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Ella Cademartori

Rockingham Selectboard Chair Gaetano Putignano, left, and Interim Town Manager Chuck Wise split a pizza during a Sept. 5 fundraiser.

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Second act

Community members preparing to reopen the Bellows Falls Opera House as a new nonprofit look to a post-pandemic future for the municipal space

To find information on the weekly public Zoom meetings, visit the Bellows Falls Opera House’s Facebook page. The Brain Trust asks that “any questions, concerns, or hearsay” be sent to the Opera House’s interim manager, Timothy Heidbrink. at bfoh@rockbf.org or 802-376-6480.

BELLOWS FALLS—This October, the projector at the Bellows Falls Opera House will again light the movie screen.

Community members have joined forces to reopen the historic theater after many months of dormancy due to the statewide COVID-19 response.

Former and current Opera House staff members Jennifer Tolaro-Heidbrink, Tim Heidbrink, Shawn Douglass, Josh Mosher, and Ella Cademartori have been working to reopen the theater, which has been operated by the town of Rockingham.

This group has approximately 40 years’ worth of collective experience running the Opera House. Sean Roberts of World Under Wonder Theater in Ascutney will join the group as live events coordinator.

This “Movie Brain Trust” — so nicknamed by local artist Charlie Hunter — plans to open the theater in a COVID-compliant manner starting Saturday, Oct. 17.

“We’re taking it slowly,” Tolaro-Heidbrink said.

That’s phase one.

For phase two, Hunter is collaborating with the Brain Trust to launch a nonprofit, Rockingham Entertainment Development, Ltd., which would lease the space from the town and manage the theater.

Under this plan, the Movie Brain Trust would work with the new organization.

Depending on the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hunter anticipates the nonprofit starting this chapter in the theater’s revitalization in 2021.

In the meantime, Tolaro-Heidbrink anticipates the theater operating in much the same way as it has in the past while the Movie Brain Trust “gets its feet wet,” she said.

She said that the group hopes to partner with local businesses, organizations, and community members to sponsor events to raise funds for the project.

On Sept. 5, its “Triple Up Palooza” curbside pickup with Athens Pizza raised $950, Tolaro-Heidbrink said.

The Triple Up (a drink, popcorn, and candy for $5) is a hallmark of the Opera House’s concession stand. Because so many patrons missed it, popular demand led to volunteers offering the combination at several curbside pick-up events over the spring and summer.

From a net loss to a net gain

The Opera House is located in the Rockingham Town Hall, built in 1926. According to several sources, the current town hall in the Square replaced a 19th-century building that housed the post office and library until a fire in 1925.

For several years, according to Hunter, the town’s recreation department operated the Opera House; the town manager’s office has done so as well.

This past spring, the theater’s most recent manager, Rick Angers, left the Opera House, which showed a $49,000 loss in fiscal year 2019.

Hunter said ticket prices will increase by $1 from $5 to $6, in order to finance a paperless ticketing system, noting that during the pandemic, people will prefer to pay for their tickets in ways other than cash. He anticipates that after the pandemic threat subsides, some moviegoers will still want to do so.

He projects that with some measures, the nonprofit could lead the theater to break-even within a year and a potential financial gain of $18,000 annually by 2024.

These measures include a modest hike in ticket prices and a decrease in staffing costs, which Hunter said had “skyrocketed” by more than 40 percent over the past few years.

He also said that a modest increase in the number of theatrical events will boost revenues. Hunter said the Brain Trust is also exploring new and expanded fundraising, underwriting, sponsorship, and advertising options. Finally, over time, Hunter said, expanding the range of events, like hosting daytime conferences, will help bring in more revenue.

In a proposal to the Rockingham Selectboard, Hunter wrote that other communities have adopted the model of municipally owned opera houses managed by a nonprofit. He cited Claremont Opera House and Lebanon Opera House, both in New Hampshire, and the Woodstock Town Hall Theatre in Vermont as examples.

“Our plan preserves the current operational template of affordable family-friendly first-run films year-round and the iconic Triple Up (soda, popcorn and candy) for $5,” Hunter wrote in his proposal.

“There will be occasional concerts and, during times of the year when blockbuster-type movies are less prevalent, two or three theatrical presentations annually will be welcomed,” he wrote. “We intend to continue the popular Classic Film series and hope at some point to add a classic matinee especially tailored toward our seniors.”

“My paintings are about the hollowing out of New England,” Hunter said at a Sept. 1 Selectboard meeting, noting that he doesn’t want the Opera House to fall into disuse and disrepair.

“One thing that I am good at is arts management, and this is a tradition that I can keep alive. This is a thing we can do for this town,” he added.

Hunter’s proposal also included a projected budget for the Selectboard to review.

“Projecting annual utility costs of $18,000 [the approximate allotment in FY19], in the first year of operation our monthly rental payments of $1,500 will result in a FY19 $49,000 operational loss being turned into a break-even situation,” Hunter wrote.

His proposal also outlined the theater’s several capital needs. These will need to be dealt with regardless of COVID-19, he wrote.

The capital investments included creating a dedicated and functional website, replacing obsolete concessions equipment, creating a secure, climate-controlled storage space for concessions, reapplication of fire proofing to the curtains, making the facility compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, improving traffic flow in the lobby area, increasing bathroom capacity, and adding soundproofing and other improvements so that the Lower Theater can be used more effectively.

According to Hunter, the state has approved Rockingham Entertainment Development’s application for nonprofit status. Hunter said he is still waiting to hear from the Internal Revenue Service’s determination, which would make the new organization tax-exempt and contributions tax-deductible for donors.

If all goes well, Hunter said, the nonprofit will sign a lease with the municipality. Once approved, the agreement will outline the two entities’ working partnership, including rent to the town.

The nonprofit’s volunteer board consists of Sean Long and Marty Gallagher, Bellows Falls locals with financial and managerial skills, and Hunter, a Bellows Falls resident since 2000 with an extensive career in music management and promotion.

All the Selectboard members spoke in favor of the project but still had concerns about the project’s finances and other details.

Board Vice Chair Peter Golec asked several finance-related questions during the meeting. He said he supported the project but that he needed to feel better about costs before signing off.

The Selectboard directed town staff and the town attorney, with the guidance of Acting Town Manager Charles “Chuck” Wise, to create a draft lease agreement for the board to review before a final vote.

The board will then review the agreement before taking a formal vote.

Community responses

Some of the early community responses to the prospect of a new nonprofit assuming management of the space were critical, with some townspeople fearing that people would lose their beloved Opera House and that ticket prices would skyrocket.

Hunter has repeated that the nonprofit would manage the theater and lease the space, which would remain town property. He has also said that in crafting the proposal, the group intends to keep the Opera House running and a part of the community.

The Brain Trust and Hunter have been hosting weekly public Zoom meetings so people can ask about the project.

Tolaro-Heidbrink acknowledged people’s nervousness in one such meeting recently.

“People hate change,” she said. “We’re all scared of it.”

Tolaro-Heidbrink also shared her excitement for the revitalization project and what it could achieve. Some of the ideas the groups are kicking around right now include using the downstairs theater space for second-run or independent movies or for children’s programming.

She said jokingly that Hunter won her over when they first met because he “listened to my crazy ideas.”

Selectboard Chair Gaetano Putignano shared at the board’s Sept. 1 meeting that he’s enjoyed watching films at the Opera House for more than 40 years — a few of them after sneaking in the side door as a kid.

Putignano said most of the initial negative feedback he had heard from the community centered on people’s “lively discussion on the internet” around concerns that ticket prices would increase.

“Often, people fear change,” and most of their fear subsided “once more information came out”, he said.

In Putignano’s opinion, even with the proposed $1 increase to the ticket price, a family of four could still watch a film at the Opera House for under $50, including food.

Movies in a post-COVID world

Even with a lease agreement in place, the Opera House’s future is far from certain. COVID-19 has not only limited the number of people in communal spaces such as restaurants and theaters, it has also halted multiple film and television projects and closed movie theaters, turning the film industry upside down from the creation of the product to its consumption.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, international movie theater chain AMC reported a second-quarter loss of $561.2 million. During the same three months last year, the company brought in a profit of $49.4 million. Multiple movie studios have pushed back their films’ theatrical release dates.

Hunter and Tolaro-Heidbrink noted that the pandemic has caused studios to bypass movie theaters in favor of streaming video on demand.

“Single-screen small-town movie theaters are under assault,” wrote Hunter in his proposal. “The studios want to maximize profits: the future for the movie industry lies in streaming and the studios know it.”

Like one of his paintings showing the “hollowing out of New England,” Hunter continued to paint a bleak picture for small theaters.

“Post-Covid, the Bellows Falls Opera House is going to be facing enormous challenges,” he wrote. “Venue capacity may be slashed. The trend toward cashless transactions will only increase. Our downtown businesses are facing strong headwinds.”

“We have to be ready to go with a more nimble, synergistic model that involves all segments of the town — citizens, businesses, schools, civic organizations,” he continued. “We have to be on our game in a way we never have before, and hiring someone simply to show movies and sell concessions is going to result in greater and greater losses.”

Tolaro-Heidbrink thanked the people and businesses that supported the theater during the pandemic. She said that continued community support and “out of the box” strategies are what the Opera House needs.

She added that the Opera House is more than just a place to see movies. To her, it feels like “a second home.”

“Our movie theater is much more than a place to see a show,” Tolaro-Heidbrink wrote in a Sept. 1 letter to the Selectboard. “It is the cornerstone of our community, a place where you can have your first job, a gathering place for families and friends, a place where you can laugh and cry all at once, a real place where everyone knows your name.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #578 (Wednesday, September 9, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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