Picture Palace / Pelham, NY

The Journal News (Westchester County, New York)

Friday March 25, 2011

Curtain rises on renovated theater

By Peter D. Kramer

If you enter the newly renovated Picture House in Pelham this weekend and think it looks like a million bucks, you’re not far off.

Actually, today’s 11 a.m. ribbon-cutting will reveal a $1.1 million renovation at the 90-year-old movie theater that brought many new upgrades, but also revealed some interesting notes from the past.

During the renovation, contractors discovered the original screen onto which silent films were once projected at The Picture House.

"It was a plaster wall, faded and old, but it had been painted white and you knew that that was the screen the silent movies were projected on," Picture House Executive Director Jennifer Christman says. "It was set in a delicate wooden frame with painted black masking around it."

"We all got chills when it was discovered," Christman says, adding that she hopes one day the silent screen – which is still there, covered by a new screen – can be part of a tour of the Picture House, along with the organ pit, which is covered by a small stage.

It’s fitting then that the Picture House reopens tonight with Buster Keaton’s classic silent film, "The General," in which Keaton is denied admission to the Confederate Army, but chooses to fight the war himself, with his trusty steam engine. The 8 p.m. screening, with live musical accompaniment by Ben Model, will be preceded by a wine-and-cheese reception.

Christman has many people to thank for the Picture House’s rebirth,which began in late September and was finished four months later. "It has been a tremendous group effort," Christman says. "Our board, our staff, a huge community effort, a labor of love for many people."

Among the changes:

· An expanded lobby, with a vaulted ceiling that had been boarded up years ago.

· A streamlined concession stand.

· Remodeled restrooms that are accessed from the lobby, not from the theater as used to be the case. (Audrey Hepburn adorns the ladies room door, Brando the men’s.)

· A media classroom and micro theater has taken over the Picture House offices, which have been moved across the street.

Inside the theater, change is everywhere you look.

· There are new larger seats, with movable armrests and cupholders. The Picture House used to seat 393. Now it seats 310.

· Brick columns have been exposed and acoustical tiles now line the walls.

Christman says that, as with any renovation, there were several surprises along the way, some not so happy, such as a leaky roof that needed repair. On a happier note, once the red fabric had been pulled from the walls, it revealed rows of double-hung windows bordered by faux-finished concrete frames. The theater was built with windows that were bricked over from the outside when movie matinees came into fashion.

Another revelation was the foot-high decorative wooden molding that circled the auditorium.

This morning’s ribbon-cutting isn’t the official culmination of the renovation.

That event will be a 90th birthday gala April 9. The honorees will included actor Matthew Modine, director Eugene Jarecki and longtime Picture House board member, board chair and preservationist Kathleen Corton.

Modine’s parents ran a chain of drive-in theaters, Christman says, "so he has a soft spot in his heart for old movie theaters."

Jarecki directed HBO’s "Reagan" and "Why We Fight" and is, Christman says "a socially responsible, talented, independent filmmaker."

"And we wouldn’t be here without Kathy Corton, who led the drive to save the theater," she says.

WABC-TV movie critic Sandy Kenyon – a fan of theater preservation – will emcee the evening at the Hilton Rye Town. There will be a silent auction with former Sotheby’s auctioneer Amy Papola.

The Picture House won an ArtsWestchester challenge grant last fall. The arts group matched $5,000 of the donations Christman & Co. secured from September through November.

"That money will go toward film and education programming," Christman says. "That’s the spirit of the grant."

This spring, the Picture House will offer a glimpse of its education program, for grades two through 12, with The Company – film-acting classes in April, screenwriting in May, directing in June. The full program will begin in the fall.

"There are many wonderful youth theater programs for the stage in Westchester, but not one for acting for film," Christman says. "It’s kind of like the difference between acting for silent film and sound film."

The new Picture House is making other changes.

They now offer memberships – single ($60), dual ($90), family ($135), film buff ($250), all the way up to benefactor ($10,000) – that bring with them benefits, including discounts and concession vouchers.

And the "Is This Seat Taken?" program lets supporters put their name on a seat-back plaque for a $2,500 donation.

If you go

What: The Pelham Picture House reopening

When: Events today: 11 a.m., ribbon-cutting; 7 p.m., wine-and-cheese reception; 8 p.m., a screening of Buster Keaton’s silent classic "The General," with live musical accompaniment by Ben Model.

Where: 175 Wolfs Lane, Pelham

Tickets: Ribbon-cutting is free; "The General" screening and reception is free to members; $10 for nonmembers.

The weekend: 11:30 a.m. Saturday, a screening of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," $5 members, $8 nonmembers. 11:30 a.m., Sunday, a screening of the original version of "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," $5 members, $8 nonmembers.

Call: 914-738-3161

Web: www.thepicturehouse.org

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