Avon Theatre Keeps Past Alive

by Mike Ripollone

Entering the white pillars in front of the Avon Theatre on Bedford St in Stamford is like travelling back through time. The architecture on the outside of the building resembles a playhouse rather than a movie theatre, and the vaudevillian décor inside gives and ambiance of the early 1900s.

In place of an enormous multiplex littered with movie posters and video games, there are only two theatres to the left and right of the dimly lit main lobby. The dark colored walls are covered with pictures of a wide variety of movie stars, directors, and producers who have spoken at one of the Avon's special events.

The Avon was first opened as a for profit theatre in 1939. It remained for profit under various owners until 1999. In 2001 the Royce Foundation, a non-profit company based in Greenwich Conn, purchased the Avon and embarked on a restoration project. In 2004 the Avon was reopened as a non-profit film center. The goal was to restore a vital downtown landmark and create a community venue for the presentation of timeless film.

"We have special events where we can get a writer or producer, or even sneak previews of films," said Kelly McInnis a manager at the Avon. This is no surprise considering the Avon's Film Advisory board consists of such names as local Stamford resident Gene Wilder, Chazz Palminteri, and Harvey Weinstein.

Some of the popular special events at the Avon include Legends of Rock Live, Cult Classic, and Critic's Choice.

"Legends of Rock Live are a lot of fun," said McCinnis, "Bill Shelly has a lot of archived footage of bands performing from the sixties all the way through to current stuff like Green Day."

Along with bringing footage, he has collected and archived for decades, film maker Bill Shelly hosts the monthly event. One installment is titled British Invasion and will consist of rare clips Shelly has collected from the sixties of such bands as the Animals, the Moody Blues, and the Zombies among others.

Every other week during the winter, spring, and summer the Avon hosts Cult Classic, an event dedicated to showing the best in classic cult/exploitation cinema requested by the audience. There is an eclectic fan base in attendance these nights. Hipsters, yuppies, and flat out freaks are all in attendance depending on the film, which may vary from such classics as 007 in Goldfinger to less known titles like Repo Man.

"The beauty of coming here is, yeah, they show bad movies you can come and laugh at, but they also show the classic stuff," said AJ Szymanowsky a 23-year-old dedicated fan of Cult Classic. What he describes as an interactive experience reminiscent of Comedy Central's old series Mystery Science Theatre Three Thousand. Fans can heckle their favorite bad movies and not get kicked out of the theatre.

Some look at the Avon as a place for a learning experience. AJ's friend James McConnaughy, a film student at Westchester Community College, and fan finds Cult Classic educational. "I've been studying film since I was 12-years-old, going on a decade now. It's a big part of my life and this is great for me. The best way to study film is to watch film."

Critic's Choice night allows fans of film to watch one of their favorite films from the past with a critic discussing their take on the film and its influence on pop-culture. One installment features the film Solaris with commentary from Huffington Post's Lisa Paul Streitfeld.

Enormous curtains shield the screens and are only drawn back when a picture is run. The larger of the two theatres looks like it has been opened since the 1930s. Bright colors throughout the giant room compliment two golden swan statues in the upper left and right balconies. The smaller theatre with stadium seating is slightly more modern, but still humble in comparison to a 21-century movie theatre.

Eventually the sweet aroma of artificial butter will bring you over to the concession stand which is also traditional for an old movie house. Strictly popcorn, candy, and soda are sold here. You won't see hotdogs, nachos, pizzas, or any other items found in a more commercial theatre's selection.

Walking down the spiral staircases leading to the lower lobby will reveal many movie posters from the golden age of film, featuring some of the brightest stars of this era such as Humphrey Bogart, Vincent Price, and James Dean.

"We have a strong commitment to educators and students. We offer free membership for teachers in Fairfield and Westchester Counties who teach grades four through twelve," said Louisa Greene, director of development and marketing. "The Avon also offers a scholarship program for three high school seniors a year who write an essay on film. First place earns $2,000.00, Second $1,500.00, and third $1,000.00."

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