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The Avon Marks 75 Star-Struck Years

The Avon Cinema turns 75 years young

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“Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theatre,” director Roman Polanski declared. But then, Polanski had yet to see a film at the Avon Cinema. From the neon marquee to the art deco lobby, red velvet seats, and dramatic curtain over the screen, the theatre itself is part of the joy. Add some smiling staff, a bucket of buttered popcorn and a roomful of enthusiastic moviegoers, and a world of enchantment awaits you. All that before the lights dim and the film begins.

Given the Avon’s lineup of independent and foreign films handpicked “for the discerning movie lover,” you still may forget where you are once the opening credits start rolling. Though, the communal experience of giggling and gasping in the dark is half the fun of seeing things at a theatre. As the Avon Cinema celebrates its 75th anniversary, the time is ripe to step away from the TV, DVDs, Hulu, Netflix and what’s-its in your living room and wax sentimental over this single-screen, neighborhood art house.

“When you come into the Avon, you’re walking into a time capsule,” suggests Richard Dulgarian, whose family has owned the theatre for three generations. “I’m not saying nothing has ever changed, but basically it’s the way it would have looked back in 1938. We don’t introduce things that would be in conflict with the building.”

Accordingly, at the Avon, there is no track lighting. There aren’t even plastic wastebaskets. Swing music plays softly between shows. Narrow spotlights on the walls create atmospheric shadows. The marquee letters get changed manually, one at a time. The corn is popped fresh daily. The butter is real. Other retro touches include $2 bills and 50-cent pieces for change, and sweet snipes like “Let’s All Go to the Lobby,” a ‘50s concessions ad that runs before the trailer reel. While the ticket prices have gone up a bit since 1938, when you could catch a matinee for a quarter, they remain more reasonable than most.

Another famous director, Alfred Hitchcock, once proposed that, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” Barring that, the Avon pipes the soundtrack directly into the powder rooms — so, if you must excuse yourself from the film, you won’t miss much. When sad movies play, the staff stocks extra tissues by the doors to the lobby. Considerations like these add to the appeal. Dulgarian hopes that it’s a place wherein “you walk through the doors and you can feel what maybe our parents and grandparents felt, during the golden age of Hollywood, when people would go to the cinema for their entertainment and their education.”

Dulgarian’s grandfather Krikor came to America “with pennies in his pocket” during the time of the Armenian Genocide. He lived with his family on Glendale Street and ran a successful haberdashery on North Main. He saw potential in an old, unoccupied building, a silent film theatre called the Toy on Thayer Street, and decided to buy and renovate it as a place to showcase European films. The opening day ad proclaimed, “The insistent demand of cultured cinema goers has finally culminated in the erection of A NEW DELUXE THEATRE... Dedicated to the exclusive showing of unusual pictures.”

The Avon held its first screening, The Life and Loves of Beethoven, in February of ’38. Of the many movie theatres in Providence at the time, most were downtown, and the Avon’s East Side location served it well. Eventually Krikor Dulgarian’s son Earl, a businessman who owned the now defunct (and sorely missed) College Hill Bookstore on Thayer, took over. The European films shown then were considered racier than their American counterparts. So Earl’s son Richard didn’t get a chance to see a film at the Avon himself until he turned 18.

Both Krikor and Earl Dulgarian hired management companies to handle the day-to-day operations of the Avon. But Richard Dulgarian was always fascinated by the place, and asked his father for a part-time job there while attending Rhode Island College. He started as a doorman, ripping tickets, and gradually took on responsibilities like assistant managing and advertising, sharing the work with his brother Kenneth and learning the business from top to bottom.

When the Blizzard of ’78 hit, the Avon retained power. So Kenneth Dulgarian kept the heat on, popped extra corn and allowed stranded patrons and neighbors to spend the night. The next day, Richard Dulgarian walked over from his apartment across town. He’d never run the old carbon arc projectors before, but had a general sense of their functioning — and in the unplanned absence of projectionists that week, he learned by doing. He recalls wishing that the film there at the time, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, didn’t involve a character freezing to death in the snow.

Kenneth and Richard Dulgarian co-own the Avon now, with the latter in charge of daily business. “I do think I have the world’s best job,” Richard Dulgarian admits. “Every week or two, there’s a new film with a new cast, a new idea, a new concept. So there’s always that excitement.” He also appreciates that the customers arrive in good moods (it’s the movies, not the DMV), and that the staff is pleasant and passionate about the arts. He thinks there’s nothing like a crowded theatre in which you could hear a pin drop, and loves how an audience can help you tune in to the emotional content of a movie scene. Sometimes, late at night, he’ll pop some corn and settle in for a private screening of Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz.

Since opening, the Avon’s programming has shifted from a focus on European films to classic films in repertory (“That lasted a long time, and then some idiot invented the VCR,” Dulgarian jokes) and on to the first-run foreign and independent films shown today. Dulgarian credits a big part of the theatre’s longevity to film booker George Mansour of Boston, who has selected the lineup for over 40 years. Dulgarian points out how often Mansour seems to intuit Academy Award winners, and how well he predicts which films will do best at which theatres. He notes, “He’s very good at spotting a film that has artistic merit, has the ability to draw a crowd and would play well at the Avon.”

With the exception of a lobby restoration back in ’88, the biggest change to the Avon has been the recent, pricey transition to a digital projection system. With most film studios no longer producing 35-mm prints, the options were to make the switch or close (the sad fate of some other art houses around the country). But Dulgarian has retained the original carbon arc projectors for showing archive films. He’s also adding a satellite dish to broadcast the National Theatre Live presentation of the play Coriolanus, in real time from London, on January 30 at 2pm. Other National Theatre Live engagements include a broadcast of Hamlet January 16 at 7pm and a reprise of Coriolanus on January 30 at 7pm.

Keeping the Avon open is a labor of love for Dulgarian, who admits that the single-screen model doesn’t work terrifically well financially. He feels grateful that the community continues to support it, and hopes that the films shown there — and the discussions they provoke — provide an important service. He asks his staff not to hurry patrons out when the curtain closes after a show, allowing them instead the time and space to linger a few moments, digesting it and talking about it. He explains, “To me, that’s part of the movie. Thinking about what you’ve seen.”

Loyal Avon fans abound. Don Fowler and his wife, for example, began frequenting it back in the theatre’s double feature days. A regular ESM contributor, Fowler has reviewed movies for the Warwick Beacon and Cranston Herald since 1977. He notes, “When the lineup evolved to mostly foreign and independent films, the Avon became my ‘busman’s holiday’ from the terrible action movies and teenage coming-of-age stuff that I had to endure at the multiplexes.”

Fowler continues, “Today, with the Avon showing the best of the foreign and independent films, winners of prestigious film festivals, the intimate movie house has become my refuge. The staff is friendly, the audience is more sophisticated and the snack bar has the best popcorn in the state.” Another thing Fowler enjoys? “People actually clap at the end of an especially good film, and the sidewalk in front of the theatre is usually filled with people discussing the film.”

“The Avon has always been a warm beacon of old-school welcome and charm on an otherwise sometimes intimidating and jostling Thayer Street,” thinks Susan Leach DeBlasio, a long-time patron and East Side resident. “It’s a place where you feel equally comfortable catching a movie with friends... or going by yourself. You’ll always bump into someone (maybe even some well-known famous or ‘infamous’ RI figure) you know under that great marquee. And the popcorn is worth ducking into the lobby for even if you are not able to stay for the show! Just classic.”

Gerald A. DeLuca, once a director of the former Italian Film Society of RI, has been going to the Avon since the late 1940s. His parents, both from Italy, first brought him along to see the Italian opera films. He recalls, “Though they always scheduled an eclectic group of foreign and domestic films, many of the films they would show at that time were of interest to Italians in the Providence area.”

DeLuca cites many highlights from his Avon patronage over the years — films of artistic and cultural import, both first-run and revival, not generally shown elsewhere in the state. His fondest memory is seeing The Bicycle Thief there; other standouts include Nights of Cabiria, Diabolique, L’Avventura, Jules and Jim, and the Academy Award-winning Marty. The theatre had no concession stand back then, and he recalls popping into Rexall Drugstore next door (now Andreas Restaurant) for snacks.

DeLuca also remembers, “There were lots of naughty movies with Brigitte Bardot that I used to go to. When I was a seminarian at Our Lady of Providence, we were warned by the rector not to go to the Avon, because they showed movies condemned by the Legion of Decency. That didn’t deter us! We knew it was Rhode Island’s best movie house.”

Taylor Umphenour projected films at the Avon for close to a decade, starting while an undergrad at RISD, until the transition to digital equipment rendered the projectionist’s role obsolete. In the process, he saw scores of midnight show classics like Some Like It Hot, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rear Window, as well as contemporary works like Bowling for Columbine, The Royal Tenenbaums and Brokeback Mountain. He notes, “I got to run these films multiple times a week and study them closely. It was like taking an extended and comprehensive film history, cinematography and editing class all rolled into one. I started to notice storytelling patterns common among certain film genres, figured out where certain plot points would fall, what reels the major reversals would happen in and how much time was spent telling certain parts of the story. I found the experience fascinating.”

Umphenour continues, “The magic of the Avon’s booth was unique in that much of the original equipment from when the theatre first opened was there and remained fully operational for decades. I spent long nights up in that booth just thinking about the amount of cinematic history that had reeled its way through those projectors. They still had the lever that was once used to switch the system from running film sound to disc sound, a feature used in the early days to set silent films to non-synchronized music sent on records.”

Filmmaker Raber Umphenour also projected at the Avon for nearly ten years. He even married his wife Jenni there, in a ceremony preceded by a private screening. (Three weddings have been held at the Avon thus far, with more in the works.) He suggests, “If you think of the 75 years the Avon Cinema has been open — and continuously running — and how many thousands and thousands of people have been there over the years, you realize what a special treasure it is for Providence. I hope it’s there for another 75 years to come!”

Gilly Cantor worked at the Avon from 2001-2005, while a student at Brown University and for a year after graduating. In addition to fond memories of the Sunday matinee shift’s weekly attempt to complete the NY Times crossword puzzle, Cantor remembers researching the Avon itself for ProvidenceArchitecture.org. She learned that, when the building originally opened in 1915, it was the first theatre on the East Side. And she discovered a mysterious period between then and 1937, when Krikor Dulgarian purchased it, with reports suggesting an amateur theatre, a gymnasium with a pool and/or a garage may have been housed in the space.

Cantor also recalls a rather loud promotional t-shirt that Avon staff wore during the long 2003 run of Lost in Translation. “I was working so much at that time that my friends began associating me with that shirt. One of my housemates even made me a shirt for secret santa that year that said ‘Lost in the Avon.’ That sort of sounds like a bad memory, but really it’s not. It reminds me that so much of my Providence identity is linked to the Avon, and how I met the best people there and got to watch some amazing movies and eat choice popcorn for so many years. I imagine a lot of East Siders feel that way, and they didn’t even have to wear that t-shirt.”

As you may have gleaned already, I am an Avon devotee myself. Growing up on the East Side, it seemed that every fridge in every kitchen had the upcoming Avon schedule pinned to it. It was a theatre I could walk to, cozy in the winter, air conditioned in the summer and always a treat to visit. Working at the Avon was my first job in high school, and one I held with glee for years afterward. In addition to learning the secret to the best popcorn (I can’t tell you), the Avon made me a cinephile. The English Patient showed me in lush, romantic colors why film is best viewed on the big screen. Everyone Says I Love You introduced me to Woody Allen, and taught me how much a laughing audience can enrich a movie.

In a song written for the 1982 movie musical of Annie (not an “Avon”-type film, but indulge me), the character Grace sings “Let’s Go to the Movies.” One lyric reminds me of the Avon, and why its 75th anniversary is such cause for celebration: “Sitting in the darkness, what a world to see!” Thanks for 75 years of brave new worlds, Avon Cinema. As someone by the name of Rick Blaine once said, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”