 to 1992. It re-opened as a non-profit community-based project in 1993. In 1996, they started a capital campaign to purchase the building and do further renovation. This capital campaign exceeded its goal and the non-profit acquired the building in 1997. A major renovation was also done in 1997.

The non-profit is currently sustained by memberships, private donations, and business sponsorships. It received a Keystone grant from the State of Pennsylvania in 1998 and has also received support from at least one local foundation.

Their web site states “As a non-profit we do many additional things like historic restoration, special programming, and educational outreach. Our operations are driven by cultural and educational values. (With our Board of Directors keeping a sharp eye on the bottom line, of course.)”

“Being a non-profit also allows us to accept tax-deductible contributions to help us accomplish our mission.”

And elsewhere on the web site it says “Being non-profit allows us to accept charitable contributions to keep the theater running and to make needed renovations.”

The Ambler Theater first opened in 1928. It stopped showing 35mm films about 1970. Starting in the 70s, it operated as a Christian theater, but closed in 1997. It was sold to non-profit in 2001.

It cost $2 million to renovate. The Ambler’s three screens include two small auditoriums in what used to be the rear of the orchestra seating.

The Ambler is currently sustained by memberships and business sponsors, as well as the state and county money that John Toner mentioned.

The Bryn Mawr Film Institute is located in the former Bryn Mawr Theater building, which was originally the Seville in 1926, but was renamed the Bryn Mawr in the 1950s. It closed in 2001. It re-opened as a non-profit in 2005.

The Bryn Mawr is currently funded by memberships, business sponsors, individual donations, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

The theatre now known as the Hiway first opened as a theater in 1913 and had several names and owners over the years, but was known as the Hiway for the longest period in its history. The Hiway was purchased by a non-profit in 2003. An extensive $2.1 million renovation was done, and the theatre reopened in 2007.

In answer to the question of why they are a non-profit, their web site states:

“In the world of the multiplex cinema, it is very difficult for an independent theatre to be profitable. However, a movie theatre is very beneficial to the vitality the surrounding business district and can provide many benefits as a community resource. Because we can not solely rely on ticket sales to cover the operating expenses involved with running the theatre, Memberships and Sponsorships and Advertising from individuals and businesses as well as grants from all levels of government and foundations help off-set the costs related to the day to day business and allow us to provide new and innovative programs.”

(Photos are from the theatre’s respective web sites.)

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In Case You Missed It: Grauman's Chinese Theatre For Sale

As "AstroGirl," I would like to particularly note the following quote in this Hollywood Reporter article about the most famous historic theatre in the nation, Grauman's Chinese in Hollywood, being up for sale:

"You can't make a profit on a single-screen theater," a top industryite mused. "It's just not possible."

But the BDC and various Baltimore City officials have consistently blamed The Senator's debts on Tom Kiefaber. People more familiar with the movie industry are simply astounded that he's made it work to such a high degree for so long with debts that are so comparatively LOW.

It simply goes to show you that Baltimore City and the BDC know NOTHING about the movie industry and should NOT be trying to decide the fate of an iconic historic theatre like The Senator without expert advice from people in the industry...such as Tom Kiefaber.

Really...the mind boggles at why Baltimore City is trying to make such an important decision about such a wonderful Baltimore landmark while figuratively driving the bus with a blindfold on and earplugs in.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

I haven't gone away.

I just want to quickly assure people that this blog hasn't gone away. After the auction, it made sense to take a bit of a break, and I went on vacation too.

I'm back, and doing research into non-profit theatre models all over the country. What I'm finding out is that, as we knew already, the city's steering committee recommendation that said The Senator can't be a non-profit was absolutely wrong. It not only CAN be, it really HAS to be if the building is going to be restored and maintained to the degree that it should be in the near future.

CAN'T vs. HAS TO. That's a big difference, and one that I'll be exploring soon.

I'll be discussing models for historic theatres throughout the country and more. Stay tuned.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Rashomon Tues. & Thurs. only!

Tuesday and Thursday this week are likely your last chances to see Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon at The Senator. Times are 5:45 PM and 7:45 PM.

Wednesday's shows have been canceled for a private event.

Not confirmed yet, but I expect a different show next week.

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

Sun Fails to Illuminate Tragedy: Does It Matter?

Now that the auction of The Senator Theatre has been over for a while, I think it's time to reflect on some of the media coverage of the event. This is not to fight about the outcome, but just to raise the question of whether cultural literacy about symbolism matters in today's press.

On the day of the auction, the folks at The Senator had set up the auditorium, where the auctioneer had previously requested the auction to take place, with a Tragedy mask on the podium. I wouldn't have thought I had to explain to anyone with a basic education what this might look like, but it seems that I do. It looked like this:


The Baltimore Sun described it as [Kiefaber] "had hoped the proceedings would take place in the 900-seat auditorium, where he had set up a rostrum adorned with a giant frowning mask."

Now, I ask you. Is it really too much to expect that reporters for a major newspaper who are reporting on the auction sale of a theatre would understand that this "frowning mask" is called Tragedy and represents the concept of Tragedy and, together with its counterpart and opposite, Comedy, has adorned theatres since Ancient Greece? If so, I expect it's way too much of a stretch for them to also understand the symbolism, or the concept of Tragedy itself as defined in Aristotle's Poetics.

In classical tragedy, a noble hero who you'd think has a lot going for him is always brought low by one fatal flaw. In a more general, non-classical definition of tragedy, the requirement for it to be some grandly important downfall of a hero is gone, and a tragedy can become any story with an unfortunate ending.

Now, in this instance I don't care what side of the issue you find yourself on with regards to The Senator, whether you think, as I do, that Baltimore City has manipulated the situation inappropriately to seize control of something they don't fully understand, or whether you think, as the BDC and most of the media seems to, that it's all Tom's fault because he's a bad businessman. I think we can ALL agree that the fact that The Senator had to go to auction is a Tragedy.

So does it matter that the Sun completely missed the symbolism here? Or am I being a snob to think the reporters should have understood a concept I learned in junior high school drama class?

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