The Little Theatre That Could: 88 years of struggles and successes for a small downtown theatre

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Cinemas Features

On Oct. 18, 1929, page 10 of The Democrat and Chronicle—Rochester New York’s morning newspaper—published an article on a grand-opening event that took place the evening before. It began: “Premier of Modernistic Theater Brings Society on Gay Promenade”

“Silks rustled in the corridors of the Little Theater last evening and the banter of friendly acquaintances echoed in the lounge and foyer as Rochester society in gay promenade expressed its appreciation of the city’s first modernistic theater.”

The 438-word article went on to describe the elegant finishes of the exterior and interior, the seats, the carpet, the curtain, the two balconies, the lounge room, even the lighting devices at the entrances to the auditorium. Nowhere did the author mention that the theatre was built to show movies.

Maybe it was just as well. 

“The timing for their opening couldn’t have been worse,” says Susan Rogers, executive VP and general manager of WXXI Public Broadcasting, The Little’s parent company. “It opened a week before the stock market crashed. It opened as a silent movie theatre months before talkies took over. It opened to show foreign films before World War II made those largely unavailable. It had a lot of things going against it.”

Across the street from The Little were Rochester’s finest furrier and a successful Pierce-Arrow dealership. Close by in the downtown area were larger theatres—the RKO Palace, Loews Rochester, Eastman, Lyceum, Piccadilly, Regent and Strand. 

Today, the furrier, Pierce-Arrow dealership, and all the other downtown theatres are a distant memory. Only The Little is still standing.

Now in its 88th year of showing movies, The Little—today boasting five screens—has never gone dark. It claims to be the oldest continuously running art-house film theatre in the country.

It’s been a long, and sometimes difficult, journey.

“There was every reason to believe it would have shut down in the 1930s,” Rogers observes. “But it adapted and figured out ways to change and to keep people coming by providing content that was interesting—and different.”

On April 15, 1931, The Little showed Outward Bound, its first “talkie.” Attendees were assured that the theatre would only show “talking films of an unusual, educational and artistic type that will add to the cultural enjoyment of the community.” A tea and discussion took place the next day.

Foreign films soon followed; musicals were especially successful. By 1949, The Little’s reputation for quality attracted national recognition; it was selected to premiere Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. But the following decades saw a slow but continual decline in the theatre’s fortunes. 

Cinemas began leaving downtown; television was eroding movie attendance. In 1982, new owners bought The Little and began an ambitious expansion and restoration project.

Over time, two new screens were created from an adjacent tire store; two more were built in a former collision shop. Patrons didn’t seem to mind that those four new screens were accessible only by walking through an outdoor alleyway—or down a side street and across a parking lot—to a separate cinderblock building. It was a minor inconvenience to see the movies that only played at The Little.

By the late 1990s, the theatre was a modern complex of five screens with seating for 940 people—and a 70-seat café featuring live jazz. Still, it struggled financially. An emergency loan from loyal customers helped, and a newly formed board of directors created a not-for-profit corporation; the theatre was converted to a 501(c)(3) film society.

“They ran a very tight ship,” Rogers remembers, “but going not-for-profit was probably the defining decision that made the greatest difference in survival. Now, they could do fund-raising—and they could apply for grants. That gave them more flexibility, more funding legs on their stool.”

Still, the advent of digital threatened to deliver the death blow. “The digital switch was really polarizing for art-house theatres,” observes Bri Merkel, artistic director at The Little. “It was ‘switch or die’—and you began to see grassroots campaigns and Kickstarter campaigns and then the studios came along with VPFs. But we decided not to take them; we felt they would take away too much programming freedom.”

“I was on the board of The Little,” Rogers recalls, “and I realized there was no way this theatre could survive—not with five screens. They couldn’t even borrow money to get it done. It occurred to me that maybe there was something we could put together, so I approached my boss at WXXI—which is public television, radio and educational services in the greater Rochester area.” 

In January 2012, The Little became a subsidiary of WXXI Public Broadcasting.  “We found a way to get the money we needed through a mix of grants and donations—and the support from WXXI was huge,” says Merkel. “We emerged a stronger organization.”

“Public media was having very similar challenges to independent theatres,” Rogers remembers. “How do you differentiate yourself? How do you become a source of entertainment people feel passionate about? What do you do to keep people’s loyalty? What The Little brought to WXXI was a place for community conversation. What we brought to The Little—in addition to financial stability—is: We know how to do membership.”

“We have 2,600 members—with a 92-percent retention rate. Membership is the backbone of the theatre; it’s a crucial part of our funding,” says Jenna Iannucci, director of membership at The Little. “The benefits of membership start at fifty dollars per year. Members get free tickets and discounts and invitations to member-centric events, but really, it’s more than that—we want members to feel they have a genuine say in our direction and our growth.”

The staff believes that growth will come from thinking differently. “I love how our staff thinks about films,” adds Rogers. “Before they show a film, they ask: What’s special about it? How can we ‘up the ante’ out of this experience? What can we do to make this a special place to enjoy this film?”

“We have to do so much more than just show movies,” observes Scott Pukos, public-relations coordinator. “We have to be more creative in our programming—offer an experience people can’t get at home or in another theatre. So we try to offer films you can’t see anywhere else in the area and then have panel discussions after them or have the filmmakers come in or Skype with the audience and offer insight you couldn’t otherwise get. It’s a way to add to the experience.”

The Little offers several series on a monthly basis: “Saturday Night Rewind”—with movies of the ’80s and ’90s projected on film. A “One Take Documentary” series, a “Black Cinema” series, a “Women Filmmaker” series. They’re a site for several festivals. Frequently, they bring in partners—arts organizations, local universities, even restaurants

“We also have ballet and opera,” Pukos adds, “NT Live, which are high-quality productions from London’s Royal National Theatre, and live concerts that feature national performing artists. Each has a different goal. Some are just nostalgic or fun; others contribute to conversations we need to have in our community.”

“We have a stage,” observes Derek Reis, general manager, “and the concerts are very successful; they’re another way to help pay the bills. When we hold them on Sunday nights, we may do six hundred dollars in food and beverage. If we were showing a movie, we might make fifty dollars in concessions.”

“And I also love the café,” Rogers says. “I love that we have a place for free live music that—like our films—may introduce people to performances they wouldn’t otherwise see. Music is another form of entertainment that, like film, needs to be protected.”

“When you walk into The Little,” Reis suggests, “there’s a feeling that you’re in a place that will expand your mind.”

“We want those who come here to trust us with selections that will appeal to them, whether it’s surprising them or challenging them, delighting them or informing them, or just entertaining them—but always with a certain level of quality,” insists Rogers.

It’s actually more than that.

“The Little needs to function as a community gathering place—not just for movies, but for topics that are important to our community,” adds Merkel. “I’ve seen people walk in not knowing anything about people who live two neighborhoods over from them—and leave engaged in a conversation with someone from that neighborhood. I’ve seen opinions change during a film or a panel discussion afterwards. We wouldn’t be open if we were just showing movies. We’re figuring out ways to get everyone to connect with the movies in a way that makes them come to our theatre.”

“I don’t measure the success of a film by the money it takes in, but rather by the effect it has on the audience,” adds Reis. “We’ve had people come out of the screenings crying, saying, ‘That really touched me.’ That’s the kind of impact where we deem the film successful.”

And yet, there are challenges—philosophical and practical.

“The biggest challenge,” Reis finds, ”is to try to convince the next generation there’s value in seeing a movie in a dark room, sharing emotions and excitement with people they don’t know. We need to convince them they’re missing out by watching it on their phone or on a TV screen—especially the first time around—when it’s all-new to them; there’s some subtle stuff they may miss if they don’t see it on a movie screen.”

“Having a building that’s almost 90 years old is a challenge,” Rogers observes.  “Having four of our five screens in a separate building is a challenge; there are the obvious challenges of parking in downtown areas. We have to adapt to the realities we face while remaining worthy of people’s time and support. We have to earn our relevance every day—while staying true to who we are and the things that make us special.”

One example of the love people have for this cultural landmark: June 12, 2017 was a big day for The Little. The previous September, they had taken down their marquee that had hung there, with small changes, since the 1930s. Now it had been refurbished; LED screens had been added. It was time to relight it.

“We shut down the whole block,” Pukos remembers. “We set up chairs in the road. We had food trucks, we had a band playing—people were swing-dancing in the street.”

Twelve hundred people had shown up to watch them do that.

“And then we lit it up again,” he says.  

Today, The Little’s marquee hangs above a two-story, one-screen building still in its original location, wedged between an architectural firm and a natural fresh-food restaurant. Four additional screens are in a building out back.

Two concession stands, two box offices, and one café/bar serve the five screens, all with NEC 2K digital projectors, Dolby audio and JBL speakers. Houses 1 and 5 also have Simplex 35mm film projectors. All auditoriums are slope with plush seats—296 in the largest, 104 in the smallest, for a total of 917. The projection room is up a twisting wrought-iron stairway; art exhibits on the walls featuring local artists are changed monthly.

But to the small and passionate staff who work there, The Little will always be about the people they touch.

“We create a space and experience where people can talk to one another,” Merkel says, “where they can empathize with each other, can understand each other—because that’s what movies do: They connect human beings, they enable us to share emotions, they show us something onscreen that we recognize in ourselves or in others. At The Little, we bring people together—and we’re trying to get better and better at doing that.”

“There are a lot of different levels of service open to us,” Rogers concludes. “We look for those where we can build this community, where we can provide, at an affordable price, entertainment experiences that make a difference in people’s lives.”