First Selectman: Playhouse on Elm Street Likely To Get New Movie Operator This Year

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The town-owned Playhouse on Elm Street likely will have a new movie theater operator installed this year, New Canaan’s highest elected official said Tuesday. 

Vacated as per the termination of an agreement by longtime tenant Bow Tie Cinemas, the iconic 1923-built movie house will undergo some sorely needed capital work and then likely will get “an independent operator right now, in the next year, as far as a movie company,” according to First Selectman Kevin Moynihan.

“I think there are people that are interested operating [The Playhouse],” Moynihan said during a regular meeting of the Board of Selectmen, held via videoconference. “Not one of the big chains. So I think that is what we are most likely looking at. A different kind of model.”

The comments came as the selectmen reviewed a termination agreement from Bow Tie, which had been expected to rent the largest commercial space in the cupola-topped building through 2022, under the lease, with an option to renew through 2027. 

However, the theater was ordered closed in March as the COVID-19 pandemic set in and then “when they did get the order that they could open, they can’t open,” according to Bill Oestmann, building superintendent in the New Canaan Department of Public Works.

“They don’t make no movies and nobody is going to go to the theater, so they were having some financial difficulties,” he said. “And some of the conversations that I did have with them, my understanding is that they needed to focus more on their big city theaters to keep from going bankrupt. And they were looking to get out of all their slower venues.”

The town attorney advised that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to pursue the approximately $20,000 in back rent owed by Bow Tie this year, he said.

Yet the company is leaving behind hi-tech projector equipment that’s just four years old “and they also offered us one year to help train anybody who wanted to take over the theater business there, provided it wasn’t one of their competitors,” Oestmann said.

Moynihan, as he has in the past, noted that there’s interest in operating the movie theater and said New Canaan must “figure out what structure we would put in place to allow an operator.”

“It could be a nonprofit,” he said. “My sense is most people want the movie theater to continue to operate as a movie theater before we turn to alternatives. And, unfortunately, the movie business is what it is right now. So on the one hand, there is no immediate rush because people are not rushing to the movies. But on the other hand, based on people who we talk to, we are very fortunate to have a movie theater in New Canaan, unlike some of our neighboring towns.”

He added, “I think the equipment they left is valuable and enables us. We really could start showing opening movies tomorrow if we wanted to, but we have to figure out what the best plan is.”

The town in July approved an approximately $20,000 contract with a Valhalla, N.Y.-based firm to get design and engineering plans for a roof replacement at The Playhouse. The actual roof has been estimated to cost about $230,000, officials said. 

Moynihan said the town has a fund that’s been building up for years because the lease payments from Bow Tie weren’t going into the General Fund. 

“So we have a lot of money to work with on the building,” he said.

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