Vinegar Hill: Building goes on the block

First the what's-playing sign was missing from the side of Vinegar Hill Theatre. Then a for-sale sign appeared, leaving loyal moviegoers wondering if their favorite cinema house was threatened again. The two events are not related– the movie sign blew down– and the theater is still open, but the building that houses it and Camino restaurant is on the block for $1.2 million.

When Ann Porotti and then-husband Chief Gordon purchased what would become Vinegar Hill Theatre in 1973, it was owned by Symington Garage and housed a motorcycle showroom, says Porotti.

Gordon had a vision, and by Valentine's Day 1976, Charlottesville had its first foreign film/classic American cinema.

In 2005, Porotti tried to sell the Market Street building, which by then also included a restaurant she'd added. That didn't happen, and in 2008 after the Virginia Film Festival, she announced Vinegar Hill was closing. That's when Adam Greenbaum, owner of the Visulite in Staunton, swooped in and took took over running the theater.

Porotti is blunt about why she wants to unload the Charlottesville landmark: "I'm almost 70. It's time to not be a landlord."

The 4,100-square-foot-building on .14 acre has already attracted quite a bit of interest in the week or so since the for-sale sign went up, says Bob Headrick with Nest Realty.

"A handful of people have looked at it," he says. "Everyone, so far, wants the theater to remain. The restaurant– one person wanted to incorporate it into the theater with a bar and restaurant."

Greenbaum, who just plunked down $60,000 to convert to digital screenings, is not alarmed that the building is for sale. "I'm actually optimistic," he says. "A lot of people are nostalgic for that theater," he adds, pointing to the community support from all the people who bought the merch Vinegar Hill sold to raise money for the digital system.

"It would be a huge loss for me," says Alexandria Searls, who ran the Vinegar Hill Film Festival, which showcased local film, for seven years.

"I'm not a fan of multiplexes, which I don't find to be community theaters," she says. "What's special about Vinegar Hill is it is just one screen, and it's a community theater."

"We'd lose a certain kind of film that's more independent, more under the radar," says long-time fan Carroll Trainum. And if Vinegar Hill closed, the Virginia Film Festival would lose a venue, he adds.

One person is not at all nostalgic about the theater: Ann Porotti. "I put in two heating systems in the last three years," she says. "No nostalgia."

She has her own take on the sign falling down: "The building has said, I am tired of being a theater," she suggests.

Much as her ex did 40 years ago, "I'd like someone to say, I have an idea," says Porotti.


Alexandria Searls' assertion that Vinegar Hill is a community theater is contestable. Simply possessing a single screen does not make it so. Short of hosting a few different festival events a year, how do they actively engage or otherwise interact with the community in any real way (other than asking for money to buy them a new lease on life)? I don't think VH needs or claims to be a community theater anyway. The Paramount and the new micro-cinema seem more likely candidates for such a title.

Perhaps Alexandria means to express her support for a locally and independently owned and operated theater. If so, I would whole heatedly share that sentiment.

VH has great popcorn, great programming and a good team operating their theater. Now all they need is a bigger screen, comfortable seating, a real sound system (to match their fancy new projector), a few screws (evidently), and a good scrub-down (ewww, sticky).

That will give us something to be genuinely nostalgic about.

Just sayin'

@ Just sayin' : How long have you been going there? There's plenty to be nostalgic about there. But it's been over 30 years history for me, so much of that reverie is based on an era of local attendance, movie rotation, and ownership that's long gone. It *was* a community theatre. It still has that vibe although it's not what it was.

This Cville native saw many classic and arthouse films at the VH in its heyday and for that I would be sorry to see it vanish.

Still, the co-founder made her sentiments pretty clear in the article above. I see no reason to disagree with her as she, as much as anyone, is entitled to feel nostalgia (or not) for that venerable venue. The aging building sounds more like a liability than a storied cinema where classics once unspooled for Charlottesville's nascent hipster crowd.

VH was always a cool place to see a film with cool people back when Downtown was mostly a ghost town. We'd walk down to Random Row for drinks & conversation after the first show, then run up the hill to catch the second half of the double feature.

Moviegoing has changed much in the last 30-odd years, as well as the business model underpinning the experience. I still enjoy films like L'Avventura, Allegro Non Troppo, and most of the Bergman and Renoir catalogs, but I no longer represent the core demographic that theater owners crave. I got older. The movie bidness increasingly skews to a younger crowd.

The VH audience has also perhaps grown more segmented in tastes as more an more options become available. Recall that VH opened before Charlottesville had any meaningful cable TV service and videotape rental stores were still several years in the future. If you wanted to see Fellini's 8 1/2 or watch Creature from the Black Lagoon with honest-to-God read and blue 3D glasses on Halloween, VH was your only choice.

Truth is, today I would rather watch a DVD from my Criterion Collection at a convenient time on my laptop, plugged into a not-bad surround-sound system, than try to get to an arthouse cinema on the odd chance they are screening the same flick at a time that works with my crazy-busy schedule.

Now VH is old and creaky and the sound system is rather tinny; perhaps that's part of its charms.

Nowadays, I think the Naro cinema in Norfolk executes the same indie/classic film concept with greater success. They do a bang-up business in a funky section of Norfolk, surrounded by coffee shops, book stores and -- gasp -- a video store next door. The Naro has the supporting infrastructure in place to thrive. The Alamo Drafthouse takes the concept of moviegoing in a similarly civilized direction and has a devoted fan base to support its screens.

Charlottesville still makes a lot of pretensions toward cosmopolitan living and support of the arts, yet you seldom see the arthouse cinemas in other cities peddling coffee mugs, t-shirts and tote bags in an effort to stay alive.

VH did have the best popcorn in town, though.

Thanks for the opportunity to reminisce.