The New York Times
Arts | Westchester
How a Cinema’s Fresh Start Revived a Town, Too
by ELSA BRENNER
Published: September 2, 2011
IF a documentary were made about the Jacob Burns Film Center and how it has transformed this village during the past decade, the opening shot would quite likely be of the old Rome Theater, a faded 1920s single-screen, Mission-style movie house that lost out to the multiplexes and was shuttered in the 1980s. This would probably segue into images of the village at the turn of this century, with its modest Victorian homes and a struggling downtown that had, like the theater, seen better days.
Much has changed since then, although Pleasantville is still a modest, if no longer sleepy, little village. The transformation began in 1998, when Stephen Apkon, then a 39-year-old merchant banker with an M.B.A. from Harvard, left Wall Street to form the Friends of the Rome Theater, a nonprofit group that purchased the 11,000-square-foot historic landmark movie house for $1 million and set out to resurrect it and expand it by 6,000 square feet. Construction began in April 2000. The theater was renamed in honor of Jacob Burns, a local lawyer who died in 1993 and whose family foundation gave $1.5 million to the venture, and it opened its doors to the public in June 2001.
As the Burns celebrates its 10th anniversary and the credits roll — including guest appearances over the years by Woody Allen, Robert Redford, Glenn Close, George Clooney and many other film industry notables — the old Rome is once again the proud centerpiece of the village. Its historic stucco facade, which looks much the way it did in the 1920s, has been refurbished, but contemporary appurtenances fill the lobby, and there are three state-of-the-art movie screens and a gallery space on the second floor.
The village, too, over the course of the past decade, has taken on a new persona as a vibrant cultural and entertainment center. A decade ago, the sidewalks were rolled up at night, recalled Bernard S. Gordon, the village’s mayor from 2003 to 2009, who said he watched over the changes “a bit like a mother hen.”
In the evening, restaurants and cafes are now buzzing, and some local shops have adjusted their hours to those of the Burns. In response to the nightlife spawned by the theater, entrepreneurs like Paul Paljevic, who recently opened Batonnage, formerly called Bouchon Wine Bar Café, have stepped into the void, drawing crowds for before-movie dinners and after-theater socializing and drinks.
Six years ago, the Axial Theater, which produces new plays, moved from Yorktown Heights to St. John’s Episcopal Church Community House in Pleasantville at the urging of Mr. Apkon and his wife, Lisa Hertz Apkon, an actress. And the Pleasantville Music Festival, presented by WXPK-FM, has been held here every summer for the past seven years.
In all, the theater has drawn an estimated one million moviegoers to see more than 4,000 films in the past 10 years, the Burns’s records show. Even in a recession, the theater, which has an annual budget of $6 million, is thriving, Mr. Apkon said, and attendance is up 5 percent over last year. By comparison, the bulk of mainstream multiplexes are reporting flat ticket sales, despite blockbusters like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” according to Variety.com.
Part of the Burns’s success can be attributed to its policy of avoiding traditional multiplex fare, said Brian Ackerman, programming director for the theater. “We always try to choose films that are not readily available elsewhere in Westchester,” said Mr. Ackerman, whose family used to run the Fine Arts Cinema in Scarsdale, which closed in 2006. “It’s a very challenging task to pick from the vast world of cinema and figure out what is really right for us.”
The lineup for September includes: “A Trip Through Strawberry Fields: Deconstructing the Beatles,” a multimedia presentation on Sept. 6 with the composer and producer Scott Freiman; “Tales from the Golden Age: New Romanian Cinema,” on Sept. 23, with a guest curator, the film critic Mihai Chirilov, leading a question-and-answer session after the screening; and, on Sept. 25, “The Big Uneasy,” Harry Shearer’s investigation into the reasons that Hurricane Katrina wreaked so much devastation in New Orleans.
After the screening of “The Big Uneasy,” the Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme will interview Mr. Shearer; on other evenings, a question-and-answer session might be led by an actor or director who worked on the film being presented. After the two Sept. 8 showings of “From The Ground Up: 10 Years After 9/11,” for example, the executive producer and a subject of the film, Andrea DeGeorge Garbarini (a Pleasantville resident whose husband was killed in the terrorist attacks), along with the filmmakers George and Beth Gage, and Mr. Apkon, will discuss the movie with the audience.
The center also hosts an annual spring series called FrameWorks Art on Film, presenting films about artists, art, collectors, architecture and museums. In May, it holds an annual jazz series, featuring movies and clips from musicians’ careers that are often followed by a short concert.
But the Burns’s efforts are not limited to showing films. In 2009, it opened the $15 million, 27,000-square-foot Media Arts Lab near the theater. The modernistic three-story building has classrooms, an animation studio where small sets are built and cartoon cels created, 16 editing suites, a recording studio, a soundstage and workshop space for designing sets.
So sophisticated is the equipment at the media center that Mr. Demme said he was able to complete postproduction work there for his new documentary, “I’m Carolyn Parker,” the story of a woman and her family who reconstruct their home after Hurricane Katrina.
Reaching out to schools in surrounding communities, the Burns also runs classes in filmmaking. “So they’re cutting back on art and music teachers,” said Mr. Demme, a member of the Burns’s board of directors. “O.K., we’ll send in volunteers to fill the gap.”
The outreach group works with students, many in poor communities, who create short animated films, complete with sound effects, and arrive after the completion of their courses in school buses, dressed to the nines and ready to receive their awards as they prance along a red carpet laid out for them at the entrance to the theater, their personal paparazzi snapping away.
That kind of community outreach will continue through the next decade, Mr. Apkon said, along with a continuing lineup of provocative films and an exploration of new directions in independent filmmaking at the Media Arts Lab, including distribution of new movies from there. But preparing for the Burns’s immediate future is what concerns him now. The center’s 10th anniversary fund-raising gala, on Sept. 17, will honor Steven Spielberg, whom Mr. Apkon describes as “a nonconformist with a singular vision and the consummate storyteller of our times.”
“Who could better represent what we’re all about?” he said.