When you see a wonderful movie in a place that has meaning for you — a neighborhood moviehouse, perhaps, that’s been there a long time — the movie and the theater seem to meld together; you remember not just what you saw, but where you saw it. I recently wrote a piece about the movie “A Room with a View,” and woven into my memories of the film was the theater in which I first saw it: the Seven Gables in the University District, now likely closed forever; a building haunted by happy ghosts of movies past.
We’ve been lucky, until the coronavirus pandemic forced movie theaters to close last spring, to have a few such places throughout the area. And for those of us who love seeing movies on enormous screens, it’s easy to think of these theaters not as businesses but as places that will always be there, fueled by dreams. But to run a neighborhood moviehouse, you need not just dreams, but money.
This is the story of three neighborhood cinemas in our own backyards; two of which have seen a remarkable financial demonstration of patron loyalty and moviehouse love, and the third of which hopes to do so.
In early September, Rocky Friedman, owner of the historic Rose Theatre in Port Townsend, began a GoFundMe to help the theater weather the pandemic closures. In just a few days, it surpassed $180,000.
Earlier this year, before the pandemic, a CBS Sunday Morning segment on the struggling Firehouse Theater in Kingston set its GoFundMe, appropriately, on fire: It raised more than $227,000.
And David McRae, owner of the Ark Lodge Cinemas in Columbia City, this week launched an ambitious GoFundMe for his theater, with a goal of $750,000. His hope is that it will cover not only fixed expenses during the closure (rent, utilities, insurance, etc.) but significant renovations to the theater, to increase its accessibility, safety and amenities. These improvements are intended to help the Ark Lodge remain competitive with shiny suburban multiplexes, which have accustomed their patrons to offerings like beer/wine and high-end seating.
“I’m really heavily influenced and inspired by what Rocky did,” McRae said, citing the success of the Rose Theatre’s fundraising. Friedman, he noted, “did a door-to-door GoFundMe before it was a thing” to initially acquire and renovate the Rose back in the early 1990s. Now that community support continues to inspire. “It’s giving me hope that I can get that same thing happening in Columbia City.”
With his cinema closed for six months now, McRae is under some urgent pressure to make a change: The 100-year-old building that houses the Ark Lodge is currently for sale. McRae, approaching the eighth year of a 15-year lease, said his landlords have implied that if he can catch up with back rent and present a stable plan for renovation and going forward, they will take the building off the market.
Adding to the challenges is that McRae does not intend to resume business until he feels he can do so safely — which likely means some time in 2021. (He’s not alone: The Seattle International Film Festival recently announced it will not be reopening its cinemas this year.) McRae said that being open at 25% capacity, as would be allowed once King County reaches Phase 3 of Washington state’s reopening plan, doesn’t make sense for him, his patrons or his staff: “We’re fighting a virus that is airborne, and having 100 or 200 people in a small building that’s only 9,600 square feet — I don’t think people would support that.”
So, with a lengthy period of dark screens, the time would be right to make changes, “to try to get the Ark Lodge to a point that it’s the moviehouse that I’ve always wanted it to be.” This means significant renovations to the vintage building, to add a lift that will allow patrons with mobility issues to see movies in the upstairs cinemas. It means creating space for a lounge where beer and wine could be served, perhaps light snacks. It means replacing the 1970s-era seats, installing a state-of-the-art ventilation system, and maybe a more prominent marquee out front, to better announce the theater to the neighborhood.
The connection between the Ark Lodge and the Rose goes further than both being century-old buildings: McRae, as part of his family’s business, McRae Theater Equipment, helped install the Rose’s projection equipment back in 1992. Friedman was touched that McRae donated to the Rose’s GoFundMe, and says he looks forward to returning the favor — that is, when he’s not busy writing “1,500 thank-you notes.”
That’s how many individual donors contributed to the Rose’s fund. Friedman, speaking a week after the fund launched, said that the response was “overwhelming and humbling and gratifying all at once.”
Though initially reluctant to publicly fundraise, Friedman worried that his theater might not reopen after the many months of closure. After using up the funds in a few grants and loans, and being turned down for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, “it became abundantly clear that to pay our bills, with no end in sight, we had to do this now.” The Rose GoFundMe originally asked for $110,000, which Friedman thought would be enough to cover basic expenses for six more months of closure: rent, insurance, utilities, payroll (for three employees, now four, that remained).
In two days, $107,000 was raised. A stunned Friedman, consulting with his daughter Renata (“she’s always been my closest business adviser”), raised it to $160,000, realizing they hadn’t factored in expenses for COVID-related updates such as touchless sinks, ventilation system improvements, PPE for staff, etc. “People continued to give,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
Craig Smith, owner of the Firehouse Theater in Kingston, knows a little about that feeling: His GoFundMe, seven months ago, saved his theater from closure and himself from bankruptcy. But, in a classic case of bad news following good, he barely had a chance to pay off his debts and begin long-wished-for improvements to his theater when COVID-19 closed his doors. There’s still money in the bank, though, and he’s hopeful for a reopening someday.
“I’m so thankful for the money given to me, by all those good people,” he said. His hope is to eventually transform the theater from a first-run moviehouse to a different kind of nonprofit venue for the community: one that might show classic movies and televised sports events, and host live theater and concerts. Smith is concerned that current Hollywood economics make it difficult for small moviehouses to survive; this way, that local moviehouse feel could carry on. “I’ve not only got my life savings in the place, now I’ve got other people’s money,” he said. “I want to see it put to use, and be retained.”
Friedman, who like McRae doesn’t plan to reopen his theater until sometime next year, said he heard a repeated message from many of his donors: The success of the Rose’s fundraising gave them hope. “They weren’t just speaking of hope about the Rose, though they were glad,” he said. “They were speaking about hope in the larger picture of all we’re going through right now” — pandemic, civil unrest, forest fires, politics. Amid such chaos, the love and support for a neighborhood gathering place shone through.
As McRae launches his own fundraiser, he’s cautiously hopeful, believing that the community will want to support the experiences the Ark Lodge brings: “getting together, seeing your friends and neighbors at the movies, the smell of popcorn — oh, I miss that so much,” he said. He’s heartened that a recent sale of T-shirts designed to support the Ark Lodge did well: more than 700 people ordered one.
And he shared an example of community support: an exuberant letter he recently received from what appears to be a very young person, saying that “me and my friends had a sale” for local small businesses — “and guess what! 45 smakers [sic] are going to you!” Enclosed was $45 in cash, paper-clipped together; hope, wrapped in a piece of lined paper. “I’ve never felt richer,” McRae said. May it grow.