Little Art Theatre to get $475K upgrade

The Little Art Theatre — Yellow Springs’ scrappy but cherished art house — will undergo a $475,000 renovation this spring to equip the theater with the digital projection and sound needed to show movies once 35mm film is phased out.

The Little Art also will receive new seats and a new screen, in addition to an increased floor incline for improved sight-lines and handicapped-accessible restrooms.

The theater will be able to offer hearing assistance as well.

“As long as I’ve been associated with it, it’s never been state of the art, which is part of the charm,” said Jenny Cowperthwaite, who’s managed the theater since 1978.

No date has been set for when work will begin and or how long it will last. Cowperthwaite hopes to be closed for only about two months.

Cowperthwaite, who bought the theater in 1998, took the Little Art nonprofit in 2009 and assumed the title of executive director — a move that likely saved it from closure.

“I could see I wouldn’t be able to maintain it much longer with my own blood, sweat and tears,” she said. “I needed help.”

Single-screen theaters across the country were in trouble, she said, either going nonprofit or closing.

“We just limped along,” she said.

Three years after going nonprofit, Cowperthwaite has no regrets about giving up ownership. Attendance is even up.

“This theater wouldn’t be here,” she said.

Then in 2011 she received a letter from a leading distributor of independent films, Fox Searchlight Pictures, informing her that it no longer would distribute 35mm films by 2013.

“I felt this knot in my stomach,” she explained, “but I wasn’t alone anymore. It wasn’t my problem alone to solve.”

The Little Art board launched a capital campaign last August, and by Dec. 31, acquired the $475,000 it set out to raise.

Cowperthwaite credits a $250,000 gift from the Morgan Family Foundation in Yellow Springs and a $30,000 gift from the Yellow Springs Community Foundation with the campaign’s success.

“This is a community of 4,000 now,” she said. “To raise those kinds of funds would’ve been impossible.”

Still, Dorothy O. Scott, the campaign’s honorary chairwoman, didn’t doubt the outcome.

“People have been so generous in these tough economic times,” Scott said, “because the Little Art Theatre is both literally and figuratively the center of downtown.”

“People adore Jenny,” she added. “And people trust Jenny.”

A decision was made not just to go digital, but to fix everything else as well.

“It goes without saying that we compete against the stadium seating of the surrounding theaters,” Scott said.

To say the upcoming remodel has been a long time coming would be an understatement. The Little Art is virtually unchanged from the way it looked when it opened in 1929.

In 1987, a concession stand was installed and new seats were swapped in. But those new seats weren’t really new — they were already 12 years old.

One of the few things set to survive the renovation will be the theater’s six houselights, which were designed, painted and installed in 1947 by an Antioch College student.

Everything else will be state of the art.

“It’s been a dream to upgrade,” Cowperthwaite said.

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