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Save the Cinema
Future as art center projected for old movie house

Photo: Amherst Cinema

“Wouldn’t it be great?” Senator Stan Rosenberg outside the proposed center with organizer Meg Gage, center, and Roberta Uno of New WORLD Theater. (Paul Shoul photo)

The Amherst Cinema on Amity Street has so long been a UMie destination that we might call it our place for first dates. Built as a livery stable behind the Amherst House hotel in 1880, when Mass Aggie was just a pup, it became a stage-and-screen theater in 1926 in a renovation that also created two storefronts. As a movie house, especially, it was a popular spot for students seeking a night on the town, and remained so for 73 years.

 


     In 1999, after years of decline, the cinema closed and the building was put up for sale. The empty marquee and darkened lobby, with its vacant popcorn stand, dingy red carpet, and life-size posters of Bogart and Chaplin, were all that recalled livelier days.

     But this is not an obituary. The old theater, once part of a chain of 20 picture palaces that included the Calvin in Northampton, the Bing in Springfield, and the Garden in Greenfield, has been purchased by a community group formed to prevent its demise and develop it as a community arts center.

     Amherst Cinema Center Inc., led by local citizens Meg Gage and Steven Morgan, has rallied the resources of both town and campus. A one-year, $300,000 loan from the UMass Foundation, and a comparable sum in gifts, has allowed the group to repay a crucial short-term loan from a pair of Amherst businessmen toward the $738,000 sale price.


If all goes as planned, the center will open in 2003, housing a 350-seat theater, two 90-seat cinemas, and possibly an art gallery and dance studio. A primary tenant is expected to be New WORLD Theater – the widely praised UMass program that’s been without a permanent stage since the Hampden Theater on campus was shut down three years ago. (See related story.)

     Project leaders express enthusiasm at having such a high-profile, grant-savvy organization anchor the center. New WORLD, says director Roberta Uno ’94G, is equally excited at the prospect of moving physically into the community with its unique brand of multicultural theater.

     “This partnership is a powerful statement of the values we share with the town and our participation in the community,” says Uno, who’s been the driving force behind New WORLD since its beginnings as a student organization in 1979. “It really moves beyond the arts.”

     Uno has already begun building support for the center in the wider world of theater. The “New Millennium Committee” she has formed includes some very big names: among them Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who was a visiting professor at UMass in the ’80s and whose work was among the first staged by New WORLD Theater. Another member is the artistic director of the New Federal Theater in New York City, Woodie King. Honorary national chair is Johnnetta Cole, another former UMass faculty member who served as president of Spelman College in Atlanta before moving to the faculty of Emory University.

     Royster Hedgepeth, the campus’s former vice chancellor for university advancement, has volunteered to help Amherst Cinema devise a capital campaign to complete the purchase and raise funds for renovation and an operating endowment, even though he recently announced his resignation from UMass, after the successful completion of the university’s own campaign, to become vice president for philanthropy at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.


Senator Stan Rosenberg ’77 considers the arts center a good candi-date for funds under the state’s new cultural tourism program which may dispense as much $20 million per year for projects around the Commonwealth.

     Rosenberg warns that competition for the funds will be fierce, but that the cinema’s storied past and promising future give it a good chance. “This is a great opportunity for the university and the town to work together for something of mutual benefit to both,” he says. “And wouldn’t it be great to have New WORLD Theater as part of the lifeblood of this community?”

     As with most arts projects, public involvement is considered imperative for the center. Co-chairs Gage and Morgan have worked hard to build enthusiasm by welcoming ideas for the project. For now, the office of Amherst Cinema Center Inc. is located upstairs in Morgan’s Leverett home. It will move onsite once the building’s storefronts are renovated, says Morgan, giving more visibility to the project.

     “Lots and lots of people have volunteered to help in whatever way they can,” he says. Of course, lots of involvement also means lots of opinions. He has received more than one plea to preserve the locally famous “Save the Drake” graffito on the building’s west wall, in honor of a former neighborhood bar that failed to make it into the 21st century along with the Amherst Cinema.

– Ben Barnhart

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