Latchis Theatre to celebrate its 80th

The Latchis Theatre fills for a big event.

By Steve Noble

Resilience is the operative word to describe the Latchis Hotel and Theatre, Brattleboro’s downtown Art Deco gem, which celebrates its 80th birthday in September 2018.

The four brothers who built the Latchis Memorial Building in 1938 in tribute to their father, Demetrius Latchis, should have had an inkling from the start that their resilience would be tested. Their grand opening celebration was set for Sept. 22, 1938, but the Great Hurricane of 1938 blew through town on a destructive tear that killed 144 throughout New England and, in today’s dollars, wrought $7 billion in damage.

The storm delayed the opening a mere 24 hours. On Sept. 23, 1938, 1,600 turned out for the grand opening ceremonies, which included a convocation from local clergy, music by Felix Ferdinando and his Hotel Montclair Orchestra, other live acts, and the screening of the latest Sonja Henie film, “My Lucky Star.”

In the nearly 80 years since, the Latchis Building has weathered all kinds of storms and hung in there through economic ups and downs, changing tastes and demographics, differences in the family, a change in ownership, and another dangerous storm: Tropical Storm Irene, which dealt $600,000 in of damage to the Latchis and forced the building’s closure for 42 days.

The Latchis decor pays homage to classic antiquity.

Still, the Latchis soldiers on. The Latchis Memorial Building today has four movie venues, including its majestic 750-seat Main Theatre, a 30-room boutique hotel, several retail spaces, and a pub and restaurant that is soon to reopen.

Indeed, at nearly 80 years young, the Latchis is busier than ever, welcoming annually more than 60,000 movie viewers, 10,000 hotel guests, and some 20,000 patrons to an ever-expanding schedule of live programs and special events.

The compelling story of the Latchis, from the emigration of Demetrius Latchis from Greece in 1901, to the growth of the family business that started with a fruit cart and grew in the span of a generation to a small empire of more than a dozen movie theaters throughout New England, and up to the present day is told in Gordon Hayward’s “Greek Epic: The Latchis Family and the New England Theater Empire They Built” (2016).

Hayward is president of the non-profit Latchis Arts, which owns the building and the business that runs it. Based on interviews with Latchis family members and countless hours of research, his book is a revealing look at the Latchis family through four generations.

The Latchis exterior.

Beyond its meticulous attention to detail, “Greek Epic” retains the sense of excitement the Latchis evokes. Starting with its Art Deco exterior, patrons are then drawn to the Latchis’ Greek-themed decorative touches and terrazzo floors and into the Main Theatre, where colorful murals painted in 1938 by renowned artist Louis Jambor depict Greek themes and all are guarded over by Greek statuary.

“We get a lot of people who stop in just to see our grand Main Theatre. Their reaction is always the same: their eyes widen, their jaws drop, and they say they never imagined a theater like this was here,” says Jon Potter, executive director of the Latchis. “Seeing people react like that never gets old. This is a place of wonder.”

In the age of Netflix and entertainment served on demand, Latchis audiences have stayed loyal and steady, perhaps because it still delivers a unique experience. Hayward certainly thinks so.

“In a theater, especially an old, historic, atmospheric theater with a much larger screen than you’d see in the multiplexes at the mall, you are drawn deeper and deeper into the story, the characters, and their emotions, as well as the landscape that appears up there on the truly big screen. In fact, just walking into an old movie theater is the first consciousness-changing experience for moviegoers. You literally walk into and are surrounded by the past,” he writes in “Greek Epic.”

Cover of “Greek Epic: The Latchis Family & The New England Theatre Empire They Built” (2016) by Gordon Hayward.

In 2003, the non-profit Brattleboro Arts Initiative, now Latchis Arts, with the help of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, raised the funds to purchase the Latchis Memorial Building for $1.6 million from Spero and Elizabeth Latchis.

Since then, BAI/Latchis Arts has put more than $2.1 million into renovations and repairs. The work has included safety, code, and infrastructure improvements; the construction of the new 70-seat Latchis theater four; repairing the damage wrought by Tropical Storm Irene; and, in 2013, completing a $550,000 renovation to the seats and unique zodiac ceiling.

When BAI bought the Latchis in 2003, a unique business structure came into being: The non-profit Latchis Arts owns the for-profit Latchis Corporation, which operates the hotel and the commercial movie theater. Latchis Corporation returns its profits to Latchis Arts to support its work.

Together, these organizations, run by separate volunteer boards, deliver on the Latchis’ three-pronged mission: to preserve and steward a magnificent 80-year-old building, to make the Latchis a lively venue for the arts and a community gathering space, and to be an economic engine in the heart of Brattleboro’s vibrant downtown.

The Latchis during Tropical Storm Irene, Aug. 28, 2011.

Diversity is the hallmark of programming at the Latchis Theatre. In addition to first-run movies, the Latchis hosts a dizzying array of other live events, community conversations, and special film screenings. Popular annual favorites include Brattleboro Museum’s Collegiate A Cappella Show, the New England Center for Circus Arts’ Circus Spectacular, Brattleboro Film Festival, Southern Vermont Dance Festival, The Hatch Storytelling event, and simulcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, National Theatre, and Bolshoi Ballet.

To these, add performances by local choral and orchestra groups, well-known stars, many other live arts events, and the hosting of community conversations about important issues of the day. Recent such events have examined the opioid crisis, sexual assault, nuclear power, and the Vietnam War.

Big names who’ve graced the Latchis stage include the Count Basie Big Band, Ken Burns, Rosanne Cash, Arlo Guthrie, Roy Haynes, Paula Poundstone, Sen. Bernie Sanders, David Sedaris, Pete Seeger, Richard Thompson, Suzanne Vega, Johnny Winter, and Paul Winter.

The Latchis Main Theatre has hosted weddings, conferences, and school groups—and every year welcomes a bodybuilding competition.

Most events at the Latchis Theatre are presented as fundraisers for various local non-profits and causes, making the Latchis an important engine of social good, as well. Those events feature performances and programs selected by the organization. Latchis Arts chooses or presents very few of the programs. Its model is to partner with other groups, who choose the performer, find a date, and then work with Latchis Arts to make a really big night happen.

“We like to say we’re inherently collaborative. It is our mission to be a partner in the success of other people’s programs,” Potter says.

But for one weekend in September 2018, Latchis Arts will take the reins. Plans are still gelling for the Latchis’ 80th anniversary celebration, which is slated for September 21-23, 2018. Watch for details soon. For more information, visit latchisarts.org.

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