Tropical delight: Key West art house evolves from city hall to cinema center

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“Key West was made for the movies,” declares Matthew Helmerich, executive director of the Tropic Cinema, citing The Rose Tattoo and “a score of other films” that were filmed there. “We have more than our fair share of movie lore… All the themes and stories of American film are here.”

The readers of Film Journal International already had the opportunity to meet Helmerich when he exclusively reported about the Sundance Institute’s art house conference. Timed with this month’s focus on alternative content and programming, we now check in at his Florida home base. “It’s the end of the road, Mile Zero,” Helmerich notes, “the southernmost bit of rock on the southernmost American archipelago, closer to Havana than Miami.”

The four-screen art house in the heart of Key West’s Old Town is central to a community that counts some 25,000 year-round residents. Among them are many movie fans who support “South Florida’s only nonprofit, independent multiplex,” not only with their generosity, but also by actually attending. “In our first fiscal year, we sold about 40,000 movie tickets,” Helmerich reports. “This fiscal year we’ll come pretty close to doubling that figure.”

In the late 1990s, “some of those fans yearning for good, independent film that screened in cinemas ‘on the mainland’ decided to do something about it,” he says, recalling the history of what became the Key West Film Society (KWFS). “They convinced Miramax to do a fundraising preview screening of the Oscar-bound Life Is Beautiful. Using that seed money, they began showing 16mm movies in an Old City Hall meeting room. Later they moved to the San Carlos Institute, the former headquarters of those leading the Cuban uprising against Spanish colonialists,” the history goes, “where they shoehorned in 35mm equipment.”

For Helmerich, “The frequent relocations and makeshift screening rooms made one thing clear: The Key West Film Society would have to find a permanent address.” After “a grueling two-year search,” they arrived at what he and many others have since called home. “The Tropic Cinema occupies a cavernous commercial space originally built as a McCrory's five-and-dime…which had later incarnations as a carpet warehouse and a laser-tag space.” Given the “notoriously expensive” real estate, getting a “sweetheart, long-term lease” on the initial 8,000 square feet (now almost 10,000 square feet, or 930 sq. m.) was possible “only because the then-owner loved the idea of a Key West movie palace.”

Construction on the inaugural Carper Theater began in 2002 (150 seats; 23-foot/7-m wide screen; raked seating; 35mm and digital projection; Dolby Digital surround sound). “After years of screening movies in make-do surroundings,” Helmerich describes the primary goal as “technological and comfort perfection in projection, sightlines, sound and seating—an optimal pairing of design and practical cinema elements.” Harvard-trained architect Michael Miller said about his design for the entire Tropic, “I don’t separate form from function. I try to bring the two together in a graceful way.”
The art deco-inspired curves and saturated colors that he chose extend to the exterior as well, where the 2005-installed marquee, “gleaming with neon and tropical hues,” has become “one of the most photographed sites in the Florida Keys,” Helmerich asserts. “The Tropic Cinema marquee is a bona-fide Key West icon—a classic shining beacon of movie glamour. Requests for proposals to create the marquee were issued with trepidation. Our founding board worried whether they could pay for the dazzling sign they wanted.”

In another “serendipitous moment in the creation of the Tropic,” he recalls how “an old Florida movie-house marquee builder returned an astonishingly low bid.” Although he had spent “much of the last 40 years constructing fast-food restaurant signs,” sign-maker Acolite Claude said at the time: “Building beautiful movie-house marquees is our calling, our art. We haven’t created a neon marquee for decades. We want to build one for the Tropic.”

Others wanted—and came forward—to make similar contributions. “Co-founder and author Judy Blume underwrote our sweeping and elegant lounge named in honor of her parents, Rudy and Essie Sussman” in 2004. “In fact,” Helmerich continues, “every feature of the Tropic’s infrastructure was donated by local supporters with the unfaltering help of the Florida Keys’ county government. Founding board member Jean Carper helped finance our first theatre named for her mother Natella, who played an organ in silent movie theatres.” The Frank Taylor Cinematheque also opened in 2004 with capabilities similar to the Carper Theater. The George Digital Theater was added in 2007 (fully equipped with three-chip DLP projector from Infocus and a digital server from Emerging Pictures).

The Jan. 15, 2010 opening of the Peggy Dow Theater (35mm or digital projection, with Dolby Digital surround sound) continues the familial support. Named after Helmerich’s mother Peggy Dow, who made ten films for Universal International during the 1950s, including Harvey with James Stewart, the theatre received major funding from the Helmerich Foundation. “People will enjoy her movies for a long time,” Matthew said at the time. “And now Key West gets to enjoy movies in her namesake theatre for a long time, too.”

When it comes to those movies, “the first order of business is getting good film,” Helmerich says. The men charged with that mission, film buyer Jeffrey Jacobs of Jacobs Entertainment and programming director Scot Hoard, “are exacting and demanding,” even though “they occasionally butt heads with the boss,’ he laughs. “Their job is not my job, after all. But they create a strong, keen artistic vision unique to the Tropic. There are endless variables involved in getting a picture up on a Tropic screen—price, availability, market suitability, running time—but their first criterion is always quality.” Although “not every film we show at the Tropic is a masterpiece,” he admits, “our audience knows they can expect excellent film programming.”

Beyond a small paid management team, for the most part the Tropic operates with the help of volunteers. “They sell movie tickets,” Helmerich specifies. “They process membership applications; they make delicious popcorn. As a group they defy any race or age or socioeconomic stereotype, and they all love the Tropic. Their work frankly allows our not-for-profit business model to work. But even more important, in my view, is that they bring the life and the spirit of Key West to work with them—and the Tropic thrives on that. Our volunteers sell popcorn to friends; they share opinions about movies.” (He admits to having “broken up a lively disagreement from time to time.”) “They laugh and they gossip and they make the cinema a home.”

“An ideal moviegoing experience extends beyond the screening rooms into other public spaces,” Helmerich contends. “The Tropic is also a beloved cultural town square for Key West. In mid-April, we hosted an auction for Sculpture Key West, an art-in-public-places cooperative, in our lobby. Key West’s community college uses our theatres for film classes. We bring lectures and concerts and local political forums and flu shot clinics to the Tropic. There is hardly a segment of Key West that hasn’t been touched by the cinema. We believe that if you come to see your first-grade daughter in a dance recital—the Carper Theater has a hardwood stage—at the Tropic or even get inoculated against the flu, you just may come back and see a movie.”

Drawing upon discussions at the previously referenced Sundance Art House Convergence, “there’s got to be a good reason to get out your front door,” Helmerich insists. Especially when, “let’s face it, you can see much of the same programming from your comfy sofa at home that we offer at independent cinemas. Still, there is one overriding, enormously vital reason to go to the cinema: Movies are a social experience; they’re not meant to be experienced in isolation. Seeing a film in groups—even in groups of strangers—focuses and deepens the experience.”

In closing, Helmerich offers some handy advice on how to emphasize that community experience. “We greet customers by name. We fetch a bag of popcorn for a customer running late to a movie. At the Tropic Cinema, we add value by making the community cinema experience as good as we can, with service and efficiency and plain old kindness—and with excellent film-viewing technologies and comforts.”