All-star players: League of Historic Theatres lands in New York City


“With almost 400 attending, this was our largest conference to date,” says Ken Stein, executive director of the League of Historic American Theatres. “We have seen an increase in each of the last three years—San Diego, Minneapolis and New York City—which I think is a testament to our national stature.”

The program of the 38th Annual Conference & Theatre Tour in mid-July included trips to the United Palace, the onetime Loew’s 175th Street Wonder Theatre, and the equally legendary Apollo Theatre, which was Stein’s favorite visit. “They seemed as proud of their accomplishments as they were to be a new League member,” he observes. “It was pretty special for this visit to be the first official event of the conference.”

“It had been over a decade, but we felt right at home,” Stein says of New York City. “As organizers, we feared it might be too expensive or too far away for our members to travel. Neither proved true. We offered over 30 education sessions, 18 theatre tours and eight special events, making this certainly our most exhausting but worthwhile conference in recent history. In the City That Never Sleeps, neither did we.”

With the annual get-together of professional (live and movie) theatre operators and their service providers landing at our own doorstep, Film Journal International received its own wake-up call. It’s been 11 years since we first reported about LHAT convening in Miami, Florida. On an additional administrative note, this report—along with our celebration of the 40th anniversary of Sensurround in the September issue—will mark a renewed editorial focus on our industry’s heritage, with regular features about classic movie houses and other contributions honoring its great history.

LHAT was founded in 1976 by 42 theatres sharing a mission “to champion the preservation, restoration and operation of historic theatres.” Today, more than 300 theatre and service provider members from across the United States and Canada participate in the nonprofit organization. “We continue to see a divide between the small, rural theatres that struggle to stay open and the larger, urban-based theatres which seem to make a better go at it,” Stein tells us. Fittingly, a plenary session at Disney’s New Amsterdam Theatre provided suggestions on how “The Rise, Fall and Renaissance of 42nd Street” could be a “A Symbol of What Is Happening to Main Street USA.” “In our education sessions, we showcased examples of smaller theatres doing exceedingly well to make the point that you do not have to be on Broadway to successfully operate a historic theatre.”

Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and Belfast, Maine, will do just fine, as long as your theatres are named Colonial. The former treasure was part of a session on “The Dog That Caught the Car: You’ve Got Your Historic Theatre—Now What??,” while the latter’s owner-operator Mike Hurley advertised “the world’s leading collection” of large marquee and sign letters at the accompanying service provider expo. Operating five first-run screens at two locations, Hurley has plenty of experience that he was happy to share.

At the “Dog” session, Mary Foote, the Phoenixville Colonial’s enterprising executive director, spoke candidly about the challenges and opportunities involved with expanding the existing space (“too much balancing with only one screen”) and the programs offered (“we always had a bigger vision”) into the adjoining former bank and newspaper building. She stressed the importance of creating a task force in addition to a strong leadership board, of writing a case statement and executing a planning study for fundraising and general strategy.

With their guidance and case support, the consultants from the Palmer Westport Group (who hosted the panel) have been equally instrumental in making sure that McKee Rocks rocks again. Key to the revitalization of this borough located about three miles from downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is getting the 1928 Roxian Theatre up and running again for live music performances. According to Taris Vrcek from the local community development corporation, the Roxian “represents the single most important catalyst in creating a destination” that will make 17,000 passing cars a day “finally stop there” and includes a business park, housing and more. Setting up a $100 million facility that will create 1,000 jobs was easier than finding a solution for the theatre, Vrcek said only half-jokingly. “We were stuck and at a standstill” before attending last year’s LHAT conference became a “real game-changer for us.”

That even old (and successful) dogs can change their tricks became evident in a similarly themed workshop headed by The North Group consultants. Amongst the “real-life case studies to help you position your organization to launch a successful capital campaign…for facilities renovation, expansion, debt elimination, working capital, and endowment” was the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation. Yes, we are writing about one of America’s premier venues for specialty films. Saved from the wrecking ball 25 years ago in Brookline, Massachusetts, the Coolidge last renovated its 1933 art deco interior in 2008 and found additional screening spaces to host some 7,500 screenings and events now that attract 223,000+ attendees each year. Some 3,000 members and more than 11,000 donors contribute 18% to the annual budget, with the balance actually being earned, which is an amazing number in the nonprofit world of historic theatres. But “people still have to wait outside because we have no lobby space,” noted the Foundation’s executive director, Kathy Tallman. Not surprisingly, the 148-page report issued by the consultants showed more waiting space and concessions as very big items on the want-list. The planned expansion will also include a fifth, 180-seat auditorium. “We are going to raise the money needed for all this or forget about it,” Tallman said of the goal of not incurring any debt while paving the way for the future. Getting the funding for its $300,000 digital-cinema conversion was “relatively easy,” she assured, as Coolidge-goers “respond well to specific needs.”

As the session host who asked “Are Classic Film Presentations Still Viable in the 21st Century?” John Bell, president and chief executive officer of the Tampa Theatre in Tampa, Florida, answered with a resounding yes. “It is low-risk financially,” in comparison to bringing in live performances and touring acts, and “a big part of the history of many of these great buildings,” he said. “It makes sense.” The current president of LHAT further reminded everyone that “movies as the popcorn of culture” can break down barriers and “demystify your institution,” introducing new audiences to the venue and helping in the creation of a “non-elitist brand identity.” He highly recommended getting a film booker to deal with the complexities of buying. “We used to be film purist. No more! We’ve gone digital.” And as Bell shared with our readers last year (FJI September 2013), “It is awesome!”

Becky Hancock, executive director of Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation in Knoxville, concurred that audiences “have a high expectation of quality in film presentation and no longer accept scratchy prints.” The Tennessee Theatre, which received a $23.5 million restoration in 2004, shows The Rocky Horror Picture Show every fall and hosts an annual “Summer Movie Magic” series to complement the live entertainment options in the 1,540-seat palace. Hancock noted how fruitful their partnership has been with Regal Entertainment Group, not just in securing digital projection equipment. Greg Dunn, president and chief operating officer of Regal, currently serves on the Tennessee’s board of directors.

While the Tampa Theatre primarily shows first-run specialty product, key to the success of its classic films was offering them at the same day and time, no matter what. “The community knows,” Jill Witecki, director of marketing and community relations, said of the theatre’s commitment to Sunday afternoon classics some 20 years ago. Seasonal series of “Summer Classics,” “Family Favorites” and “A Nightmare on Franklin Street” have fixed time frames on the annual calendar as well. To counteract the impression that “we are that old theatre that shows old movies,” the definition of what is a classic has been expanded, alongside reaching younger audiences, changing tastes and by letting people pick their favorites.

That policy has proven equally successful at the Carolina Theatre of Durham, North Carolina, together with changes in the way the events are publicized, confirmed Aaron Bale, chief operating officer and director of marketing. In just three years, attendance for live events has doubled, as have concession sales. Revenue for the daily film program is up more than 30% and daily afternoon shows are on “for the first time in 40 years.” Aside from the main auditorium from 1926, year-round Cinema One and Two were created in 1993 during construction of the adjacent Durham Convention Center. Called “The 88-Year-Old Startup” for its own session, the presentation showed “How the Carolina Theatre Reinvented and Revitalized…by Changing Everything It Did.” Under the heading of Retro Film Series, for instance, the Carolina cinemas go “Retrofantasma” (“a monthly double feature where some of the greatest and most fun scary movies ever made are playing on the big screen again”) and offer both “RetroClassics” (“Some of these films are considered masterpieces while others are simply great ‘bad’ movies”) and “RetroTreasures” (“comedies and dramas from the early ’30s through the mid-’90s and the kitchen sink…”). Bale also noted that Retro happens on “one of our big nights, not some off-Wednesday.” He too agreed on the importance of having a professional film buying service and credited Adam Birnbaum, director of film programming for the Avon Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut. Birnbaum previously shared his perspective on “Life Without 35mm” with FJI.

Film buyer Jeffrey Jacobs of Rye, New York, and Dominick Balletta, managing director at Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York, joined the second Conference panel dedicated to film programming. Led by Stephanie Silverman of the Belcourt Theatre (host of next year’s 39th Conference in Nashville, Tennessee) and Russ Collins of the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Art House Convergence conference director, “Historic Theatres as Centers for Cinema Culture and Education” examined “why modern digital-cinema technology makes cinema exhibition worth considering” and offered a “primer for cinema exhibition in the context of historic theatres,” among other topics.

The Conference offered additional hands-on “Tools & Techniques” on subjects such as “Using New Technologies to Build Patron Loyalty…for Life,” “Historic Ornament 101: Where to Begin Putting the Pieces Together” and “Best Practices That Helped the Georgetown Palace Theater Grow its Revenues Over the Last Decade.” The most appropriate to mention for this month’s focus on sound? “That’s Right, the Carpet Pad Goes on the Ceiling: What You Need to Know about Acoustical Materials Before Renovation.”

Celebrations and honors are also an important part of any conference worth its registration fee. Michael Price, executive director of Goodspeed Musicals and an LHAT founding member, received the “Outstanding Individual Contribution Award” for his “lifetime of achievements in theatre and arts management." Closer to our business, Willis and Shirley Johnson of Classic Cinemas were presented with the “Outstanding Historic Theatre Award” for their York Theatre in Elmhurst, Illinois. Selected by a committee of past award winners, the Johnson family’s outstanding work with their 1924 movie house has “demonstrated excellence through community impact, quality of programs and services, and quality of the restoration and rehabilitation of its historic structure.” For several years now, the building’s second floor has been home to the museum, office and archives of LHAT’s sister organization, the Theatre Historical Society of America. “It is always great to see that level of commitment to historic preservation in a small for-profit company,” lauded LHAT’s executive director. With that, Ken Stein also provides the perfect closing remarks and words of inspiration. “The York Theatre is an amazing example of how a small theatre can partner with an entire community to bring about a positive economic development.”

Congratulations to one and all.

The photo of the United Palace above was provided by Matt Lambros © It also appears on page 38 in the September 2014 print edition of Film Journal International alongside two other photos of the onetime Loew’s 175th Street ‘Wonder’ Theatre in Manhattan. For the same edition, Lambros also graciously contributed photos of the LHAT delegates in Times Square (p.39) and the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City (p.42).