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Little Art celebrates last reel

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It’s the end of the reel for the Little Art Theatre. The 84-year-old theater will play its last 35-millimeter film print before dismantling its ancient projector during a special film festival beginning this weekend, after which the theater will close for three months to undergo a half-million-dollar renovation and digital upgrade.

During the “Last Reel Film Festival” the theater will show five fan favorites spanning five decades in both digital and 35mm formats. The festival runs from Friday, April 26, to Tuesday, April 30. It begins and ends with the Italian film Cinema Paradiso, a nostalgic movie about a young boy’s relationship with a film projectionist in a small Sicilian village, which, according to the Little Art’s website, is a “fitting way to say farewell to the Little Art’s vintage Italian reel-to-reel projectors.” The other films are Harold & Maude, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, King of Hearts and Amélie.

Last year the non-profit theater raised $475,000 from the community for the Little Art’s first complete renovation since it opened in 1929. An industry-mandated transition to digital sparked the need for the capital campaign. While an estimated 20 percent of theaters in North America will not convert to digital and probably close in the next few years, the Little Art is making a major investment in its future.
“So many theaters are facing this,” explained Little Art board member Laura Carlson. “The Little Art was so smart to do the digital transition and renovation at the same time.”

In addition to a state-of-the-art $80,000 digital projection and Dolby digital sound system, the renovation will include cushy seats with cup holders, a steeper floor incline for better viewing, a new screen, handicapped-accessible doors and bathrooms, an expanded concession area and a host of upgrades to the mechanical systems of the historic building.

Little Art executive director Jenny Cowperthwaite, who started working at the theater in 1971, said the theater won’t lose its funky atmosphere amidst the changes.

“We don’t really want it to look like a movie theater,” Cowperthwaite said. “I know that the spirit of the theater will be untouched. It’s getting a makeover but inherently what it is isn’t changing.”

The “Last Reel Film Festival” is also a celebration of the Little Art’s long history. On display in the lobby will be a selection of hand-drawn film posters created by the now deceased Dick Miller from the 1950s to the 1980s, Little Art program guides dating from the 1960s and other memorabilia. Patrons who wear a Little Art T-shirt will get a free non-alcoholic drink.

While Cowperthwaite originally wanted to show all 35mm prints during the festival, some must be projected digitally. Harold & Maude (1971), a perennial favorite at the Little Art, will be shown on Blu-Ray. Cinema Paradiso (1988) may be screened digitally as well, since there are only two prints still circulating in the U.S., one of which is severely damaged. (“It would have been nostalgic to have the film breaking every two seconds, but that’s not really what we’re going for,” Cowperthwaite said.) A brand new 35mm print of E.T. (1982) commemorating the film’s 30th anniversary will be shown. And King of Hearts (1966) and Amélie (2001), which broke Little Art attendance records when it was released, will both be projected in 35mm.
The old 35mm standard has its advantages and its drawbacks, according to Cowperthwaite.

“I find 35mm very warm and it has a depth of color,” Cowperthwaite said. “But there are lots of problems [with 35mm] that will go away with digital — being out-of-focus, out-of-frame, the film breaking, missing a changeover.”

After the film festival, the projector, which dates back to the 1940s, will be dismantled by longtime projectionist Andy Holyoke, who wanted to be the one to do it (“It’s like putting your old dog down,” Cowperthwaite said.) According to Cowperthwaite, the projector is on its last legs and even if 35mm made a comeback, the Little Art would need a new projector anyway.

Meanwhile, the new digital projection equipment and renovated theater might provide new revenue opportunities for the non-profit theater, which must raise $50,000 in charitable donations each year to stay afloat. The new equipment will allow live internet streaming of events like operas and concerts and the space may attract more facility rentals, Cowperthwaite said.

“We would love for this business to break even and that’s not going to happen on movies alone,” Cowperthwaite said. “If we can build that aspect of the business, it takes the pressure off fundraising.”
During last year’s unprecedented capital campaign the Little Art raised $475,000 from a combination of foundation grants and individual gifts. The bulk of the money came from the Morgan Family Foundation ($250,000), while the rest was raised from the the Friends of the Little Art, a 550-strong membership organization ($75,000), Little Art’s board and staff ($70,000), the Yellow Springs Community Foundation ($30,000), and the community ($50,000).

Cowperthwaite, who has managed the Little Art since 1978, is looking forward to taking some time off during the renovation, but is also grieving about the coming changes.

“It’s going to be pretty hard for me when they first start gutting the place,” Cowperthwaite said. “I know I’ve spent more time in this building than any place I’ve lived…I know every corner. It’s been a real nurturing space for me.”

Some things at the theater will stay the same, including the iconic house lights, created by an Antioch College art student and installed in 1957, the outside marquee and the exterior doors. And the beloved popcorn condiments won’t change either, Cowperthwaite said.
The theater is projected to re-open in mid-August.
Visit for festival show times.

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