A nonprofit, Little Art lives on
- Published: October 22, 2009
Zack McGhee loves the Little Art Theatre. He first started coming here for the indie circuit as a teenager from Fairborn and then in 2006 became a projectionist to get paid for one of his favorite pastimes. He is proud to have brought his Republican parents here to see films such as Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. And it only makes sense that he is now part of the team that is leading the Little Art into its future as a nonprofit organization.
The theater received notice of its 501(c)(3) status this month, as a milestone in its 80-year history as a single-screen movie theater. While Jenny Cowperthwaite-Ruka, who has managed and then owned the theater for 23 years, resisted the change at first, she has found a group of people who care deeply enough about the theater to put their energy into insuring its perpetual survival. McGhee is the first president of the theater’s board of directors, and Maureen Lynch, a local movie goer and Friend of the Little Art, is the board’s vice-president, in addition to board members Laura Carlson, Roger Reynolds, Mark French, Mary Kay Smith and Alice Earl Jenkins. Cowperthwaite-Ruka, who is now the theater’s executive director, thinks of the nonprofit status as a link between the theater and the community that loves and supports it.
“I think of it as a gift to the community — it’s an opportunity for people to really feel like it is their theater,” she said in a recent interview.
In some ways, the theater has always belonged to the community, or has at least been perpetually influenced by it. Once the home of Citizens Bank of Yellow Springs, the theater building was purchased in 1929 by Dick and Mary Denison, who had been showing silent movies in the Opera House, according to a history compiled by Patti Dallas. The Little Theatre, as it was called then, was showing budget Westerns, when in 1935 a group of Antioch College faculty organized to bring more interesting films that carried value “from an artistic standpoint and that [were] educational in a broad cultural sense,” a faculty statement said.
In the 1950s the theater was used for plays by the Antioch theater department and as a temporary house of worship for the Presbyterians, whose church was being renovated. The Art Theatre Guild of Scottsdale, Ariz., bought the theater in 1955, when it became known as the Little Art Theatre. Then Antioch College bought it in 1987, because, as Antioch President Al Guskin put it, the theater’s survival was a “quality of life issue for Yellow Springs.”
Over the past 10 years, the theater has struggled financially as ticket sales have dropped and film contracts have become more complicated, according to Cowperthwaite-Ruka, who instituted the Friends of the Little Art membership system to allow patrons to help keep the movie house afloat. But in talking with Yellow Springs Center for the Arts theater consultant Charlie Humphrey and volunteers with nonprofit expertise, such as local resident Kipra Heerman, Cowperthwaite-Ruka understood that the theater needed more. In order to maintain the mix of high-quality art and popular films that draw local and area residents to the theater and to Yellow Springs in general, the manpower and financial boost that becoming a nonprofit could offer eventually made sense for the theater, Cowperthwaite-Ruka said.
“The theater’s never really had an opportunity to grow,” she said. But a committed group of supporters has begun to change things.
The Little Art Theatre Association is launching a fundraising effort to match a Yellow Springs Community Foundation grant of $5,000 through Friends of the Little Art membership contributions.
And the Little Art now has three committees for development, special programming, and marketing and technology, which are chaired by board members and filled by community volunteers. The development group is focused on increasing the theater’s membership in the Little Art Theatre Association through mailings and advertising, Lynch said. The programming group, chaired by Carlson, plans the special events, such as the Saturday Picture Shows, themed film series for local filmmakers, classic films, and short films, and the recent Julie/Julia Fake-Off contest, which drew nearly 100 audience members to the theater on a Friday night, which Cowperthwaite-Ruka said she hasn’t seen regularly in almost a decade. The marketing group will manage the theater’s Web site and listserve, as well as pursue ideas such as dinner and a movie deals and silent on-screen sponsorships and advertising.
“It’s exciting to have all these fresh ideas and people who volunteer their time to execute them,” Cowperthwaite-Ruka said. “It makes the theater feel so vibrant, and it’s fun to be part of something new.”
To accomplish all this activity, the board welcomes new members and volunteers who want to help support their local theater, McGee said. Lynch feels committed because she knows how unusual the Little Art is.
“How many small towns still have theaters showing movies? It’s such a luxury to be able come downtown on a bike rather than going to the mall, and that should be worth a lot to people,” she said.
McGee feels confident that the work helps the theater live on.
“One thing that’s so remarkable is Jenny’s decision to put her heart and soul into the theater not just for its survival but for the new opportunity and the new life that can come from this,” McGee said. “To have the Little Art around for a long time and not have it tied to one person, but to the community in perpetuity.”