Brad Ritter remembers the first thought that popped into his head when he heard that the Manor Theatre, Charlotte’s last remaining art house cinema that he had managed since 1999, was closing its doors forever. “My reaction was, ‘This is my freedom!’” Ritter says.
It’s a take that runs counter to the spate of heartfelt eulogies Charlotte residents delivered when the 73-year-old theater, also known as the Manor Twin, saw its dual screens faded to black one last time in May, but it’s not because Ritter didn’t love the theater.
As sad as the cinema’s closure was to Queen City cineastes, the Manor’s demise has cleared the deck for a new screening facility for lovers of art house, indie and foreign films. Ritter, who is also president of the Charlotte Film Society, has been planning for over a decade to launch a nonprofit community movie theater, a cinema committed to movies, film festivals and cinema education. It would be a venue answerable only to Charlotte film lovers, not to any outside corporate owners.
Keeping The Manor Theatre Spirit Alive
That dream is set to become reality next year when the Charlotte Film Society’s Community Cinema opens its doors at 4237 Raleigh Street just north of NoDa. The three-screen theater will be the linchpin of the Trailhead District, a major redevelopment by the Flywheel Group that will include music venues, restaurants, retail, office space, art galleries and residential units, all just a stone’s throw away from the Lynx Blue Line at Sugar Creek Station.
“We’re bringing back the spirit of the Manor and keeping it alive,” says Jay Morong, a senior lecturer in theater and film at UNC Charlotte and the program director for the Charlotte Film Society.
He’s partnering with Ritter to launch the new theater, which he describes as an interwoven tapestry with the major strands being the Manor Theatre, the Charlotte Film Society and the Charlotte community. Like the Manor, the Charlotte Film Society’s community cinema will screen major independent and foreign art house fare like Jojo Rabbit and Parasite, two of the last films to play the Manor.
Like the Charlotte Film Society’s Back Alley Film Series, the new theater will feature cult films like The Lure, a carnivorous mermaid rock ‘n’ roll musical from Poland. The facility will also host Q&A sessions with filmmakers and educational lectures, similar to the Charlotte Film Society’s educational Charlotte Film Lab series. And that’s just the beginning. “We’ll be able to bring filmmakers in to talk about their movies,” says Morong, who is also open to partnering with UNC Charlotte, organizations like the Unconventional Film School and local filmmakers who have no place to screen their movies.
“[Charlotte has] over a dozen film festivals and screening series outside of the Charlotte Film Society, and they have trouble finding space,” Morong offers. “We want to be a place for those festivals to come and be able to educate the community. We also want to get back to the time when the Manor Theatre as a business would actually be part of the community and not just be an outside entity.”
With The Help Of The Community On Their Side
That point is important to Ritter and Morong. They say they can’t have a proper community theater without community involvement. To that end, the Charlotte Film Society has launched a GoFundMe to raise what Morong calls a financial “buffer” for the theater. As of Aug. 10, the Charlotte Film Society has raised $51, 087 of its $150,000 goal.
The first $100, 000 of that figure will go toward upfitting the auditorium for projection and the sound, Ritter says. The remaining $50,000 has been tacked on to the quote to cover labor, rounding up the tally to $150,00.
As great as it is to receive seed money, Ritter and Morong are paying far more attention to the number of donors, 401 people at this point. Small contributors are far more desirable than a few big investors, both men stress. If the Charlotte Film Society needs to approach big donors down the road, they need to show them that their community cinema has community support.
“A lot of people were very sad that the Manor closed, and a lot of them were very vocal about it,” Morong says “Now is their opportunity to do something and to support their own Manor which will also be nonprofit.”
Projecting Plans for an Art House Cinema
Ritter started working as a projectionist at the Manor Theatre in 1994. He was then employed at the theater off and on until becoming full-time general manager in 1999. Morong was a projectionist at the Somerville Theater in the Boston area in the early 2000s. When he moved to Charlotte, he signed on as a projectionist at the Manor. The two projectionists became friends. “We used to sit around the lobby all the time and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have our own theater?’” Morong remembers.
Eventually Ritter’s and Morong’s shared love of cinema prompted each of them to join the Charlotte Film Society.
The non-profit cinema group was founded in 1982 as an all-volunteer organization with no paid board members, initially offering a subscription series that featured 10 to 12 foreign, classic and independent films.
For years, the Society had no real home, bouncing around from place to place until settling at the Manor in 1988.
At the time, the Manor Theatre, which was launched by H.B. Meiselman of Eastern Federal Corp. in 1947, enthusiastically supported the Charlotte Film Society and its slate of films. The theater also partnered with the Charlotte Art League, which is currently located near the site of the new Charlotte Film Society’s community cinema. The League would display new artwork every month in the Manor’s lobby.
“The history of the Film Society and the history of The Manor became intertwined,” Morong says. “It all became part of one tapestry.”
That all changed in 2005 when Regal acquired the theater. No longer run as a family-owned Charlotte business, the Manor ousted the Art League and the Charlotte Film Society.“ The Manor let the Film Society in, and then outside corporate interest threw the Film Society out,” Morong asserts. “[Before Regal] the Manor was part of the community and felt like part of that community. It didn’t feel like a soulless corporate chain.”
After 2005, with the Charlotte Film Society one again without a home, and the Manor owned by an out-of-town entity, Morong began to see the limitations a corporate theater chain imposed on creative film programming. “At some point between 2010 and 2012, Brad and I and the Film Society started talking about how we could [launch a theater],”Morong offers.
The one thing holding them back was something they both loved – the Manor Theatre. Despite the fact that the new theater ownership was colder, more calculating and focused on the bottom line, Charlotteans remembered all the goodwill the Manor disseminated when it had been owned by the Meiselman family. “Talk to anybody who has been in Charlotte 10 years and they understand the Manor is the benchmark for having a special evening at the movie theater,” Ritter says. “The Manor is woven into the fabric of the Charlotte community. Nobody has special memories of Regal Stonecrest.”
Even though Regal had recently taken it over, for most of its history the Manor was run, owned and operated by a Charlotte company, Morong maintains. Ritter and Morong say they wanted to keep that local feel for their projected Charlotte Film Society theater.
Morong holds the history of the Manor dear, having launched a Manor Theatre Facebook group that posts vintage newspaper ads for the twin theater on Providence Road. (On Aug. 7, 1949, the theater was screening W.C Fields and Mae West in My Little Chickadee. On Aug. 6, 1958, you could have caught David Niven and an all-star cast in the Oscar-winning Around the World in 80 Days.) The fact that the venue was in business for so long, is by itself an anomaly in a city with scant regard for its history, Morong says.
A Pandemic Spawns A Movie Palace
In the meantime, Ritter had looked at prospective theater spaces around town on three different occasions. But with the Manor Theatre still open, it just didn’t feel right to launch an art house cinema, he says. Then in mid-May, Ritter’s boss at the Manor called him into the office. He told Ritter that their landlord had given them notice that they needed to vacate the property. Instead of being devastated, Ritter saw his opportunity to launch a theater that would be entwined with the community the way the old Manor had been.
“Now I don’t have the Manor hanging over me,” Ritter remembers thinking. “Now we’re going to go out and see if we can make this happen.”
The subsequent search for a suitable location for the Charlotte Film Society’s community theater proved fruitless for weeks, until a friend put Ritter onto The Flywheel Group, and its president Tony Kuhn. One day, Ritter and Morong were scouting across the street from an industrial warehouse slated for redevelopment. They wanted to see inside the building, but they had no key to get in. Instead, they arranged to meet Kuhn at the venue the following week. When Ritter and Morong walked into the meeting, the Flywheel Group had already drafted a plan that envisioned a movie theater occupying the space.
“They were on board before they had even met with us,” Ritter says of Flywheel. “Tony understood what the Manor Theatre meant to the Charlotte community. [He] believed in the project we are trying to fulfill here.”
Flywheel Group understood that the Charlotte Film Society wanted to do much more than bring back the Manor. They wanted to preserve what the theater meant to the community, Ritter asserts. For good measure, the society wanted to expound on the concept of a community theater by getting the people of Charlotte involved as well.
While Ritter and Morong talk a lot about maintaining the spirit of the Manor, Ritter has done his part to preserve some physical aspects of the theater as well.
While he was looking for a location for the new theater, Ritter and his co-workers spent six weeks cleaning out the Manor. The task turned into a de facto salvage operation. For example, the Manor’s old seats and the curtains will find a new home in the Trailhead District theater’s three screening rooms — two 100-seat auditoriums, and a more intimate 30-seat facility.
As the cleanup commenced, Ritter’s boss told the soon-to-be ex-employees to claim anything they wanted before it went into the dumpster. “I pointed to the popcorn popper and said I would like that,” Ritter remembers. “My boss looked at me kind of strange [and asked] why I would want that. I said I was sentimentally attached to it.”
Another Door Opens
Charlotte movie patrons may want to keep their eyes peeled for the vintage popper at the Charlotte Film Society’s community theater. Ritter admits that the uncertainty of launching a community cinema amid the COVID-19 pandemic can be daunting, but time is on their side. For now, Ritter says he enjoying developing plans with the Flywheel Group. The Charlotte Film Society has signed a letter of intent with the developer but they haven’t officially started negotiating the lease.
Flywheel Group has already mentioned there is going to be a clause in the lease about pandemic. Ritter says such considerations will soon be standard under the post-pandemic new normal. “Just because we might [get] COVID-19 under control, there could be another pandemic six months from now,” Ritter posits. “That’s the way the world is these days. You’re going to see leases coming out now, when in event of a pandemic, tenants are going to get relief on the rent.”
The Charlotte Film Society is looking to open the cinema’s doors in mid-summer 2021, but they won’t make a move until they are certain that the premises are safe. They’re willing to push the opening to next September, October or later if need be. “The beauty of our position right now is we have no overhead costs,” Ritter offers. “We’re just raising money.”
While the big corporate theater chains are struggling to figure out when and how they’re going to open, Ritter and Morong say they will watch and wait to see what does and doesn’t work for the theater chains, then adapt accordingly. In the meantime, fostering community support is the most important mission right now, Morong asserts: “We want to be able to get moving, and the best way to get moving is for the community to tell us, ‘Yes, we want this to happen.’”