Karolyn Grimes today

Karolyn and Jorge Bernardo.


Essays: Sharing from Friends


I t's a Wonderful Theatre!

The Old Greenbelt Theatre .

by Jorge Bernardo

I have a wonderful story to tell you about a cozy little neighborhood theater in suburbia USA, who became the benefactor of another "IAWL" mini-miracle. The Old Greenbelt Theatre rests comfortably in the middle of The Roosevelt Center, where it has operated since 1938 as an integral part of our nation's first planned community!

Located just a few miles outside of Washington, DC,
the unique neighborhood of Old Greenbelt has managed to keep its small town charm in spite of all the so-called progress that surrounds it and the movie theater has had much to do with that.

Indeed, when you walk into the theater you get the sense that you've stepped back in time 30, 40 or maybe even 50 years. There's nothing fancy about it, it just has that safe haven kind of feeling where all is calm and simple. And it's a great place to see a movie!

On a fateful day in January of 2000, I "re-discovered"
the Old Greenbelt Theatre while scouting locations to shoot a short film I'd written about boy meets girl at the movies. I say re-discovered because I had been to OGB in years past when I lived nearby, but had completely forgotten about it until I was running out of ideas for where to shoot my film. As soon as I stepped through the front doors I knew my search was over.

After completing my film and getting to know some of the nice folks at the theater (Bob the projectionist first and foremost!), I remember thinking that I'd wished there was something I could DO to help the place as I knew they were struggling to get people to come in a new world of multiplexes (OGB has only a single screen and generally shows second-run movies). In that moment, I never would have guessed that I'd soon have that opportunity. Nor would I admit that I'd WISHED for it.

You see, that same winter I also had the thrill of meeting Zuzu via telephone when she responded to my desperate e-mail the day of my "IAWL"-themed holiday party. I'd wanted to do something special for the event, but couldn't think of what that was until I stumbled on Zuzu.net and thought, "Wouldn't it be great if Zuzu called us during the party?!" I begged her to call me on my cell phone that evening and she came through like a champ much to my surprise (not to mention to the shock of my party guests who had no idea of my scheme).

After a delightful conversation for 20 minutes or so, we ended our call with Karolyn hinting that she'd love to come to D.C. and perhaps I could organize a personal appearance for her in the area. Fearing the work involved, my response was reluctant at best.

That changed, however, when Paul Sanchez, the operator of Old Greenbelt informed me that he had booked "IAWL" for the Christmas week! I figured that if she was still available then certainly it must be fate that she is to come to Old Greenbelt. Then I looked at the calendar and realized that with Christmas on a Monday, and the film's run starting the previous Friday, the only two possible dates for the event were the 22nd and 23rd of December. Surely that was too close to Christmas to make the trip, I thought.

So I called Karolyn and much to my surprise she said, "Sure!" That's when the excitement/nervousness really started kicking in.

When I informed the Friends of the Old Greenbelt Theatre (FOGT), a volunteer organization which supports the theater in any way possible that I'd booked Zuzu to come in December, I got the feeling that most of them didn't believe it might really happen.

It almost didn't.

In October, at an FOGT meeting, Mr. Sanchez made the sad announcement that the theater would be CLOSING ITS DOORS on November 19th due to lack of business. My first reaction was, "But I've already booked Zuzu to come in December! And I've made a significant DEPOSIT for her trip!"

As the room processed the bad news, my mind began to race in hopes of finding a solution to this rather monumental dilemma. A few moments later, I cried out: "What will it take to keep the theater open 'til the end of the year?"

(This is where the parallels of the movie get a little scary.)

Pondering the question a few seconds, Paul calmly responded, "About $8,000." That is a true statement! As others in the room, apparently in a state of denial, continued to discuss menial ways to promote increased attendance (such as putting up flyers in the supermarket!), my mind raced again for some way to raise $8,000 in about a month.

Then I got an idea. I raised my hand and shared it with the group.

"What if we have a 'FILMATHON' where people go and solicit sponsorships to sit through a marathon of movies - independent films which I can recruit for free from my film making friends and colleagues? We could assemble a small army of individuals collecting pledges from friends/family/the community and these folks - for a minimum $25 pledge! - could also sit through as many of the films as they pleased!" After a moment of pause where people seemed intrigued by the idea, though not necessarily sold on it, I interjected, "And I'll run it!" At which point the support became significantly more enthusiastic.

So with the help of several wonderful volunteers, we spent the next few weeks hastily organizing our little Filmathon and, much to our surprise and delight, it worked!

Our fundraising efforts got a huge jump start when about a week later at a City meeting where the fate of the theater was discussed, a passionate gentleman from the community made a $500 donation on the spot and challenged others to do the same. A collection hat (literally, it was a hat) was passed around and twenty minutes later, we had $2,900!!!

Then, on the weekend of the Filmathon, the checks started coming in, a large crowd came to see all the locally produced shorts and features, which they seemed to genuinely enjoy. Sunday night we tallied the numbers, and were thrilled to discover that the FOGT fund had grown to over $11,000! The following day Mr. Sanchez announced that with the help of FOGT as well as a sizable contribution from the City of Greenbelt, the theater would not remain open indefinitely! Mission accomplished! Now it was time to get ready for Zuzu!

With a little publicity and a lot of support from the community, we managed to fill the house (almost 400 seats) at double the regular ticket price for what was one of the most wonderful evenings I've ever experienced.

Following the screening, during which I sat with Karolyn and Chris (she also told me it was the best-looking print of the film she'd ever seen!), Karolyn shared some of her wonderful "IAWL" insights and recollections and took questions from the mesmerized audience. She then autographed memorabilia and spoke individually with patrons for hours it seemed. A wonderful evening was had by all!

But my night wasn't quite finished! Seeing as we were in the same theater I'd shot my film, "Popcorn Magic" the previous January, I thought the opportunity too good to pass to not ask Karolyn if she would be willing to shoot some additional footage to edit into the film (she is in the audience and reacts to the main character opening an "IAWL" poster!) and she'd
agreed without hesitation. We brought out lights, a camera and action began close to midnight. Indeed, we were actually shooting on Christmas Eve (early) morning! Karolyn was such a sport about it, and all went off without a hitch!

That same morning I drove Karolyn and Chris to Dulles airport for their flight back home to Seattle. Later that day she called me to inform me that they'd made it home safely in time for Christmas (and the movie on the plane was "It's a Wonderful Life" of course!).

"Popcorn Magic" was re-edited with Karolyn (and Chris!) in it, though I'm not sure that people believe it when her name comes up in the credits!

Even more wonderful, though, is that more than four years later, the theater, apparently kick-started back into life by the Filmathon and Zuzu's appearance, is still up and running. As it turned out, most of the $11,000 was used for improvements such as new chairs, new carpet and a new paint job.

Not to worry, though. Even with the upgrades, the Old Greenbelt Theatre still has the same, wonderful unmistakable old town charm. That will never change. So in case you were wondering if "IAWL" was still making miracles happen, Karolyn and I can show you our WINGS as proof that it certainly is!

And remember: No theater is a failure who has friends!

Jorge Bernardo
Jorge Bernardo is a musician and independent film maker who lives in the Washington, DC area. He is currently in pre-production for a documentary about The Old Greenbelt Theatre. For any comments/questions please write to jorgebernardo@yahoo.com.



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