Art, artifacts, and entertainment history
have been retooled in these
old-time and newly prized movie houses

By Diane Foulds
The Boston Globe, November 5, 2006

Dimly lighted, spacious, with velvet seating and cathedral-like ceilings, classic theaters were prime necking grounds, especially in the balcony.

Rainy Saturday afternoons drew a different crowd. Children rushed the seats, brawling and finger-whistling in a deafening mayhem. A matinee was a carnival, with Betty Boop and Popeye magnified and transformed into images far livelier than anything found in books.

Mammoth curtains flowed open and scratchy images flickered onto the screen: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Moving pictures transported you into a different reality, a magical universe dissolved only by the lights coming on. In its wake, empty popcorn boxes lay crushed on the floor; globs of chewing gum clung to seatbacks like barnacles.

Where did the great movie houses go?

The most venerable, those that popularized vaudeville and burlesque, then moved on to silent and talking movies, went into decline in the 1960s and '70s, when TV westerns and sitcoms kept Americans sunk in their living room couches. Many theaters closed. But in recent decades, they've been staging a comeback. Nonprofit organizations are acquiring and restoring them, giving them new purpose, new uses, and returning the "big screen" experience to film lovers who spurn the multiplex experience.

Brattleboro's Latchis Hotel and Theatre is a shining example. A gleaming Art Deco block in the center of town, it was built in 1938 and included a restaurant and hotel. It was the showpiece of a 14-theater empire created by Peter Latchis and his Greek immigrant father, Demetrius.

The Latchis Hotel and Theater on Main Street in Brattleboro

What started as a tribute to Demetrius ended up an homage to Hellenic culture. Signs of the zodiac ring the lobby floor and circle the auditorium's massive indigo ceiling. Terrazzo floors, plaster friezes, and a statue of Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth, suggest ancient glory.

"They spared nothing. That's the beauty of it," said Gail Nunziata, managing director of the nonprofit Brattleboro Arts Initiative.

Determined to save the building, the arts organization purchased the property from the Latchis family in 2003. In addition to the main theater, two smaller screening rooms have been added, and a fourth is planned. The complex also includes a 30-room hotel, shops, and a brew pub. Filling the 750 seats at the Latchis, however, is not an easy task in a town of 12,000.

"I love the idea that you sit here and you wait for the show to start, and you look around you," said Anne MacLeod, a writer and moviegoer who moved to Brattleboro in February. "It has a time worn elegance."

One of the many friezes at the Latchis Theatre

Despite cracks in the upholstery, the atmosphere is striking. The columned facades of faux Greek temples mirror each other across the room; nymphs and centaurs amble over the walls. The original concession stand in the lobby displays Goobers, Raisinets, Milk Duds, and Charleston Chews on red velvet as if they were fine jewelry. Serving as an arts center, the theater also hosts painting exhibits….

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