Five years after a community campaign raised more than $1 million to renovate and reopen the Capawock and Strand, the two historic movie houses are without tenants again, forced into the dark by a pandemic that shows no sign of easing.
The Martha’s Vineyard Theater Foundation, which reopened the cinemas in the summer of 2015, has exercised the option to end its long-term lease agreement with landlords Ben and Brian Hall, foundation co-founder and chief fundraiser Mark Snider told the Gazette Monday.
Historic Strand in Oak Bluffs stayed closed all summer, and foundation that raised money for restoration is not renewing its lease.
— Jeanna Shepard
“We notified the Halls that we would not renew the lease,” Mr. Snider said. “As a nonprofit, we had the right each year to determine if we were continuing.”
Mr. Snider and his wife Gwenn established the foundation to restore the two aging, dilapidated single-screeners, the Capawock in Vineyard Haven and the Strand in Oak Bluffs. A third Hall-owned cinema, the Island in Oak Bluffs, was deemed beyond repair by the foundation.
“Our mission was to preserve the buildings,” Mr. Snider said.
Speaking to the Gazette by phone Tuesday, Ben Hall spoke at length about the history of the movie houses and described various options for the future — none of them as theatres. He expressed doubt that there is a future for fixed-seat entertainment venues like the Capawock and Strand.
“If a charity can’t even do it, it’s a signal to the community that we need to be looking at other possibilities,” said Mr. Hall, who is an Island attorney. “Tastes have changed, and there’s no fighting that.”
Both the refurbished theatres date back more than 100 years. The Strand was an Oddfellows Hall until 1915, when it was converted into a movie house by Irish immigrant and cinema visionary Michael Keegan.
A few years later, Mr. Keegan leased the Vineyard Theatre — now the Capawock — which had been completed in 1913. He showed silent films at both theatres until the early 1930s.
In 1932, the current owners’ grandfather Alfred Hall formed a business group that leased and later purchased all of the existing Island cinemas.
“They saw that the Island movie theatres were still silent theatres,” Ben Hall told the Gazette by phone this week. “It was a big upgrade to the people to bring in the talkies. They thought it was a good time to move into that business.”
The elder Mr. Hall’s economic instinct also warned him when movie-going hit its apex, some 40 years later.
“My grandfather saw the writing on the wall in the seventies when he saw his first Betamax movie,” Ben Hall said. “VHS wasn’t even out yet. When he figured out that you could record the movie and that the movie company could distribute the videos … he realized the film business was going south.”
But getting out of the industry proved harder than breaking in. An operator that ran the Hall theatres for 15 years ultimately decided not to exercise its option to buy them. Ben and Brian, whose family had controlled the Island’s movie screens from the Great Depression through the cable revolution, were unable to fill seats in the era of Netflix and iPhones.
“It was unbelievable how quickly, when the iPhone came out, what that did to attendance,” Mr. Hall said. “It absolutely collapsed.”
The Island Theatre closed in 2010 and remains a flaking shell at the foot of Circuit avenue. The Halls shuttered the Strand in 2011 and leased it to a moped rental company that stored vehicles inside until the foundation began renovations in early 2015.
The Capawock struggled on, an analog cinema in a digital age, until 2013 — the same year the state-of-the-art, nonprofit Martha’s Vineyard Film Center opened in Tisbury Marketplace.
But while the film center offers digital screenings and audio, along with comfortable seats and up-to-date heating and air conditioning, the vintage theatres — even with their doors closed — still held a powerful, nostalgic appeal. When the Sniders’ foundation began fundraising in early 2015, they quickly found wide support.
“The first five years were extraordinarily exciting,” Mr. Snider said.
Once the theatres were completely renovated, with digital screening systems, updated fixtures and, at the Strand, murals by Margot Datz, the foundation turned them over to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, which owns the film center, to operate.
Then came Covid-19 this year. Apart from scattered private events and rentals such as the Holiday World Market, taking place at the Capawock daily this season, both theatres have been shuttered throughout 2020.
“This has been a most challenging year for everybody,” Mr. Snider said. “Without being open, we are unable to fundraise during this uncertain time. It’s all very sad.”
Even before the pandemic, Mr. Snider said, the two theatres were not economically self-sustaining.
“They did okay, [but] it’s very hard to be in that business now,” he said. “It required subsidies.”
He said continued fundraising was worth the effort for the benefits both cinemas brought to their downtown neighbors.
“They generated business: people would come to Main street, have dinner and spend money,” he said, adding: “That’s what the goal was: to keep them as iconic anchors in the communities that they’re in.”
Mr. Snider said he hopes another organization will come forward to lease the theatres, which are equipped to host live performances as well as movie screenings.
Mr. Hall suggested the theatres could be subdivided into retail shops or converted to boutique hotels, although he said the latter would not be possible in Oak Bluffs until the town expands its wastewater treatment plant.
“I’m meeting people constantly, trying to show the spaces and talking to them about other ideas,” he said.
With Edgartown Cinemas closed as well, the Island’s only remaining indoor screen is at the film center, where executive director Richard Paradise said audiences have been tiny in recent weeks.
“It’s like two to four to six people,” Mr. Paradise said. “It doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t even come close.”
But he said the film center will continue to stay open four or five nights a week through the winter, with widely distanced seating and meticulous sanitizing. Some films are also available for online viewing, depending on their distribution arrangements, but those sales have been scanty as well.
“We really have to depend on the generosity of our donors and our members to see us through this time, when our earned income is 70 to 80 per cent below what it was last year,” Mr. Paradise said.
And whenever audiences feel comfortable going out again, he said, the film society and film center will be ready.
“We’re going to need quality cultural arts after the pandemic. We’re going to need dialogue and discussion. We’re going to need to gather again.
“After the pandemic, we’re going to be here.”
Updated to include comments from Ben Hall and history.