When the Garden Theatre opens in July after a month of renovations, moviegoers will notice more than the new carpeting, wall treatments, and concession stand.
Announced last week, management of the 94-year-old Nassau Street movie house has been turned over to Renew Theaters, a non-profit that specializes in theaters of a certain vintage. The Doylestown, Pa. based company plans to turn the theatre into a community-centered enterprise offering different levels of membership and special programming ranging from lively arts broadcasts to silent films accompanied by live music.
“The films will still be our main bread and butter, but we plan to do a lot with local groups, students, and faculty from Princeton University,” said John Toner, executive director of Renew. “We plan to reach out to all of those constituencies and see if we can’t maximize what’s there.”
Princeton University owns the twin-screen Garden Theatre, and currently leases it to Garden Theatre Inc. The University purchased the building in 1993 and renovated it seven years later. Last year, the analog projection system was upgraded to a digital cinema system with new projection, surround sound, and movie screens.
Renew owns movie theaters in Ambler, Doylestown, and Jenkintown, Pa. Mr. Toner, who grew up in Doylestown, is a movie buff who was practicing law when he decided to focus on film. “In the 80s, we had a film society in Doylestown in which we showed 16 millimeter films at a local, multi-purpose venue,” he recalled. “We were there for 10 years. The County Theatre in town was going to close and be converted, so we made a proposal to take it over. That was very successful — so much so that we looked into doing it at other theaters.”
Keeping theaters full at a time when an increasing number of viewers prefer their homes or computer screens is “a challenge that faces the movie theater business across the board,” Mr. Toner said. “Our approach is geared to addressing that question of why would you want to come to a theater by trying to be as community-oriented and user-friendly as possible. It’s a communal experience when people come to our theaters. They feel at home. There is member involvement. People tend to come because they like to visit the theaters as much as to see the films.”
Programming at the Garden Theatre will run the gamut from series like “Classic Hollywood Films” to special individualized films. “There will be lively arts broadcasts and filmmakers and local experts coming to introduce films,” Mr. Toner said. “There will be discussion groups to talk about what’s playing. Community groups can partner with us to bring their films and their own speakers. There are a lot of different ways we approach the experience, always with the idea of trying to make it more than just ‘Here’s a movie, pay your money, attend, and then walk away.’”
Among Renew’s most popular attractions has been Not So Silent Cinema, in which classics by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and other stars of the silent film era are accompanied by a live band with original music. “It’s really the only way to experience a silent film, and it’s been one of our most successful programs,” Mr. Toner said. “We’ll definitely be bringing it to Princeton.”
In addition to cosmetic renovations, a new ticketing system and computer system will be installed. The theater will retain it’s two screens.
“We are super excited to be doing this,” Mr. Toner said. “Princeton is an ideal setting for what we do. I’m sure we will make adjustments, as each theater is different. But we are so looking forward to getting in and getting started.”