Last picture show: Vinegar Hill to close after 37 years
It's not like Vinegar Hill Theatre hasn't been on the ropes for years now, since Regal opened a six-screen theater on the Downtown Mall in 1996 and since the rise of the VCR. Last fall, the theater sold merchandise to meet the latest shift in technology and buy expensive digital equipment, which was installed in February.
It wasn't enough.
On July 30, when it became clear that the first-run independent theater was unable to get first-run movies, owner Adam Greenbaum and manager James Ford decided it was time to call it quits.
In a press release, they list changes in the film industry, such as the rising popularity of streaming movies in the comfort of one's home. But the primary force in Vinegar Hill's demise? The small independent theater was crushed by Regal after it opened its Stonefield 14-screen multiplex last fall.
"The reason for our closing," says Ford, "was a more common one— a locally owned traditional business being replaced by a chain, the same that happens with small businesses when a Walmart opens."
Vinegar Hill found it couldn't get movies that hadn't already been shown in town or that weren't already available on video, to use another now-antiquated term. Of the 21 first-run screens in town, "20 are owned by Regal," says Ford. "We have one."
Regal has 7,343 screens in 577 theaters in 42 states. Greenbaum owns the Visulite and Dixie theaters in Staunton, and with Vinegar Hill, that's seven screens in Virginia. "It's not enough to compete with a giant chain," says Ford.
Carmike has already felt the sting of Regal's clout with distributors when Stonefield opened, and went the discount, $1.50 movie route in November. Manager Raymond Kilburn says business isn't bad, but he's still trying to spread the word that moviegoers can wait a little and save a lot.
After Stonefield opened and Regal turned its downtown theaters into an arthouse, that hurt Vinegar Hill, too, says Kilburn. He notes that Vinegar Hill, besides having to pay for expensive, $60,000 digital projectors, suffered from its age and lack of parking. "I feel sad," he says. "I used to love going to see art films there."
When Ann Porotti and then-husband Chief Gordon opened the converted garage and motorcycle showroom on Market Street on Valentine's Day in 1976, the Downtown Mall was just getting under way as a pedestrian mall, and there was little after 5pm to draw people.
Former mayor Kay Slaughter lived in Madison County before moving here and came to Vinegar Hill to see the edgy and foreign films she was used to from DC. "Vinegar Hill really opened Charlottesville as a cosmopolitan spot," she says. She credits Porotti for helping revitalize the Downtown Mall with the movie theater and Fellini's.
Reid Oeschlin spent 24 years of his life working at Vinegar Hill, from the summer of 1980 to "around 2004," and he, too, cites the cinema, along with businesses like Williams Corner Bookstore and C&O, as key to keeping the Mall in its early days from sliding into oblivion. "I think it was sort of a community within a community," he says.
The theater ran a repertory schedule of four programs a week of foreign and classic American films, says Oeschlin. Regulars could see three double features, and with a midnight movie, a total of seven movies were possible in one week.
"At Vinegar Hill, it was always the regulars that kept the doors open, and the crowds that showed up for Casablanca bought the equipment," he says.
Casablanca and To Have and Have Not were a particularly good pairing that had people queued up down the street to get one of the 219 seats inside, recalls Oeschlin. "The idea that people would line up for an old movie— one that they'd seen before— that was a special time," he says.
For Oeschlin, it wasn't so much the Vinegar Hill building itself as what happened inside— the closeness of people sharing the same experience in the dark.
As projectionist, "I would stand in the back of the theater at times because I knew there would be a reaction— a gasp or applause or cracking up," he says. "In movies now, the soundtrack is so loud, you can't tell what the audience reaction is. We're insulated from each other."
Slaughter, too, notes the community aspect of Vinegar Hill, which had its own film festival as well as serving as a venue for the Virginia Film Festival, and could be rented for private screenings. "Everyone likes to eat local; this was screen local," she says.
The occasional hit, like Slumdog Millionaire in 2009, helped keep the the theater afloat, but those became harder and harder to obtain. "We rely on having a big hit every season," says Ford, who's worked at the theater the past five years. "They became more difficult to get, and it got to the point that we could only get previously shown movies."
They tried to go back to screening classics, like Breathless, Cary Grant movies, and The Lost Boys on Halloween. "That was fun, says Ford. "But the reality is we can't afford to remain open and build that audience."
Vinegar Hill screened Josh Whedon's Much Ado about Nothing for its last day, and also offered late showings of Frances Ha. And in between the screenings, t-shirts, tote bags, and mugs were on sale for $5, and some of the theater's hundreds of movie posters went three-for-$5.
"We really hope people can come out and watch a movie," said Ford. And then on August 4, the screen went dark at Vinegar Hill forever.7,343 screens in 577 theatres in 427,343 screens in 577 theatres in 427,343 screens in 577 theatres in 42Read more on: vinegar hill theatre