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Check out the Little Art Theatre's $475K renovation

Some would call it a miracle.

At a time when small independent movie theaters across the nation are either closing their doors or struggling to keep them open, a little art house in Yellow Springs, Ohio, is about to host a grand celebration and show off a major $475,000 renovation.

On Saturday afternoon, Sept. 28, the Little Art Theatre opened its doors to reveal a dramatic four-month make-over— a creative blend of the historic and state-of-the-art technology. The theater has been in continuous operation since 1929.

In addition to the $80,000 of new digital sound and projection equipment that’s now a film industry requirement, visitors viewed a brand new lobby and expanded concession area, comfy new burnished tan leatherette seats with cup-holders, a raked theater with much improved sight lines.

The theater is now fully ADA accessible and offers a hearing-assistance program. There’s a new movie screen, new soundfold wall treatments, all new heating, air conditioning and lighting. The spacious new restrooms are named Harold and Maude.

The iconic Aztec-designed art Deco house lights, originally created in the 1940s by an Antioch student, have been replicated and the theater’s color scheme taken from that artwork. The chrome, bright lights and hard surfaces of today’s multiplex theaters were purposely avoided in favor of warmer tones.

In the back of the theater, a lounge area with small tables and chairs will allow patrons to chat before or after the show or to enjoy a glass of wine or beer or local choices on tap from the Yellow Springs Brewery.

Despite all the newness, there are references to the past: in the lobby, the plaster on one of the walls has been removed to expose the old red brick and the old wooden beams are now visible. The restrooms feature historic photos from the early 1950s taken when there was a fire in the projection room and the old marquee has been repainted with new electrical work.

Patrons react

“Oh, man, it’s gorgeous!” says delighted patron Fred Bartenstein who’s had a sneak peak at the new venue. He’s been coming to the Little Art with his wife since the 1970s and estimates the couple is in the theater at least 40 nights a year to see what he calls “intelligent movies.”

The Little Art has traditionally shows art, independent, foreign and documentary films.

Although he’s now a Yellow Springs resident, Bartenstein says he began coming to films in Yellow Springs even when they lived in Dayton.

“The Yellow Springs experience is an essential part of what makes living in the Miami Valley fun,” he believes. “To drive out to Yellow Springs, have a meal, and go to the Little Art is a really inexpensive, easy outing. It’s more than just a theater — it’s all of the pieces that make it an experience and make the Little Art worth saving.”

Making it happen

Bartenstein and others in the know are quick to credit the miracle-makers: Maureen Lynch, president of the theater board, Kipra Heermann who chaired the capital campaign, and Jenny Cowperthwaite, the theater’s executive director and former owner.

Lynch says she’s loved movies all her life and had been coming to the Little Art for the past 30 years.

“When my husband and I drove out West we went through all these little towns and all of the old theaters were closed up,” she says.

Bartenstein says Lynch and Heermann were visionaries who realized if an independent theater were going to survive in today’s economy, it would have to become a not-for-profit organization and upgrade both its facility and its technology.

For Bartenstein it was deja vu: He was part of the group that organized the effort to rescue Dayton’s historic Victory Theatre when it was about to become a parking lot.

“Survival was also the issue there because the energy was to tear down old movie theaters of the time,” he remembers, adding that today’s Victoria Theatre is “one of the crown jewels of the whole region.”

But at the time the Victory was saved, remembers Bartenstein, it was a ‘Disney house.’

“It, too, was a beloved institution — like the Little Art —but technological dinosaurs have to evolve as the environment shifts.”

Shifting gears

In October of 2009, the Little Art became a non-profit corporation.

Since that move, Lynch explains, the theater’s operating loss is $50,000 a year but that’s made up by memberships from the community. More than 475 donors contributed to the capital campaign that financed the renovation.

Lynch says they raised funds the old-fashioned way — sending mailings to residents of Yellow Springs and soliciting individuals and companies face-to-face.

The approach paid off with donations ranging from $20 to $250,000. Though most came from the Miami Valley, the committee also heard from those who’d spent time in Yellow Springs and remembered it fondly.

Acknowledging donors

There are tastefully designed plaques on everything in the theater: the list of large donors in the lobby is artistically displayed on the image of a curving piece of film positioned next to an old movie reel — now a relic.

“We named everything we could name,” laughs Heermann, who says 20 people wanted to fund the popcorn machine. Every chair in the theater bears a name and represents a $500 donation; side-by-side chairs cost $2,000.

Some non-movie-goers gave, says Heermann, just because they love Jenny Cowperthwaite. At a pre-opening event for donors, there was a surprise in store.

“I told her I was going to name the auditorium for my parents,” says Lynch, “but we surprised Jenny and named it for her.”

Cowperthwaite, 57, remembers first coming to the Little Art when she was a child to see Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” at Halloween. Her parents attended Antioch College and were involved with integrating the theater in the 1940s.

“They said the plan was for the African-Americans to sit in the back and the students would sit up front and observe the rules,” her parents told her. “But once the movie started, they would all move and mix.”

Cowperthwaite, who began working at the Little Art as a cashier in 1971, was managing the theater by 1978 and purchased the theater in 1998.

Now she — and the theater board — are looking forward to a bright new chapter in their historic theater’s future. They’ll open their doors with a community open house and party on Sept. 28, and will officially begin showing films the following day.

But they don’t intend to stop with movies: They’re envisioning their state-of-the-art building as a venue for all sorts of events — meetings, parties, concerts, lectures.

Says an excited Cowperthwaite: “We’ve already booked a wedding!”

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