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When the Greek immigrant-turned-impresario Latchis family announced the grand opening of their namesake Brattleboro theater and hotel in the fall of 1938, the members aimed to take the state by storm, even after the great hurricane hit. historic New England the day before.
Thwarted by downed trees and power lines, they nevertheless argued with the 20th Century Fox musical “My Lucky Star”, the orchestra Felix Ferdinando (“Direct from Million Dollar Pier, Atlantic City”, exclaimed bill) and a packed house of 1,200 to stay true to the old adage, “The show must go on.”
Eight decades later, the four-story art deco landmark has survived everything from the advent of television to $500,000 in flood damage from 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene. Then 2020 began with the new d an impending global pandemic.
“I remember reading that the industries most likely to be affected would be hospitality and entertainment,” says Latchis executive director Jon Potter, who not only oversees a 30-room boutique hotel and a theater in four screens, but also the lease of a pub and several shop windows. “You couldn’t conceive of something that relates more directly to us.”
When the film opened, the Latchis had Judy Garland’s Emerald City car parade through town to announce the 1939 arrival of “The Wizard of Oz.” And so, temporarily closing in March 2020, it wrote “There’s no place like home” on its marquee and waited to see if it could weather the Covid-19 cyclone.
“At worst, we were losing $1,000 a day,” Potter said. “We lost 96% of our income for two or three months in a row, but we still had to run the boilers and run the electricity through our floodlights so they wouldn’t break down. I was very worried that a microbial virus – rather than the epic, biblical things we resisted – would leave us dead in the water.
A year and a half later, the Latchis tell a startlingly different story.
“A city within a city, under one roof”
At the turn of the 20th century, 37-year-old Demetrios Latsis (more on that spelling later) said goodbye to his wife and children in Greece and sailed west in search of the American dream.
Reaching the Statue of Liberty, the peddler aspired to start a business – starting with a fruit cart that he would push and pull from town to town – before returning to his native land to pick up his family. But first, Latsis faced an immigration officer who, asking for her last name, misspelled the answer as “Latchis.”
These letters and the man they tagged would go on to light up more than a dozen marquees in New England during the Roaring Twenties, with movie theaters in Brattleboro, Springfield, Windsor, Woodstock and 10 other communities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. neighbors.
(Vermont writer Gordon Hayward tells the whole story in his 2016 book “Greek Epic: The Latchis Family and the New England Theater Empire They Built.”)
After the patriarch’s death in 1932, his children honored him by constructing the Latchis Memorial Building in downtown Brattleboro.
“A city within a city”, read advertisements for the theatre, hotel, restaurant and shops. “Everything under one roof.”
The Latchis provided entertainment and escape during the Depression and World War II, only to struggle through the following decades as the arrival of Interstate 91 and the Internet drew people elsewhere.
The family would sell their movie theaters one by one until 2003, when the nonprofit organization Latchis Arts raised $1.6 million to buy the Brattleboro building. Supporters raised another $550,000 a decade later to renovate the theater with help from EverGreene Architectural Arts – whose clients include the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in New York – and Carnegie supplier Irwin Seating Co. Lobby.
“What you can’t see can hurt you”
As Vermonters gathered for town meetings in early March 2020, the Latchis filled his Main Street window card with a movie poster for “The Invisible Man.”
“What you can’t see can hurt you,” reads its tagline.
No one knew it was less of a stopper than a prophecy.
Potter recalls hearing reports of a virus in China and on cruise ships when the Latchis hosted performances by the local New England Center for Circus Arts the weekend of the 7th and 8th March 2020.
“We were all focused on handwashing,” Potter says. “We had no idea.”
Five days later, Vermont Governor Phil Scott declared a Covid-19 state of emergency. In response, the Latchis laid off their two dozen full-time and part-time employees and closed for what all hoped would be no more than a month.
“I have a distinct memory of the theater staff packing up all the popcorn that was left in the machine,” Potter says. “It kind of marked that dark moment in the saddest way.”
The hotel continued to accommodate a few essential workers. But Potter, head of the rare nonprofit that owns and operates multiple for-profit businesses, was the only person present for most of spring 2020.
“I sat down every morning and tracked every check I wrote,” he recalls. “We had money in the bank, but we were losing money.”
Potter won’t reveal specific finances other than to say pre-pandemic reserves were ‘in the tens of thousands of dollars’ as expenses threatened to devour them in ‘a few months’, especially with a restaurant rented and a bar being renovated sat empty.
“During the worst, our thinking was to try to lose as little money as possible,” he says. “But a lot of this building is non-negotiable. Our annual flood insurance is north of $20,000. It was definitely a deer feeling in the headlights.
‘This is how we’re meant to be’
Cue the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which awarded the Latchis some $180,000 last year to rehire staff and reopen — starting with a screening of “The Wizard of Oz” in June 2020.
“I remember when the popcorn machine came back on and that smell filled the hall again,” Potter said. “I thought, ‘This is how we’re supposed to be. “”
Others felt differently. The cinema’s four screens can accommodate 1,000 spectators at a time. But on each of the first weekends back, the collective crowds were no more than three dozen people.
“We felt like someone was waiting for a date,” Potter said, “and the date might not turn up.”
In August 2020, the theater decided to rent out for private screenings, with its 750-seat main auditorium priced at $125 for up to 75 family members and friends.
Suddenly, the wallflower was back on the dance floor.
“There were weekends where we had a dozen rentals,” Potter explains. “I joked that we had become the birthday headquarters for the Chuck E. Cheese kids of Brattleboro, but it really reconnected us with people.”
Those 450 events not only helped pay the bills, but also led to at least one wedding.
“There was a movie with a proposal scene, and a gentleman brought his bride-to-be onto the stage with the ring hidden in a bucket of popcorn,” Potter says. “These kinds of stories are good anytime, but especially in the midst of a pandemic.”
In the fall of 2020, foliage traffic and more federal and state money helped the Latchis turn a profit by hoarding cash for the coming cold.
“We’re like a farmer – we make our hay in the summer and fall,” Potter says, “and then in the winter we eat our preserves and look forward to when we can get back to them.”
“Resilience is evident in our history”
This spring brought the Covid-19 vaccine and, for businesses, a huge shot in the arm. The hotel, for example, has matched or exceeded its pre-pandemic bookings since Memorial Day, July hitting a monthly high.
“I think there’s definitely pent-up travel demand,” Potter says, “and Vermont and New England have a more secure track record.”
The theater has found 2021 more difficult. Cases spiked in early summer, falling to about half of the seasonal average when the highly contagious Delta variant increased local and state Covid-19 counts.
This, in turn, infected Potter’s email. A local wrote: “Why are you still open? You are going to kill people. A second replied: “As long as you keep sending messages about wearing masks, I will not come.”
In many ways, the Latchis are learning to navigate the space in between.
“We’re still in a pandemic, but it’s also a time of transition,” Potter says. “We are in the midst of tectonic cultural shifts. This is not what normal is going to be.
Faced with competition from streaming and other entertainment choices, the Latchis predict their future will draw more from its past – when movies shared the billing with stage shows – and harness technology, opera and broadcasts. simultaneous theater performances from venues around the world.
“I see this as a time for us to figure out how we’re going to diversify our portfolio,” Potter says. “Even before the pandemic hit, the value of resilience is evident in our history. We’ve been through a lot, and we’re still going through it, but I don’t have the looming existential worries that I had at the start. We got a glimpse of the fact that we are still appreciated, and that keeps us going.
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