BRATTLEBORO—It is a story that could be called “ripped from the headlines,” a story of family, of immigration and assimilation, of community and the American dream.
It is also a story of one extraordinary family and more than 150 years of striving, a story that stretches from a remote village in Greece to a small town in Vermont.
It is a story both familiar and new, the story of the Latchis family and the monument to the hard work of four generations of that family that still stands at the corner of Main and Flat streets in Brattleboro.
All of this can be found between the covers of “Greek Epic: The Latchis Family and the New England Theater Empire They Built,” a new book written by Gordon Hayward and published by Latchis Arts, the nonprofit that owns the historic Latchis Theatre and Hotel in Brattleboro.
He was assisted in his task by John Barstow, Irene Canaris, Castle Freeman Jr., and John Carnahan.
‘To make it come alive’
Hayward, a well-known garden designer, writer, and lecturer, spent more than a year conducting interviews with local historians, Latchis staff, and family members to create a 220-page book that he says is more than a history of the Latchis Building.
“The goal I had in mind was to tell the story of the building through the people who made it, and make it come as alive for the reader as it was for the Latchis family,” Hayward said.
The Latchis story began in the village of Kastanitsa in 1864, where the patriarch of the family, Demetrios Peter Latchis, was born. He married Tomais Palulos in 1892 and they had four children in the next eight years.
Demetrios immigrated to the United States in 1901. He first started working in the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, but soon moved to Keene, New Hampshire, to reunite with his half-brother, Michael Bardis. Demetrios started his own business, pushing a fruit cart, first in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, and then in Brattleboro.
That fruit cart enabled Demetrios to eventually bring the rest of his family to America by 1911 and laid the foundations for their next enterprises — first as confectioners who ran a store on Main Street in Brattleboro and, later, as movie theater operators.
A bag full of money
Hayward credits Peter with being the catalyst in building the family’s movie empire.
“This was a man with a fourth-grade education, yet he had the intuitive sense that film was on its way up,” Hayward said. “Silent film was perfect for a community full of immigrants. Enjoying a Charlie Chaplin film did not rest upon your ability to speak English.”
In 1919, Peter sneaked out of town with a bag full of money filled with the family’s savings. Without anyone’s knowledge or permission, he went to Boston to buy the projection equipment and the rights to show films in Brattleboro. He then set it all up in the auditorium in the old Town Hall.
The Brattleboro Opera House, attached to the Town Hall, was the performing arts center of its day, but as movies started replacing vaudeville as popular entertainment, the Latchis family helped it make the transition to a movie theater.
It was immediately successful — so much so that, a year later, the family built and opened a movie theater on Flat Street.
That too was a success and, over the next decade and a half, the Latchis family would eventually either own or operate more than a dozen movie theaters around New England.
Demetrios died in 1932, and his children built the Latchis Memorial Building in Brattleboro in his memory. The 65,000-square-foot complex opened in the fall of 1938 with a 1,200-seat main theatre, a 30-room hotel, a ballroom, a restaurant, a coffee shop, an ice cream parlor, a banquet room, a gift shop, a solarium, a third-floor cocktail lounge, and five storefronts.
Hall of wonders
The Latchis family spent $530,000 (nearly $9 million in today’s dollars) to build what they called “a Town within a Town — All Under One Roof.” The centerpiece of their Art Deco mini-city was a theater lavishly decorated with Greek statuary, terrazzo floors, and murals based on Greek mythology painted by famed artist Louis Jambor.
Brattleboro had never seen anything like it, and it soon became the premier entertainment palace of southern Vermont.
But after World War II, as television, suburbia, and the Interstate Highway System transformed America, the Latchis complex went from being a glittering gem to being an oversized relic from a time that had passed.
The movie theater empire that the Latchis family built gradually dwindled, succumbing to fire or the wrecking ball. But the flagship theater in Brattleboro survived long enough to be reborn for a new century.
Spiro Latchis, great-great-grandson of Demetrios, and his wife, Elizabeth, sold the Latchis building to a nonprofit, the Brattleboro Arts Initiative (the original incarnation of Latchis Arts), in 2003. A combination of federal, state, and private grants, along with many generous donations, went toward the $1.6 million purchase price.
“In Vermont, it’s said that we live in the present surrounded by the past,” Hayward said. “The preservation of the Latchis is a testament to what Brattleboro has done to honor the cultural experience of the arts. Brattleboro didn’t let the Latchis go away.”
At the heart of “Greek Epic,” Hayward said, is “the power of family” and how that power enabled the Latchis family to overcome the adversity and cultural obstacles of the New World to make a lasting contribution to the town they adopted and called home.
“This is a story that could have been written about almost any family,” he said. “We are truly a nation of immigrants, and we all have these extraordinary “American Dream” stories in our backgrounds. The Latchis story is not just about the rise and fall of a business, it is about the rise of a family.”