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Exciting Future for the Greenbelt Theatre

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(L) Platter system for showing film. (R) Reel to reel film projection.


The Impact of Reel to Reel
I noticed a new fund-raiser in Old Greenbelt – to bring “reel-to-reel” to the Greenbelt Theatre.  As a cinema novice, I asked film historian Caitlin McGrath, president of the new Friends of Old Greenbelt Theatre group, to explain the technology and why I should care about it.

The system the theatre now uses for projecting film is called the platter system, which combines all the reels of any given film onto one large spool, or platter.  It’s a device that allows theaters to use only one projector, because there is no need to switch back and forth every 20 minutes (the length of one reel of film), but it twists the film as it threads from the platter into the projector and back out again, subjecting it to possible damage.  Thus, no archival films are allowed to be shown on it.  To show such films without risk of damaging them requires two identical projectors set up in a “reel-to-reel” system, which costs $10-14,000 – thus, the fund-raising.  (Click here to donate. Yes, it’s tax-deductible.)

Four fun events are planned as fund-raisers for the new film projectors – on Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. on December 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th. A generous anonymous donor has provided funds to help bring four holiday films to the theater: White Christmas,  How the Grinch Stole Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Meet John Doe.  Zeke’s (from the Farmer’s Market) has donated the beans for free coffee and donuts and other snacks will come from other local businesses. Everything will be free, but donations will be sought.

With reel-to-reel and the theater’s digital projector (coming as part of the big renovation), it’ll be able to show anything, and that’s a big draw.  It may be the only theater able to make that claim in the whole D.C. area, besides the big institutional theaters – AFI and the Library of Congress.  Thousands of films will never be digitized – the vast majority of films made before the 1980s – so Greenbelt’s ability to show them will put it on the cinema map!

The Big Renovations

A decade in the planning are renovations to the theater’s bathrooms, lobby and concession area, along with the aforementioned digital projector.  All together, they’re projected to cost $1.2 million, of which the city has $800,000.  But I’m hearing from lots of sources that the needed changes could be had for significantly less, and the popular example given is the current price-tag for bathroom renovations at over $200,000!  For perspective, consider that the bathroom and entrance renovations at the Greenbelt Arts Center cost about $50,000, and they’re fabulous!  Fortunately, no contract has been signed!  In updating and improving the plans and finding the appropriate contractor, there’s hope that the design will be a better fit for the theatre’s utilitarian Streamline Moderne/Bauhaus – not exactly Art Deco – architecture.  (Also unschooled in architecture, I assumed the theater was Art Deco but I Googled Bauhaus and Streamline Moderne and sure enough – that’s our Greenbelt.)

The digital projector alone will cost about $100,000, but it’s absolutely essential these days.  As of January 2014 it’s projected that only 15 percent of movies will be distributed on film.


Possible New Management?

To take advantage of the theatre’s new technical capabilities, the plan is for the nonprofit Friends of Old Greenbelt Theatre to financially support it, with the operations handled by a worker cooperative and volunteers – a perfect fit for Greenbelt, right? Though P&G Theatres and owner Paul Sanchez have done a good job bringing sub-run (just after first-run) movies in the evening with matinees on the weekend, everyone agrees that the theatre is a fabulous resource that’s greatly underused.  To fully utilize the theatre, its operation needs to be nonprofit.  The new venture would become the Greenbelt Cinema Cooperative. The Friends group is currently trying to gauge community interest in the cooperative venture (take a survey here).

So, meet the new nonprofit Friends group, the people behind a very, very exciting future for our theatre.  President Caitlin McGrath has a Ph.D. in film history, and moved here when her husband  Oliver Gaycken assumed a tenure-track position at the University of Maryland, as a part of the University’s new film studies major.  (They met in grad school at the University of Chicago).  Other members of the Friends board are architectural preservationist Meagan Baco, (who knows the DC-area preservation world of architects, contractors, etc); Crystal Sanchez, who works at the Smithsonian in digital art preservation; Greenbelt contractor Frank Gervasi; Susan Gervasi, president of the Utopia Film Festival; Barbara Small, who does social media for Utopia; Brian Real, a PhD candidate at Maryland who wrote his Master’s Thesis on the role historic movie theaters have played in economic revitalization; and film professor Oliver Gaycken. Caitlin is also on the board of the Greenbelt Community Development Corporation.

Fabulous Programming Ahead!

Here’s what the group has in mind for the theatre.  Evening programing would be largely as it is today – which I was glad to hear because I love seeing new movies there!  The big change is day-time programming, which might include silent films with piano accompaniment, a classic film series, a deaf film festival, documentaries, shorts, newsreels, feature movies from throughout film history. More ideas include classes – for adults, for home-schoolers, etc.  More suggestions are being solicited from the community (again, here’s the survey).

This brings to mind a lecture series I once attended at the Smithsonian about great American film directors – it was a fun and fascinating night out.  Attending events like that here in Roosevelt Center?  Now, please! I bet it’ll also be a great place to volunteer.  Caitlin told me about a nonprofit theater in Pennsylvania where the volunteers report that helping out is a great date night.

To help pay for this new alternative programming, there are all sorts of grants available, and archival films can be borrowed from the Library of Congress for anywhere from free to $300.  Caitlin is pursuing grants locally, such as funds for a series of films featuring the history of the War of 1812 (through Aaron Marcavitch and the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area). Who knew there were films about 1812? But Caitlin has found a few gems, such as Mutiny! from 1952 featuring a young Angela Lansbury, and two versions of The Buccaneer – one from 1938 with Frederick March, and one from 1958 with Yul Brenner.

Council Action Needed

The Friends are ready to get going with these exciting changes as soon as the City Council votes to turn theatre operations over to the group.  So if these sound like good ideas to you, let the Council members know!  The Council’s work session on the theatre is scheduled for December 18.

Photo credit for platter projector: Eric Zhang for Greenbelt2012.

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com.

2 Responses

  1. DominionCinemas
    | Reply

    Congratulations on the exciting future of the Greenbelt Theatre! It’s inspiring to see how you’re revitalizing this cultural gem and transforming it into a vibrant hub for the community. The diverse lineup of films, captivating events, and educational programs you’re planning will undoubtedly bring joy, entertainment, and enrichment to all who visit. Kudos to you and your team for your dedication and vision in preserving and enhancing such a cherished space. Looking forward to experiencing the magic of the Greenbelt Theatre soon! Warmest regards, Gary Ford.

  2. Gwen Vaccaro
    | Reply

    Wonderful article.

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