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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