The Little Cinema Movement
The Little Theatre began in Rochester in 1928 as a link in a proposed chain of small theaters 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 radio. With movie companies and film producers devoting increasing attention to the new and mass market "talking" motion pictures, the 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 Original Little Look
The theater was constructed in the Art Deco style by Edgar Phillips of Rochester and Frederick Pike of Buffalo. The distinctive style of the original theater, now Little Theater 1, the signature building on East Avenue, 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 revealed 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, chosen to foster 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 patrons perused magazines and books, "the arty kind of course," according to the brochure.
Opening Night, and After
The Little Theatre officially opened 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 theater's opening could not have been worse. The theater's opening coincided with the stock market crash of 1929. Furthermore, by the late 1920s, silent films were quickly being supplanted by "talking pictures" and quality silent films became scarce.
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 alludes to the physical layout, atmosphere, and programs as exuding 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 theater's role in the local community. Fenvyssey persuaded the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Francis Kirk Remington, to turn the theater 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 theater 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 those 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 theater 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 like 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 brochure of The Little, the theater found its greatest success with musicals. The popular "Be Mine Tonight" ran for 19 weeks in 1933, the very heart of the Depression. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the theater 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 theater 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 theater 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, 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 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 keeping with the original design. The concept was successful. Two additional screens were created in a tire store adjacent to the original East Avenue location.
With three screens instead of one, Coppard and the Blanpieds increased flexibility in programming special events and festivals, garnering local and national recognition for innovative programming and support for local causes.
Despite this expansion in the 1980s, the local and national audience for artistic films continued to change. Determined to maintain The Little’s tradition of independent programming, Coppard purchased the Blanpieds’ interest in 1989 to address new problems threatening the theatre’s existence.
In 1993, after consulting with the founders of the largest chain of art theatres in the United States, it was decided to expand again. Two more screens were finished in 1994 in a former collision shop next to Theaters 2 and 3. A café was added in another building next to the new Theaters 4 and 5. Two years later, in 1996, Theaters 2 and 3 were given fresh seats and other upgrades. The resulting was a total of five theaters seating 940, all with stereo sound and comfortable seating, as well as a 70-seat café featuring live jazz music, accented by a rotating gallery of local artists.
The Suburban Boom
As with any story, peaceful waters lasted only so long for the Little Theatre. Yet another challenge loomed as it neared the new millennium. Hungry for films to fill their screens, big suburban chain theaters began booking films that had
previously enjoyed exclusive runs at The Little. As Little patrons began to choose suburban convenience over homegrown downtown personality, the theatre's profits suffered.
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 new status allowed for fundraising to augment operating costs. The theatre was granted 501(c)3 status in 1999 by the IRS, and Bill Coppard became Executive Director. Coppard retired in 2005, leaving a thriving Little as his legacy.
A Public Broadcasting Power House
The Little settled into its identity as an affordable nightlife alternative for a broad mix of people visiting the East End every year. Its marquee had become a familiar fixture of the Rochester cityscape, glowing seven nights a week, 364 days a year.
In January 2012, the theatre took an innovative step toward sustainability by entering into a parent-subsidiary relationship with WXXI Public Broadcasting. Because of this merger, The Little gained a newfound stability in a shifting, growing downtown.
There were numerous examples across the country of public broadcasting stations merging with theatre and arts groups. This, however, was the only known merger of public broadcasting and an art-house cinema. Under the same banner, The Little and WXXI were and still are committed to preserving everything Rochesterians love about the theatre. The intimate atmosphere of its historic East Avenue location has now been a mainstay in Rochester's East End for over 85 years.
While other theaters in the United States have continually closed and (sometimes) reopened, The Little screens have never gone dark. This makes it the oldest continuously-running art-house film theatre in the country.
A Brave New (Digital) World
In 2013, film distributors announced they be forgoing film for hard drives, ending the distribution of new movies on 35mm film. Any cinemas that couldn’t switch from film projection to digital projection would be forced to close or screen movies already released on film. Unfortunately, many small, independent theaters shuttered their doors due to the heavy expense of converting their projection.
Formatting The Little for digital projection would include sound processing and speakers necessary to output digital sound, new screens, and installation of adaptive technologies to support those with disabilities. Additionally, the theater was dedicated to preserving its 35mm heritage, including installation of “reel to reel” technology that would permit exhibition of archival material. All of this would cost $500,000.
The Little secured a grant of $180,000 from the Finger Lakes Economic Development Council with the stipulation that the funds be matched with private donations, but that left less than a year to meet the deadline for digital transition set forth by distributors. So staff of The Little and the creative team of WXXI embarked on an aggressive “Screen Saver Campaign” that included print and e-mail, coordinated social media, pooling a vast volunteer base to help spread the word, created a direct appeal to members and filmgoers – and a cosmetic transformation of the theatre itself to promote the campaign.
The Screen Saver Campaign was a resounding success. During the campaign, 1,915 people actively supported The Little in a variety of ways. A volunteer "Street Team" of 75 people was created to help generate donations. They hosted community-wide events including campaigning at Rochester's summer arts festivals, area businesses, and during various community events. There were also well-attended raffles, trivia nights, and happy hours. In addition to this grassroots format of fundraising, The Little incorporated traditional techniques, such as direct mail, and e-mail appeals. That direct approach to members and non-members alike made up the bulk of the campaign’s donations.
The last theater to receive digital upgrades was historic Theater 1, which was completed in the summer of 2014.
Celebrating its 85th Year
The Little celebrated its 85 anniversary in 2014. To mark the occasion, the theater launched a campaign on social media inviting patrons to submit film requests for a summer series showing a film from every decade since The Little’s 1929 opening. The response was incredible, with hundreds of requests submitted through The Little’s website, social media, and on paper. The Little’s 85 Years of Film series was held in August.
In October, as the theatre actually turned 85, The Little screened the first film ever to play in the theater, the silent film “Cyrano de Bergerac.” In typical Little fashion, there was a special artistic turn to the screening. The Andrew Alden Ensemble, a Boston-based musical group specializing in writing original music and accompanying silent films, was commissioned to score and perform at the screening. Public response was excellent, and the evening itself was overwhelming.
That same evening, a special party was held at the LiDestri home next to the theater. Patrons were invited to attend dressed as their favorite film character from the last 85 years. As always, the Mr. and Mrs. LiDestri proved wonderful hosts and a fantastic time was had by all.
Finally, during the year, a call went out from The Little’s Creative department for stories from patrons over the course of its 85 years. The stories were collected and archived, and included tales spanning from the early 1930s to 2014. First dates, last dates, sightings of stars, fond childhood memories and a general feeling of Rochester pride for the theater transcended the stories collected.
Moving Into the Future, With an Eye on the Past
As the theater moves into its 88th year, a full slate of improvements are projected to ensure that The Little only becomes more relevant in Rochester’s blossoming independent artistic community. These improvements include a full renovation of historic Theater 1, with great care being taken to respect and preserve the building’s historical. These renovations include making the theater and its facilities more accessible to patrons with special needs, so everyone feels welcome in the space.
The Little is also constantly seeking to diversify its artistic offerings, with live concerts and an active involvement in the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Fest every year. Late in 2014, The Little also launched an alternative, late-night series called Mondo Movies, which gives audiences the opportunity to see classic, cult, and obscure films rarely seen on the silver screen. This also serves to reach new, young audiences and tap into the large student population in the city. In 2015, The Little Café took the step of including its gallery in the monthly citywide art celebration First Friday, deepening its commitment to Rochester’s downtown community.
All of these initiatives and improvements are based on support from The Little’s patrons. Without its strong and diverse customer base, The Little would have closed its doors as The Little Cinema Movement scattered and died in the dark days of the Great Depression. Such was the end of dozens of large, opulent downtown movie palaces in the last nine decades. We at The Little and WXXI look forward to another 86 years in this city, and we’re grateful to the thousands of customers who have passed through our doors and sustained us, as well as to those who continue do so today.