The Little Cinema Movement
The Little Theatre began in Rochester in 1928 as a link in a proposed chain of small theatres designed to provide an "intimate" alternative to the large commercial movie houses of the day. The "little cinema movement," which was dedicated to showing "art films that appeal to the intelligent and sophisticated," started in 1925. When it opened in 1929, the Little Theatre was the fifth "little temple of the cinema" to be built. The "little cinema movement" represented a response to the mass merchandising trends in the entertainment industry that was gathering momentum in the 1920s with the ascension of mass circulation magazines and the arrival of radio. With movie companies and film producers devoting increasing attention to the new and mass market "talking" motion pictures, the "little cinema movement" attempted to reach an audience open to the experimental, the eclectic, and the unusual. It hoped to appeal to devotees of silent films, foreign films and films based on the classics.
The Historic Structure
The theatre was constructed in the art deco style by Edgar Phillips of Rochester and Frederick Pike of Buffalo. The distinctive style of the original theatre, now Little I, the main building, has earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Although the striking exterior is most familiar to countless Rochestarians, Pike's original interior was equally dramatic. It also reveals the extent to which the developers sought to define -- and cater to -- their audience. Pike's original interior design incorporated many of the style elements features in all the "little theatres" of the movement. Elements were chosen to encourage relaxation. Design features encouraged patrons, in the words of one early promotional brochure, "to sip delightful Java and smoke -- cigarettes of your own choosing." Created for comfort and "quiet," interiors offered sumptuous lounges appointed with deep carpets, velvet, drapes and soft lighting to encourage rest, relaxation, and "intimate chat." Such lounges would function as retreats where persons might peruse magazines and books -- "the arty kind of course."
Opening Night -- and After
The Little Theatre opened officially on October 17, 1929. A three-man orchestra seated in the upper rear left balcony provided accompaniment for the 299 persons attending. In keeping with its devotion to silent films, the Little Theatre boldly chose to be known as "The House of Silent Shadows" and its first presentation was the silent film "Cyrano de Bergerac."
Unfortunately, the timing for the theatre's opening could not have been worse. The theatre's opening coincided with the stock market crash, occurring just weeks before Black Monday, the day of the first great sell-off. Second, by the late 1920s, silent films were quickly being supplanted by "talking pictures" and quality silent films were becoming scarce. Further, in retrospect, the "little cinema movement" seems to have been destined to engage in a rearguard action against the incursion of what must have seemed the vulgar aesthetic tastes represented by the mass-appeal talkies. Early literature describing the Little reveals that the physical layout, atmosphere, and programs were designed to exude elegance, refinement, intelligence, and repose as an antidote to the helter-skelter pace of the Roaring Twenties.
By early 1931, Albert A. Fenvyssey, considered Rochester's leading theatrical expert, was approached to assist in establishing the theatre's role in the local community. Fenvyssey persuaded the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Francis Kirk Remington, to turn the theatre over to his daughter, Florence Fenvyssey Belinson, and son-in-law Ben Belinson. The Belinsons were instrumental in guiding the Little's transition from a venue of exclusively silent films. A tireless champion of the Little and cultural improvement, Florence Belinson promoted the theatre throughout the Rochester community, especially among women's groups. In her many addresses, she affirmed the Little's commitment to high social and cultural standards.
Commemorative literature suggests that Mrs. Belinson regularly assured audiences that the Little would present "only talking films of an unusual, educational, and artistic type that would add to the cultural enjoyment of the community." Frequently, Mrs. Belinson enlisted the support of social and cultural groups to assist her in selecting and promoting "better" films. Her efforts among these groups have been credited with helping to popularize the Little in the Rochester community.
Within two years of opening, the Little would reinvent itself, incorporating "talking films" into its repertoire. The Little's first talking picture was "Outward Bound" featuring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Helen Chandler and Leslie Howard. The film was previewed on April 15, 1931. In keeping with the Little's role as local social and cultural guardian, a tea followed the event the next day. Those attending this "reopening" were assured that the theatre would maintain a policy of "showing only talking picture of cultural values." Shortly thereafter, the Little took the bold step of showing a foreign language film. While common in larger cities, such films were rarely if ever shown in smaller communities such as Rochester. The first to be shown at the Little was the German language film "Two Hearts in Waltz Time." It was followed by films in Italian, Spanish, Yiddish, Swedish and Russian.
According to a 20th Anniversary commemorative of the Little, the theatre found its greatest success with musicals. The popular "Be Mine Tonight" ran for 19 weeks in the heart of the Depression, 1933. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the theatre regularly presented outstanding films, such as "Fantasia," "Pygmalion," "It Happened One Night," "The Seventh Veil," and "The Thin Man."
So successful would the Little become that its reputation for quality attracted national recognition. One of the Little's greatest coups occurred in 1949 when the theatre was chosen to premiere Olivier's "Hamlet." In words that recall the Theatre's original mission, the Little drew praise from those who had selected the theatre as the premiere site. The Little earned selection because of "its consistent policy of showing unusual motion pictures and its record for maintaining long runs of such films."
Fall and Rise
Under the leadership of the Remingtons and especially the Belinsons, who managed the theatre, the Little had successfully made the transition from the "House of Silent Shadows" to a premier showplace for international films. They also achieved a greater, if more subtle, victory. While the "little cinema movement" might have risked confining itself to a "limited clientele," throughout the 1930s the management of the Little demonstrated that unique, quality films could draw large audiences from throughout the community, not merely from a self-appointed social and cultural elite. Despite this triumph, the Little would soon be threatened again. During the World War II, it was difficult to obtain foreign films; many art houses abandoned these films altogether. By 1949, a commemorative brochure distributed by the Little could only reaffirm the commitment to the "unusual, entertaining, documentary, foreign-language, artistic, and musical pictures" that had distinguished the theatre over its first two decades, while conceding ominously that "no one can, of course, foresee the future." Indeed, the next three decades saw a slow decline of the Little's fortunes as social, demographic, and cultural trends combined to marginalize the theatre -- and films in general -- during the 1950s and 1960s. By 1982, after 15 years as part of the Jo-Mor chain, the Little was distinguished primarily for its status as survivor -- the last remaining movie theatre in downtown Rochester. So far had the neighborhood's fortunes fallen that in 1977 the chain considered a renovation project that included removing its trademark sign and razing the Tudor style house next door, which until recently housed the Little's business office. In May 1982, William Coppard and John and Pam Blanpied bought the Little and undertook an ambitious restoration project.
The new owners reaffirmed the Theatre's original commitment to film and sought to recreate an atmosphere in keeping with the original design. The concept was successful, and two additional screens were created in an adjacent tire store in 1983. Theater 2 and 3 opened in the spring of 1984. Now with three screens, the owners had more flexibility in programming special events and festivals, garnering them local and national recognition for innovative programming and support for local causes. In 1989, the audience for art films on both a local and national level was changing. Determined to maintain independent programming, Coppard purchased the Blanpied's interest and proceeded to address the problems that were once again threatening the Theatres existence.
In 1993, after consulting with the founders of the largest chain of art theatres in the United States it was decided to once again expand. In 1994, two screens were constructed in a former collision shop adjacent to Little 2-3. At the same time a café was added in yet another building adjacent to Little 4-5. In 1996 Little 2-3 were re-seated and upgraded. The end result was a modern complex of five screens seating 940, all with stereo sound and comfortable seating as well as a 70-seat café featuring live jazz and presenting the work of local artists.
The Suburban Boom
The story is not over. Hungry for films to fill the screen, suburban theatres began booking films that had previously enjoyed exclusive runs at the Little. As a significant portion of the Little's audience choose the convenience of their neighborhood multiplex over the home grown Little, the theatre's finances took a turn for the worse. In 1998, it was decided to convert the theatre to a 501(c)3 not-for-profit film society with a board of directors, this created a not-for-profit corporation and allowed for the raising of money to augment operating costs. The theatre was granted 501(c)3 status in 1999 by the Internal Revenue Service, and Bill Coppard became the Executive Director of the society. In 2005, Coppard retired, leaving a thriving Little as his legacy.
A Public Broadcasting Partnership
Today, the Little continues to be an affordable night life alternative to the mix of people who visit the downtown and East End area each year. The very landscape of Rochester's downtown and East End areas have been molded by the lights of its marquee, glowing outside its doors 7 nights a week, 364 days a year. In January 2012, the Theatre took another innovative step toward sustainability by entering into a parent-subsidiary relationship with WXXI Public Broadcasting, thus stabilizing its operations. Because of this merger, we can be assured that as the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods continue to change and grow, the Little will continue to be a bright spot in the neighborhood.
Learn more about this merge from a press conference held December 19th, 2011 with WXXI/Little President Norm Silverstein. Click here to view the video on YouTube.
There are numerous examples across the country where public broadcasting stations have merged with theatre and arts groups. This is the only known example of a merger with an art house film theatre. Together the Little and WXXI are committed to preserving all the things Rochester audiences love about the Little. The intimate feel of its marquee theater has been a mainstay in Rochester's downtown and East End area for over 85 years. While other theaters in the United States have closed down and reopened at different parts in their histories, the Little has always been open; doing what it was meant to - showing films. This also makes the Little the oldest continuously running arthouse film theater in the country.
Together, WXXI and the Little have taken a critical first step in bringing the movie house into the 21st century. On May 15, 2013 the Little launched the Screen Saver campaign, a fundraising effort to purchase digital cinema projectors for all five of its theaters. With movie distributors forgoing film for hard drives, the Little must upgrade or become one of countless small cinemas going dark across the country. $500,000 is needed to digitally equip each theatre and ensure the screens stay bright.