Loose Ends 12/20: Celebrating Princeton Garden Theatre’s 100th year

Princeton Garden TheatreSUBMITTED PHOTO
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Princeton Garden TheatreSUBMITTED PHOTO

By Pam Hersh

I hope it is a good omen for my longevity that I am a close friend of a few of this year’s notable and spectacular 100 year olds, such as the town of Plainsboro and Princeton Hospital (Penn Medicine Princeton Health).

Coming up in 2020 (on Sept. 20) is the 100th birthday of The Princeton Garden Theatre, a non-profit institution that keeps on giving to the community in ways that make me believe it truly is “A Wonderful Life” here in Princeton.

The Princeton Garden Theatre is a treasured, adopted member of my family. The theater and I have been through a lot together over the past several decades.

I was part of a Save the Garden initiative about 30 years ago, when the theater physically was showing its age with dinginess and attracting fewer and fewer patrons.

The owner of the facility – Princeton University – was considering other uses for the valuable piece of real estate on the corner of Nassau and Vandeventer.

The Garden, instead of dying, grew into a town/gown collaboration that included the following former(s): Princeton University General Counsel Howard Ende, Princeton University Vice President Bob Durkee, Princeton Borough Mayor Marvin Reed, Princeton Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand, and Pam Hersh, director of Community and State Affairs for the university.

The theater was renovated, a new (for profit) operator (Destinta Theaters), experienced in managing small, in-town movie theaters, was hired, and the local movie business rebounded.

I had my 50th birthday party in the lobby of the theater. My son, Matt Hersh, had one of his first high school “townie” jobs at the Garden Theatre – he still makes a mean bucket of popcorn. And over the past 30 years, the theater has been my welcoming, judgment-free refuge, providing escape and solace derived from both my friends and neighbors in the audience and the offerings on the screen.

The next post midlife crisis for the theater came five years ago, when it transitioned from a for-profit movie operation to a non-profit movie operation, under the auspices of Renew Theaters, a not-for-profit movie management corporation.

Like an overbearing mother, I was worried that the theater’s new identity in its 501c3 makeover would be unable to support itself in the style to which I was accustomed.

I am thrilled to report that my worries never materialized. The theater is alive and well, providing incredibly dynamic programming for the entire community at very reasonable ticket prices.

The Garden family in Princeton has expanded like bamboo over the past five years, thanks to partnering with several other non-profits (Princeton University student and academic groups, the Princeton Public Library, the Princeton Art Museum, Princeton Symphony, the Princeton University Carl A. Fields Center, Princeton University’s Center for Jewish Life, HomeWorks, McCarter Theatre, Princeton Housing Initiative, Petey Greene Program, to name just a few).

These partners have provided exciting collaborative programming that includes themed movies, lectures and performances inspired by the missions of the community partners.

In spite of its age, the theater’s vital statistics are impressive: in five years under Renew’s management, it has attracted 2,789 members (gone from zero to nearly 2800); sold 54,676 tickets, and made 668,495 ounces of popcorn (Matt Hersh is very impressed).

The one not-so-wonderful statistic in its wonderful life is the fact that the theater is operating 64,152 dollars in the red. Renew’s three other theater operations, therefore, help cover the Garden’s administrative costs.

“The Garden relies on more than just ticket sales to cover our operation, programming, and special events. As a nonprofit, membership and donations are instrumental in the theater’s ability to provide exceptional and varied programming. Our membership went up five percent just this year, but we would like to see that 2,789 figure double,” said Chris Collier, a Renew employee for over 10 years and just recently promoted to the position of executive director, overseeing the operation of four historic, community based nonprofit theaters in Princeton, Ambler, Pa, Doylestown Pa, and Jenkintown, Pa.

As in most family relationships, the theater not only serves the community, but also needs the community to provide ongoing nurturing and support. Neither the community nor the theater wants to see the Garden leave home.

All the online vehicles for seeing movies are competition to any brick- and-mortar theater operation, but competition “has made us better,” said Collier.

Movie fans still crave connecting with one another when going to the movies. A small theater is the antithesis of the isolation experienced when watching a movie on individual screens and with headphones.

“Hearing people laugh or gasp or groan and then talking about the experience afterwards significantly improve the movie-going experience,” Collier said.

Even though the Garden’s charitable mission involves no gut-wrenching social cause, such as sick and starving children, abandoned animals or homeless people, the Garden is key to the health and well being of the community.

I intend to fill people’s stockings this Christmas with Garden Theatre gift cards. And if they have been particularly nice as opposed to naughty, I will buy them a Garden Theatre membership.

I only have one bone or one piece of candy to pick with the Garden’s management team, regarding its statistics. It claims that Raisinets are the most popular snack. I am unable to digest that fact. Here’s to consuming Matt Hersh’s popcorn and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups at my 100th birthday party at the Garden.

Stay tuned for announcements early next year announcing the Garden’s 100th Birthday events and activities.