The Little Cinema Movement
In the late 1920’s, The Little Cinema Movement evolved as a response to the trend of mass marketing in the entertainment industry. With movie companies and film producers devoting increasing attention to the new “talking” motion pictures, the Movement attempted to reach an audience open to the experimental, the eclectic, and the unusual. The Little Theatre was proposed as one of a chain of small theaters designed to provide an alternative to the large commercial movie houses of the day.
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 on East Avenue has earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places.
Although the striking exterior is most familiar to countless Rochesterians, Pike’s original interior was equally dramatic with a very specific audience in mind. 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. In the words of one early promotional brochure, the design encouraged patrons to “Sip delightful Java and smoke cigarettes of your own choosing.” The interiors offered sumptuous lounges appointed with deep carpets, velvet drapes and soft lighting to encourage relaxation and “intimate chat.” Such lounges would function as retreats where patrons perused magazines and books – “the arty kind of course.”
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 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.
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. Indeed, the next three decades saw a slow decline of The Little’s fortunes as social, demographic, and cultural trends shifted. In 1967, the Little was acquired by the Jo-Mor chain, a locally owned network of movie theatres. By 1982, The Little was distinguished primarily for its status as survivor – the last remaining movie theatre in downtown Rochester.
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 enough to warrant the expansion of the Theatre’s campus. 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.
In 1994, the theatre expanded again, adding two more screens in the former collision shop next door. The Little Cafe opened in the adjacent space, hosting seating for 70 to enjoy food, live jazz music and a rotating gallery of local artists. By the end of the renovations, the Little Theatre boasted a total of five theaters seating 940, all with stereo sound and comfortable seating.
The Suburban Boom
Yet another challenge loomed as The Little moved into 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 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 new status allowed for fundraising to augment operating costs. The theatre was granted the status change 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
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.
Moving Into the Future, With an Eye on the Past
In recent years, The Little has embarked on the ambitious undertaking of renovating the original theatre, taking care to preserve the historic design while expanding its versatility and accessibility. After multiple closures to complete construction, Theatre 1 now boasts a fully renovated marquee, new auditorium seats, a fully updated stage and sound system, and a rejuvenated lobby with an elevator. After this extensive work, the original theatre fully reopened to the public in February of 2020.
Like all theaters in New York State, the Little shut down during the pandemic of 2020. During that time, a variety of virtual offerings – from concerts, to film to interactive discussion – have all been added to the repertoire. With the doors open again, we look forward to welcoming Rochester back to the movies.
All of this was made possible with the support of The Little’s patrons. Without its strong and dedicated customer base, The Little would have closed its doors in the dark days of the Great Depression. We at The Little and WXXI look forward to another 90-plus years in this city, and we’re grateful to the thousands of customers who have passed through our doors and sustained us through history, as well as to those who continue do so today.