• Found Downtown: Weeping in public at the Savoy
    March 18,2013
    Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo

    Terry Youk, owner of The Savoy Theater in Montpelier, sits between the theater’s old film projector, right, and a brand new state-of-the-art digital projector, left.

    If you’re thinking about watching a movie at Montpelier’s Savoy Theater, be warned: It might make you cry.

    Recently I went to see “Amour,” this year’s Oscar pick for best foreign language film. What I had expected to be a romantic French movie about an aging couple turned out to be a romantic French movie about dementia and dying that frightened the bejeezus out of me.

    Several years ago, at the Savoy-affiliated Green Mountain Film Festival, I watched “Silent Souls,” a movie about a man in a remote corner of Siberia whose wife has died. He and a companion put her body in the back of a station wagon and take a multiple-day journey to cremate her according to the traditions of their culture. As you might guess, it wasn’t much of a side-splitter.

    Although neither “Amour” nor “Silent Souls” has a happy ending or offers much in the way of blockbuster-style entertainment, they are beautiful films. Savoy owner Terry Youk works hard to preserve the theater’s reputation as a place that inspires its audiences to think, learn and feel rather than simply escape into fantasy worlds populated by star-studded casts.

    “We wouldn’t want any of those teenage heartthrob-type movies,” said Youk. “The films that play at the Savoy aren’t just entertainment. They tell stories that matter and might change people’s minds about issues and ideas.”

    Andrew and Reidun Nuquist, longtime patrons of the Savoy, can’t imagine a Montpelier without it. “We’ve seen great films there over the years,” said Andrew Nuquist. “To pull out a favorite would be difficult. It’s just great film after great film.”

    Although they admit to sometimes renting DVDs from the Savoy’s Downstairs Video on East State Street, the Nuquists try to attend a showing at the theater at least once every several weeks. “There’s something about sitting in the dark in a theater where you can hear people gasp together and laugh together,” said Reidun Nuquist. “It’s so different than just sitting at home in your living room watching a film.”

    The Savoy first opened at the turn of the 20th century but shut down some years later. In 1981, Rick Winston and Andrea Serota reopened the single-screen theater and transformed it into the art house that it is today.

    Youk bought the theater in 2009 and added a second screening room downstairs. He works to preserve the Savoy as a central Vermont mecca for independent and foreign films. “The story I hear a lot is the one that goes, ‘I was looking around the area for a community to move into, and the Savoy is what sealed the deal for me.’ People who visit decide they love the culture that this place represents,” he said.

    The downstairs venue, which is furnished with plush chairs, low tables made of film reels, and a bar that sells wine and Vermont beer, is as conducive to community-building as it is to watching movies. Onion River Sports has rented the space for outdoor adventure film events. The Central Vermont Osher Lifelong Learning Institute hosts end-of-semester matinee showings of film classics with discussions, led by Winston, that are open to the public.

    Arguably one of Montpelier’s most anticipated annual community events is the Green Mountain Film Festival, which will take place this year from Friday through March 31. The Nuquists are such fans that they try to schedule nothing during its entire 10-day run in order to watch every film they can. This year, Reidun has already purchased tickets using the festival’s new online system to see 30 films, up to five a day. Her husband will see 35.

    And there’s a lot to be excited about. “It’s a real bumper crop this year,” said Youk. “We ended up selecting 82 films from 30 countries, and there are a lot of great films in all categories.”

    The movies themselves make up only part of the fun. “It’s very social,” said Reidun Nuquist. “You sit down and you talk to strangers, you discuss the film you’ve just seen, and it’s really great fun.”

    In spite of its undeniable reputation as a beloved cultural landmark, the Savoy struggles financially.

    Youk attributes this partly to an aging demographic. Younger people, he said, aren’t going to the movies as much because there are so many films available on demand from Netflix and other service providers. “And folks in their 20s, 30s and early 40s who have kids are finding it’s hard to arrange a date to go out,” he said.

    Indeed, I’d made plans to see “Amour” with a friend who is the mother of two small children. But after a full day of keeping them out of trouble and trucking them to and from soccer practice, she was too tired to join me.

    The best solution, if you’re a parent who wants to see a movie at the Savoy, might simply be to bring your kids with you. The Nuquists speak proudly of the theater’s influence on their son John, now 46. “We used to take him to the movies when he was old enough, and he’s become a real film buff. He knows more about film than we ever will,” said Reidun Nuquist.

    From Youk’s standpoint, the future financial stability of the Savoy depends on restructuring it under an existing nonprofit organization. Running as a nonprofit would help the theater compete for grant funding, provide a tax incentive to people who donate or become members, and create opportunities to partner with other nonprofits.

    Youk is exploring two possibilities and expects to choose one within the next year. One is to sell the theater to the Vermont College of Fine Arts, which has recently launched a graduate-level film school. The other is to bring it under the umbrella of Focus on Film, the organization that already coordinates the Green Mountain Film Festival.

    In the meantime, anyone can help by donating money to the Savoy or simply going there to see movies. According to Youk, just seven more ticket sales per day would keep the theater on solid financial footing.

    “It’s a matter of attending what you value,” said Reidun Nuquist. “If you don’t support your local cinema, it’s going to disappear.”

    Marija Zagarins is a writer from Montpelier. Her column, Found Downtown, examines some of the independent businesses around central Vermont.

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