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Jenny Cowperthwaite Ruka managed, owned and directed the Little Art Theatre for 42 years before retiring in 2020. From left: In 1987, behind the theater’s then-new concession stand; in 1994, outside the box office, when admission was still $3.50; in front of the Halloween-decorated popcorn machine in 2015, just a few years after the theater was completely overhauled. (YS News archive & submitted photos)

Building Community | A lifetime at the movies

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This is the third in a series examining the meaning of community through the eyes of residents working to build and shape it in Yellow Springs.

In the warm living room of her home, watching birds flit from bush to bush through a picture window, Jenny Cowperthwaite Ruka wrestled with the term “community builder.” With her long career at the Little Art Theatre in mind, the News had come to interview her on her life’s work through that particular descriptive lens, but she wasn’t sure it was one she felt entitled to ascribe to herself.

“Was I building community? I don’t know about that,” she said, peering out the window. “There was no intention, other than just showing up every day and keeping [the theater] going, but maybe that’s what happened.”

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Whatever her intention, Cowperthwaite Ruka spent more than half her life at the village’s hometown independent theater — first as a cashier, then as manager, then owner, and finally as executive director. During those years, she shepherded the theater through transitions both minor and major, feeling an easy kinship with both the work and the folks who would come through the door to watch a movie.

“There was no noble cause for me — it was a good fit,” she said. “But I’m so glad the result is that the Little Art is still here — I can’t imagine this town without it.”

Born to Antioch College alums Ruth and Gordon Cowperthwaite, Cowperthwaite Ruka was raised in Yellow Springs with her older sister, Leslie. A powerful desire to follow in her sister’s footsteps, she said, ended up leading to the work that would shape the rest of her life.

“[Leslie] is six-and-a-half years older, and I idolized her,” Cowperthwaite Ruka said. “She rode at The Riding Centre, so I wanted to ride at The Riding Centre. And she worked as a cashier at the Little Art when she was in high school.”

At the age of 7, Cowperthwaite Ruka began riding at The Riding Centre, the village’s longtime nonprofit horse-riding school, under the tutelage of its founder, Louise Soelberg. By 11, she said, she was assisting riding instructor Patsy Kahoe in classes, and at 13, began teaching classes herself. By the time she was 17, having graduated from high school a year early, she was managing the riding school’s barn.

“I see something that needs to be done and I do it,” Cowperthwaite Ruka said. “Carolyn [Bailey, now the director of The Riding Centre] and I were there together and have talked about how we grew up so responsible and taking initiative, and part of that is because of The Riding Centre. [Soelberg] could see that in you, and she enabled you to do it, too.”

In December of 1971, at age 15, Cowperthwaite Ruka took the initiative to begin working as a cashier in the Little Art’s box office. Her age, she said, was something of an open secret among her fellow employees — but it became public knowledge when, on her second night behind the register, she was robbed at gunpoint during a double-feature of “David Copperfield” and “Pride and Prejudice.” Cowperthwaite Ruka was forced to quit until she turned 16 the following summer.

At the time, the Little Art was owned by the Art Theater Guild, a chain of small theaters owned by Louis K. Sher and Ed Shulman, of Columbus, and later operated out of Arizona. According to Cowperthwaite Ruka, the long distance between the theater’s owners and its staff equaled a high degree of autonomy for the theater — which she said she and her fellow staff members appreciated.

“[The owners] rarely came to Yellow Springs, and the way the business kept running was people would just pass the baton to someone else,” Cowperthwaite Ruka said. “All we did was send our payroll — it was just amazing.”

In 1978, the baton was passed to Cowperthwaite Ruka; Jill Wolcott, an Antioch alumna who had stayed on to manage the Little Art after graduation, thought Cowperthwaite Ruka would be the perfect replacement.

“[Wolcott] loved film, but by her own admission, the details and organization and keeping records — that wasn’t her thing, but it was mine,” Cowperthwaite Ruka said. “When she first told me she thought I should take the job, I said ‘no’ — but she held my hand, and had me start doing more, and eventually I said, ‘OK.’”

Cowperthwaite Ruka was just 22 years old in 1978 when she became the manager of the Little Art Theatre — a title she would hold for 20 years.

During that time, she oversaw a number of changes and transitions borne by shifting cultural and artistic tides. By the ’80s, the Little Art had shifted away from using its unique, hand-painted movie posters supplied by local artists toward studio-supplied posters, but continued to focus on art films, even as other small theaters in the Art Theater Guild folded. In 1987, the Art Theater Guild decided to close the Little Art — but Antioch College swept in and bought the theater for the reported price of $1.

The college instituted a number of upgrades to the theater, including the installation of a concession stand built by local woodworker Paul DeLaVergne. Up until 1987, Cowperthwaite Ruka said, the nearly 60-year-old theater had only served tea and coffee on an honor system, and beginning in the 1970s, the locally renowned “Beyer Butter Bars” baked by Scott Beyer.

“It was remarkable that the theater survived so long without concessions,” she said. “I don’t think it would be the same if the Little Art hadn’t been in Yellow Springs.”

In 1990, former Antioch College professor Jon Saari purchased the theater from the college, with Cowperthwaite Ruka continuing as the manager. By that time, people’s movie-going habits had changed: the popularization of VHS tapes in the previous decade and the establishment of video rental stores was a stumbling block for movie theaters around the world.

“Sometimes it was hard through some of those changes, but [the theater] was like my child — I just couldn’t see leaving it,” Cowperthwaite Ruka said.

The Little Art struggled, but held on through the ’90s via the strength of community — and in 1998, Cowperthwaite Ruka became its new owner. It was around the same time that online DVD rental company Netflix formed, and over the next several years, the ease of renting movies without ever leaving home put more of a strain on theaters. By 2007, Netflix began streaming films online, a move that would change the landscape of film viewership even more dramatically in the ensuing years.

By 2009, Cowperthwaite Ruka said, the “writing was on the wall”: the theater was in need of a bold shift to keep the doors open.

“That year, we went nonprofit,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it — it was hard to give up the autonomy [to a board of directors] —  but I did not want to be the person in the community who let the Little Art die. And it was the best thing for the theater — I mean, look what we did.”

As the newly nonprofit theater’s executive director, Cowperthwaite Ruka helped institute the “Friends of the Little Art” program, giving community members a way to support the theater directly through donations. That community support then emboldened the Little Art to launch a successful 2013 campaign to renovate the theater and institute a new digital projection system to keep up with film studios, which had begun to shift rapidly away from 35mm prints. The move to digital projection and nonprofit status stabilized the theater for the first time in a few decades.

In 2020, after 42 years at the helm of the Little Art Theatre and 48 years total — most of her life and more than half the life of the theater — Cowperthwaite retired from her position as executive director amid a pandemic that had closed the theater twice.

Reflecting on all her time selling tickets, making popcorn, hiring and training staff, wrangling film studios and distributors, and all the other tasks she undertook, Cowperthwaite Ruka continued to grapple with how she defined her role in terms of community-building. She said she doesn’t place the importance of helping to keep a small theater open on the same level as something like social justice work, but nevertheless, the work she did had been a central piece of what grounded her own life.

“A connection with the community — that’s what I miss the most,” she said. “I miss the staff, I miss those relationships — because I think I’m an introvert by nature, but I loved all the interactions with people, talking about the movies they’d just seen.”

Over the years, folks were often more likely to try and track Cowperthwaite Ruka down by visiting the theater than by calling her or reaching out by email — the theater, she said, was a second home to her during her time there. She reasoned that, perhaps, her longevity at the theater — her “continuity of experience,” as she called it —  helped make it a welcoming place for community members over the years, no matter the changes to policy, practice or even the theater’s physical space.

“Maybe another piece of community building is people who stay in the same position or orbit so that there’s institutional knowledge,” she said. “You’re the guardian of something important.”

In the end, she settled upon a personal truth: that, regardless of intent, perhaps community-building is not always about building up or building out, but about strengthening connections within. The Little Art was and is, after all, as its tagline reads, “the best place to watch a movie, together.”

“I guess I sort of felt like a host — wanting people to have the best experience,” she said. “It was always more than a building, a business, a structure. … I love movies, and movies can be a cathartic experience, and I liked sharing that experience with patrons and friends. That’s the way I liked being of service.”

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