Hall family vows Capawock will re-open Nov. 1
A sign posted last week over the Capawock Theatre's entrance on Main Street in Vineyard Haven reads, "Reopening November 1st or earlier."
Despite costly and time-consuming setbacks in renovating the vintage 1912 movie theater building, the prospect of operating a business that loses money, a mounting campaign of public criticism, and veiled threats of eminent domain, the Hall family set a date to reopen the movie theater after its screens have been dark for almost two years.
Their pledge to reopen by the November date is due partly in response to the encouragement and support of a grass-roots organization formed of year-round residents, summer visitors, and Island business owners whose goals are for the theater to reopen and remain open.
Community pressure on the Hall family to reopen Vineyard Haven's Capawock Theatre has extracted a promise from the Halls. Photos by Ralph Stewart
Over the last several weeks, Jeff Kristal, owner of the Crocker House Inn in Vineyard Haven, and Mary Jo Goodrich, a real estate agent and nurse who lives within walking distance of the theater, joined forces in organizing people interested in getting the movie theater open again.
"One thing we all know is we want the movie theater to open, but the second piece is we want it to stay open," said Mr. Kristal, who hosted the first meeting in late July at his inn for a group of about 25.
A second meeting took place at Ms. Goodrich's house a few weeks later, followed by one at Tisbury Selectman Denys Wortman's home on August 10, attended by Brian and Ben Hall Jr., who own and operate the Capawock.
"We asked them, what can we do to help you?" Ms. Goodrich said. "We wanted to find out what we could do to get this up and running, especially in the winter. It's like our clubhouse. All we wanted to do was go to the movies."
Sometime during the first meeting, Mr. Kristal said, the issue of the town of Tisbury taking the movie house by eminent domain was raised. However, he added, "It was definitely a place nobody wanted to go."
Ms. Goodrich said although eminent domain was discussed again at the second meeting, attended by attorneys from the Island and Washington, D.C., "No one wanted to do that. We wanted to find out if that was a last resort - it was certainly not our intention."
An editorial that appeared in the August 8 Vineyard Gazette entitled "Take Back the Capawock" proposed that the Tisbury selectmen call a special town meeting and place an article on the warrant requesting voters to approve taking the theater by eminent domain. Although the Tisbury selectmen discussed the option of using eminent domain briefly at their meeting that night, there was no official move to pursue it by them or by a citizen's group.
The eminent domain issue came as a surprise to Ben, who is an attorney in Edgartown. "What would town government do with a property like that?" he asked. "Would taxpayers pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year into a fund to run a movie theater?"
In addition to the Gazette's editorial, a July 28 humor column by Art Buchwald satirized the Hall brothers as the "Brothers Grimm," who purposely delay the reopening of their "Cinema Paradiso" until all of "Grape Haven's" businesses shut down. Mr. Buchwald, who lives in Vineyard Haven, also attended the theater activists' group meeting at Ms. Goodrich's home.
"I was so shocked by Art Buchwald's mean missive," said Ben. "It is so discouraging and dispiriting. Why attack people in the trenches? We're putting our best efforts in."
Despite Mr. Buchwald's barbs, Ben and his brother Brian made light of his column, pasting a notice about the theater's reopening on a movie poster for "The Brothers Grimm," starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, in a display case to the left of the entrance.
In the meantime, Brian, who is caretaker for the family's many Island properties, continues his work inside the theater. After the theater closed its doors for renovation in late 2004, a water pipe burst in the building following a heavy snowstorm in early 2005. "That was a setback, but just one thing in a litany of many," he recalled. "Every corner you look in, the building's rotted."
When Brian started making repairs, they were more extensive than he thought. He had to reset the building's footings and tunnel underneath to fix bathroom plumbing. He also found that water was leaking in between the foundation and bulkhead every time it rained. He and one helper have done most of the repairs, in addition to painting inside and out, and installing new seats.
As months went by, the Halls have been vague when asked about a reopening date by the Tisbury selectmen and Main Street business owners, because they said they did not know when the work would be completed. In response to the news this week about the theater's November reopening date, Selectman Tom Pachico said, "I'll believe it when I see it."
"One of our biggest mistakes was just not communicating to the public what was going on," Brian said. "It was just fertile breeding ground for the Island rumor mill." One of the most often heard rumors was that the Halls were planning to raze the building and not planning to reopen the theater at all.
"The plan has always been to reopen it - it always was a matter of when the work inside gets completed," said Brian. "I always had this pipe dream about reconfiguring the theater to put a retail business on the first floor and the movie theater underground, with another one under the Murray building," he explained. "And I think maybe me telling people about that idea may have given birth to rumors about us razing the building and all that."
Ben said that despite the fact people can attend other Island theaters in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, a small group seems intent on having a movie theater in Vineyard Haven. "There is nothing that says the building has to be a movie theater," he said. "But from our point of view, it does, and that's why we're putting so much effort and money into the building."
He said his brother and his father, Benjamin Hall Sr., who also is an attorney, have not taken a paycheck out of the movie theater in several years. "The only reason we keep it going is because we love it," he said. However, he pointed out, "No business that is not making a profit can last very long. It mystifies me that people think you should continue to operate a money-losing business."
Although the Halls have been receptive to the community group's ideas, especially for marketing and expanding the theater's activities, Brian said they face the financial realities of operating a movie business in competition with cable television, video rental stores, and improved home theater systems.
"Unfortunately, the movie exhibition business has been on the decline for a couple of decades now," he said. "It's not like the old days, when all you were competing with were three snowy broadcast television networks. Now, you look at the real estate those theaters sit on, and the business is not worth what the real estate is. You'd have to pack the houses all the time, and it just doesn't happen."
From their perspective as business owners, the Halls say the theater's profits are not in keeping with its rental potential as prime real estate. "The theater auditorium and the space it takes up are not worth the real estate," explained Brian. "Basically what we have been doing and what we intend to do for the foreseeable future is largely a community service. Yeah, it makes a little money, but the money it makes does not pay for the real estate."
His grandfather, who was inducted into the Motion Pictures Pioneers of America, leased the theater building for many years from Smith, Bodfish, and Swift, and in 1955 bought the property, which included the Murray building. A screen for silent movies remains, painted on the back wall with black masking and gold borders, behind the modern movie screen.
"The movie business is in our blood, and our names are on those buildings," said the senior Mr. Hall. He predicts the next year will be a turning point, in terms of the theater's survival. "This has been a labor of love, our little philanthropic enterprise," Mr. Hall said. "We run it for the benefit of the employees and the community. Hopefully, it will give us some momentum to sustain it."
While many community members and Main Street business owners see the Capawock Theater as the linchpin for downtown Vineyard Haven commerce, Selectman Denys Wortman said it will require a collaborative effort between the community and businesses to keep it going once it reopens.
"The Halls can open it, but people still have to say, let's go," Mr. Wortman said. "I'd like to see the people in the community give it their support, as well as the other businesses." Although the movie theater is part of the puzzle, he said, another major piece is tying town businesses together so everyone on Main Street benefits. "I would encourage everyone on the Island to come to Vineyard Haven, go to dinner, visit the bookstore and buy a book, see a movie, and get some ice cream afterwards," Mr. Wortman said. "I promise I will be there opening night."
If the Halls do everything on their part to reopen the theater and the community does not support it, they can't be blamed, Mr. Wortman pointed out. He said it remains to be seen whether the theater's reopening will make as much of an impact on Vineyard Haven business as people are expecting.
Ben Hall Jr. agreed. "We're asking the community to come out in droves to support us," he said. "If people really care about keeping the movie theater going, they have to buy tickets."
His brother takes a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to gauging the effects of the movie theater on Vineyard Haven's economy.
"I think that a movie theater definitely has an effect on business in town, but the extent of that effect is exaggerated in business people's minds, because it's an easy answer for why there has been a decline in business," Brian said. "What the other factors are that contribute to that decline, I don't know. Once the theater's reopened, I don't think it will be the panacea everyone thinks it will be."
Mr. Kristal and Mr. Wortman plan to meet weekly with Brian to keep the momentum going. "We're hoping to have a celebration on opening night," Ms. Goodrich said.