Chatham Orpheum: A Main Street Success Story

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Entertainment , Film

The Chatham Orpheum Theater today: A Main Street success story. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – In the five years since the first commercial film in 25 years was shown on the town's Main Street, the promise of the Chatham Orpheum Theater has been more than fulfilled.

That was evident on a recent rainy morning as a steady stream of moviegoers – heavy on youngsters – came in and out of the theater for the morning matinee.

“This is our kind of day,” said John “Kim” Doggett, seated a table in the theater lobby. Currently president of the Orpheum board of directors, he was one of the first to volunteer behind the idea of re-establishing a movie house in downtown Chatham and was instrumental in helping to raise millions of dollars for its purchase and renovation.

“It's just a great addition to the cultural life of the town,” said Doggett, who grew up summers in Chatham and remembers going to movies at the old Chatham Theater. “I think we've added a whole new life to this end of Main Street.”

Built in 1916 by Captain A.H. Bearse as the Orpheum, the name was changed to the Chatham Theater in the 1930s. It continued to operate under that name until 1985, when owner Interstate Theaters built a multiplex cinema in East Harwich and closed the downtown Cape movie theaters it operated, including Chatham's. For a few years, owner Ronald Rudnick leased the facility for music and live theater productions, until 1990, when it was renovated and a CVS moved in.

In 2011, CVS store's lease was up and it moved to a new building at the current site of the Chatham Village Market. That left the former theater space vacant; at the same time, Regal Cinemas, the successor of Interstate, closed the East Harwich multiplex, which subsequently became the home of the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School. That summer Naomi Turner got a call from her friend Anne Foster with a question: would it be possible to bring movies back to Main Street?

Turner, owner of the Chatham Candy Manor, loved the independent Tropic Cinema in Key West, Fla., where she spent winters, and was excited by the prospect of having a movie theater back in downtown Chatham. Like Doggett, she's seen many movies at the old Chatham Theater; her mother, who founded the Candy Manor, had for many years also operated a penny candy store across from St. Christopher's Church, which was always busy on summer nights when the lines of people waiting to see movies extended down the block. She was also a member of a dance company that was the last group to perform at the old Chatham Theater on New Year's Eve, 1989, before it closed.

After getting up the nerve to talk to Rudnick, however, she was disappointed to learn that the former CVS space was already leased to a restaurant. She prevailed on the developer, however, to give the small group now coalescing around the idea of a new movie theater some time. They met for the first time in Anne Foster's home, after which Turner called George Cooper, who had pulled off a similar feat to establish the Tropic. As it happened, Cooper and his wife, writer Judy Blume, were on Martha's Vineyard. They came over to Chatham and after learning about the project, he signed on as an advisor.

“They shared everything with us,” Turner recalled in an interview last week. “Their business plan, their budget, tax returns, information on their booker – and we still have the same film booker as the Tropic. They were so gracious.

“It just all coalesced,” Turner said, “in a way that was clear that it was the right thing to do, that it was supposed to happen.”

It had taken Cooper a dozen years to establish the Tropic. The Orpheum came together much quicker, mostly out of expediency. Rudnick had set an April 2012 deadline for the group, now a certified non-profit organization, to raise the $1.3 million price to purchase the building. With Doggett leading the fundraising, later helped by the direct mail expertise of the late Tim Roper, donations came in from $5 to $100,000 and more, eventually nearly 3,000 in total. Five months after launching the fund drive, Rudnick handed Turner the keys to the building in a ceremony in April.

The Chatham Orpheum Theater group had inherited a vacant building, and now set about raising construction funds and finalizing plans to convert the structure into two screening rooms with a lobby cafe. Summer resident Doug Gensler, co-manager of one of the largest architectural firms in the world, agreed to help develop the plans originally drawn up the late architect Ned Collins. Several major fundraisers were held, and the group secured $462,000 in community preservation funding from the town, based on the determination by the historic commission that the theater building was historically significant. The Massachusetts Historical Commission also awarded the theater a $250,000 capital construction grant from its cultural facilities fund.

On Aug. 22, in an empty space that once housed a pharmacy, the film “Musical Chairs” became the first commercial movie shown on Main Street since the Chatham Theater closed 25 years before.

It was nearly a year later, however, that the finished Chatham Orpheum Theater opened to the public. With a digital projection system, a state-of-the-art sound system, and seats more comfortable – and with more leg room – than any other movie theater around, the theater was ready on July 25, 2013,when board members, volunteers and donors attended a screening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The following day, the public lined up along the sidewalk for the first time in more than two decades to attend a movie on Main Street, with a showing of the summer film “The Way, Way Back.”

The interest generated by the drive to make the theater a reality – which eventually raised more than $2.5 million – hasn't ebbed, said Doggett.

“It's been gratifying, particularly in the winter,” he said, when the theater has provided an opportunity for residents, especially seniors, to come downtown.

“It's provided a cultural asset to the town that everybody can profit from, including other businesses,” he said.

Because it's a nonprofit, the theater can do things that other movie theaters can't do, said Executive Director Kevin McLain. Films that usually would not get a theatrical showing outside of a large city, such as the theater's museum series, garner a large audience. Working with CapeAbilities, the very successful sensory film series has made going to the movies accessible to kids with disabilities who might not otherwise be able to see a film on the big screen. And the theater has worked with other nonprofits on benefits and programs, such as the Eldredge Public Library's series pairing food prepared in the theater's cafe with similarly themed movie.

“This allows us to be an independent gathering place” for the entire community, McLain said.

Although still a business that has to meet its targets in order to pay bills, the theater is more of a “mission,” McLain said. When he first learned about the group and the position, he wasn't looking for a job, but, quoting Christopher Lloyd, star of “Back to the Future” who appeared at an Orpheum benefit last year, “you always take the meeting,” McLain said. He's glad he did.

“I told them that's not a job, that's like a mission, something special. To me it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.

“It's been a wonderful experience,” he said. “To me it's a way of giving back to the community.”

In the past four years, the theater has developed something of a pattern. In the summer, it shows the big movies – this summer it's been “Wonder Woman” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” – because that's when the kids are here and able to attend, McLain said. The rest of the year, there's a lot of latitude to show all kinds of films, including independent, locally made and foreign features that appeal to a more mature audience. Film booker Jeffrey Jacobs understands the theater, and the board gives him a lot of independence, McLain said. The theater's audience, which has a wide breadth of experience, knowledge, education and sees “the big view,” are his main focus.

“That gives me a lot more flexibility and opportunity to bring in things of interest to them,” McLain said. An example is a film about the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. When he asked the sold out audience how many had been to the gallery, 90 percent raised their hands.

On the other end of the spectrum, of the 205 movies shown at the Orpheum since it opened, number one at the box office is “Jaws,” a 42-year-old thriller. McLain said folks who saw “Jaws” at the Chatham Theater when the movie opened in 1975 come in with their children or grandchildren.

“It's a very different experience watching 'Jaws' in your bedroom and watching it in a theater with 100 other people,” he said. “Everyone's sharing those same emotions. It's awesome.” Of course, the fact that great white sharks are also synonymous with Chatham nowadays doesn't hurt; this week; Aug. 4 to 10 is the Orpheum's own “Shark Week,” with showings of several shark-related films, including “Jaws.”

In the coming weeks the theater will be sending out its second survey to gauge support and get feedback on films and other details. “It provides a direct line to the community as to how we're doing,” McLain said. There have been a number of recent changes – original assistant manager Geoff Bassett left and the theater took over management of the newly dubbed Orpheum Cafe (check out the very cool pastry case made and donated by Bednark Studios in Brooklyn, N.Y., which incorporates the theater's name in its intricate detail). McLain said new soundproof doors – plush red also with the Orpheum logo – are going to be installed between the lobby and the hallway leading to the two theaters. While its still paying off its $1.2 million mortgage – reduced to $775,000 “way ahead of schedule,” Doggett said – the theater is still soliciting donations to help with operating costs and the establishment of an endowment to ensure its continued operation into the future.

From idea to reality, the Chatham Orpheum Theater succeeded beyond anyone's expectations.

“It was not easy,” said Turner, whose life was “consumed” by the project for two and a half years. “But I'm really proud of it and happy that it's doing well.”

“We see people come in everyday and say I wish my town could do this,” said McLain.

Email Tim Wood at twood@capecodchronicle.com