Visual Arts
The Little Art Theatre is close to getting a complete renovation — the first in its 83-year history. Above, Little Art Executive Director Jenny Cowperthwaite and longtime 35-mm projectionist Andy Holyoke sit in the 37-year-old theater seats that will soon be replaced. (Photo by Megan Bachman)

The Little Art Theatre is close to getting a complete renovation — the first in its 83-year history. Above, Little Art Executive Director Jenny Cowperthwaite and longtime 35-mm projectionist Andy Holyoke sit in the 37-year-old theater seats that will soon be replaced. (Photo by Megan Bachman)

Coming soon to the movie theater nearest you, hopefully

The Little Art Theatre seems to be the little movie theater that could.

Small movie theaters around the country will soon be shuttered if they can’t find the money to upgrade to digital projection equipment. But in Yellow Springs the show will go on. That’s because the Little Art Theatre board is well on its way to raising close to a half million dollars for a digital projector and a complete theater renovation — the first in the theater’s 83-year history.

“It became so clear that if we were going to do [a renovation], we might as well do it all, and do it once,” said Jenny Cowperthwaite, the Little Art’s executive director.

Coming soon to the theater may be cushy seats with cup holders, a steeper floor incline for better viewing, a new screen, handicapped-accessible doors and bathrooms, an expanded concession area, a host of upgrades to the mechanical systems of the historic building and a crisp, clear digital picture.

But the theater needs to raise $50,000 more by the end of 2012 to make the renovation a reality, and is asking villagers who haven’t yet donated to help out. Already the board has raised $425,000 from individuals and foundations, including a $30,000 gift from the Yellow Springs Community Foundation to kick off the campaign early this year and a $250,000 grant from the Morgan Family Foundation. While donations of any amount will be accepted, a gift of $500 or more will get donors their name on a new theater seat.

“The Little Art is beloved and people value it as a community treasure,” said Kipra Heerman, chair of the capital campaign committee. “People understand that it’s not just important for those who go to movies, but for the whole village — without it there would be an empty hole.”
Since becoming a nonprofit in 2009, the Little Art has raised $50,000 each year to cover its losses. Board members knew that a renovation was needed, but it wasn’t until they learned that the Little Art soon would not be able to show movies that they decided to spring in action.
“We don’t have a choice,” said Cowperthwaite about the digital transition. “They’ve forced our hands. We have to do this.”

After years of hinting, the movie industry is finally eschewing 35-millimeter film prints for a digital standard. Last year 20th Century Fox announced that by 2013 it would no longer produce 35mm prints of its films. Other major studios are expected to follow suit. It’s estimated that 20 percent of the theaters in North America will not convert to digital and will probably close in the next few years, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. So far approximately 3,500 of the 5,700 theaters in the U.S. have converted.
Like many small theaters, the Little Art uses the old standard, a 35mm film projector, with its whirring, spinning reels of film. The Little Art’s projector dates back to the 1940s, and has been kept in working order because of the tenacity of villager Andy Holyoke and the parts donated from a projector dismantled at Antioch College.

The rest of the movie theater has been similarly cared for on the cheap, or as Cowperthwaite put it, with “paperclips and duct tape,” since profit margins were always razor thin. For example, the current seats were already 12 years old when they were installed in 1988. Today any semblance of their foam padding is gone and the squeaking is constant. But Heerman puts it another way — that Cowperthwaite, who has managed the theater since 1978 and owned it since 1998 — has dedicated her heart and soul to keeping the Little Art alive.
Heerman joined the board to give her a helping hand in a labor of love.

“I love movies but I’m not a movie buff,” Cowperthwaite said, who views the Little Art not as a business but as a part of her. “I love service and it’s a service to the community.”

If enough funds are secured, the renovation will take place over three months next summer, when movie attendance is lowest. Because the building is owned by Ellen and Rod Hoover, the Little Art arranged a 30-year lease to protect its investment.

While upgrading ancient projection equipment and making the theater more accessible were obvious changes, the Little Art is looking to bring itself into the 21st century with other aesthetic and structural upgrades.

According to cost estimates, the new floor incline, restrooms, HVAC, electrical, plumbing and lighting systems will cost $177,000; the new digital projector and Dolby digital sound system will cost $82,500; lobby upgrades, including the concession stand, handicapped accessibility and marquee repairs will take $50,500, and auditorium upgrades, including the new seats, are estimated at $48,500, with the rest of the money going towards contingency, fixed costs and architectural fees. If enough money is raised, digital hearing assistance will be installed. In order to make room for the larger seats and new bathrooms, about 50 seats will be lost for a reduced capacity of 130.

To keep the charm and coziness of the Little Art amidst the changes, an architect with experience in historic theater renovation was chosen, the iconic house lights, which were created by an Antioch College art student and installed in 1957, will stay, and the outside marquee won’t change.

“No one wants to see a mini-Regal,” Cowperthwaite said. In fact, many of the changes were suggested to the Little Art during a listening campaign a few years ago. As for those who prefer the soft flicker of film, the digital transition may take some getting used to.
“If you’re a connoisseur of film, you’ll notice the difference in the depth of the image,” Cowperthwaite explained. “With digital the colors are crisp and clean but the image is flat.”
Other large donations for the renovations came from the Little Art’s board and staff ($70,000) and the Friends of the Little Art ($75,000), a 550-strong membership organization. In explaining why she donated to the Little Art and worked on its capital campaign, board chair Maureen Lynch was clear.

“Yellow Springs would be a poorer place to be without the Little Art,” she said.

For more information, contact Heerman at 937-767-0280 or Kipra1 {at} aol(.)com.

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