Lights still out: No new tenant for Fairfield Community Theater

The Fairfield Community Theater, Post Road view, on a postcard postmarked 1922. (Courtesy Fairfield Museum)

The Fairfield Community Theater, Post Road view, pictured on a postcard postmarked 1922. (Courtesy Fairfield Museum)

There’ll be no topping off dinner with a movie downtown during Fairfield’s restaurant week, just as there hasn’t been since 2011, when the Fairfield Community Theater went dark.

The latest unrequited offer to rent the building, located smack in the center of town, at 1424 Post Road, may have residents wondering whether the theater will ever reopen again.

Local real estate development firm Kleban Properties recently offered to lease the space from owner David Pollack and Associates for a year, “at the asking price, with a long-term option in order to quantify the large capital commitment that we would have to make going forward,” Ken Kleban said in an interview, “but the owner does not appear to be ready to lease under these terms.”

Kleban said his plan was to restore the theater “as an entertainment complex of sorts.”

Mark Barnhart, Fairfield’s Director of Community and Economic Development, said “there have been offers made to lease the theater, and all of the offers have been rejected by the ownership.” Barnhart said the town is trying to “play a constructive role” in finding a tenant to “invest and revitalize this landmark institution. It’s in the town’s interest.”

Although Barnhart said he did not know why proposed deals to lease the theater had failed, “part of the issue is finding someone to invest a significant sum for what is a leasehold interest” — the owners of the property not being interested in a sale.

Kleban, without having examined the property, put a refurbishment estimate at $1 to $2 million, and although Barnhart did not reference those numbers, he said “most people would want to amortize that investment over a long period of time.”

David Pollack did not return calls for comment.

While Kleban predicts the theater will continue to stay dark, the building’s long history as a downtown theater may yet carry the day.

An old swamp

The Community Theater was built in 1922 by then-town clerk Joseph Flint on pilings installed over an old swamp, also known as Hide’s (or Hyde’s) Pond, according to research conducted by the Fairfield Historical Society in 1982.

Designed by Fairfield architect Oreste Ziroli, in 1924 the theater contained a “photoplayer organ,” 800 seats, and 86 wicker chairs with cushions for the “luxurious mezzanine,” according to Fairfield Museum records.

Opening night in 1922 was a special charity benefit for the American Legion, with vaudeville acts; a performance by the Fairfield Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by architect Ziroli; and a showing of “The Little Minister,” described in the program as a “first-run movie,” according to a 1950 account of the event in the Fairfield News. The program also reportedly contained a promise by owner Flint that “great care will be used in the selection of first-class, wholesome and clean pictures.”

An ad for the theater in the July 1, 1922 issue of the paper publicized showings of four silent movies, with tickets priced at 25 cents for adults, 15 cents for “kiddies,” and 40 cents to watch in grand style from the mezzanine.

The Fairfield Museum’s files reveal the life of the theater as the years ticked by: in 1924, a second story, also designed by Ziroli, was added to the building. In 1929, talkies made their debut, and school graduations were held on stage. A marquee was added, and in 1968, the plaza was built in front of the theater’s entrance.

Hard times

The Community’s more recent history includes the efforts of the Loews chain to keep the theater running as something of an art house, until low attendance and a company bankruptcy forced its closure in May 2001, after a last showing of  “The Tailor of Panama.”

The theater’s revival following the Loews bankruptcy was a story of its own:  Fairfield native Leo Redgate formed the Community Theater Foundation, which ran the theater as a non-profit enterprise until 2011, offering innovative programs like the Casablanca Club and Cinemoms, providing low-cost and free admission to seniors and parents with babies.

Ideas for the future

On a recent afternoon, people making use of the plaza in front of the theater offered ideas on what should be done with the space.

Fairfield resident Erin Byington favored a return to the theater as it was under Redgate. Sitting on a bench with her children Declan, 5, and Casey, 3, Byington said, “I remember when it was a theater and I thought it was great that it had three-dollar movies.”

Byington described a similar movie house in Newtown that, she said, “plays ‘Frozen’ every day at noon.” Chasing her kids around the bench, Byington said, “Three dollars would be great because you don’t want to commit to a full price. You don’t know if they’re going to stay, and no one cares if it’s noisy.”

Fairfield resident John Freedman, checking his cell phone messages while sitting on a wall near the Old Post Tavern, thought competition from “all the other movie theaters” in the area would quickly shut down any new theater that tried to open.

“A bowling alley — that would be cool,” he said. “Something like Lucky Strike,” referring to the bowling and billiards chain that promotes itself as a party spot.

Freedman also suggested an IMAX theater or a market featuring stalls with “different world cuisines,” as possibilites for the building, depending on space and parking constraints, he said.

Trumbull resident Julianne DeBenedetto, sitting on a bench outside the building, said she appreciated the old theater “because it’s different — it’s not like all the others.”

Benedetto, without realizing it, proposed an entertainment format similar to the original theater’s opening night. “I think it should be like the Bijou,” she said. “Get bands to play, and comedians.”

Andrew Servetas owns the Las Vetas Lounge, a coffee shop a few doors down from the theater. After the theater closed, he said, “business definitely went down.” But he’s not sure how much of that decline was related to the theater’s demise, rather than a combination of the economy and the opening of the new train station, which he said caused a change in patrons’ routines.

Business “recovered in 2013 and 2014,” he said. Still,  “everyone wants to see it open. We all root for each other.”

Fairfield’s First Selectman, Michael Tetreau, when asked about the state of the theater, said he “would love to see the Community Theater become a vibrant and active resource for our town. From an economic development standpoint, downtown Fairfield is literally booming with the exception of the Community Theater, and that is, if you will, the jewel in the crown that is missing. For long-term support of the economic boom that’s taken place in Fairfield, I think we need the Community Theater back in action.”

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