There’s the unlikely story of Rocky Friedman, and then there’s the sequel, just arrived in theaters.
Two theaters, that is. Two little auditoriums with pretty big screens, on the verge of a conversion.
Friedman, co-owner of Port Townsend’s Rose Theatre, is preparing for the second major move of his professional life: replacing his film projection booths with a $200,000 digital and 3-D system so, he says, he can keep the Rose alive.
But to tell the story of how the Rose, an old movie house that had closed decades earlier — bloomed again, we should go back to the beginning of Friedman’s story.
He was a “guy with a dream and no money,” as he puts it. He’d grown up in Bellevue in the 1950s and ’60s, and was educated at Bellevue Community College and the Harvard Exit movie theater in Seattle. He got into the country’s oldest film school, the University of Southern California; he married and had a daughter, Renata.
He wanted to raise her in a small town, and Port Townsend felt perfect: close to Seattle but not too close, and peopled by lovers of art, culture and community.
Friedman found work at La Fonda, the Mexican restaurant that has since closed. He waited tables and worked in the kitchen for four years; in 1988 he got a new job at Aldrich’s grocery.
In the course of the following four years, Friedman’s dream unspooled just like a reel of film. He found the old Rose Theatre, a vaudeville house dating to 1907, could be refurbished; the building’s owners, Phil and Sandy Johnson, secured a state grant to do some renovations.
Friedman went from living room to living room, selling stock in this new kind of theater — a detailed figment of his imagination.
Janette Force, director of the Port Townsend Film Institute, remembers those days. She remembers Friedman talking about how the theater seats would be, how he would show a variety of movies for a variety of viewers. He wanted personally to introduce the films to his audiences; he hoped to invite filmmakers to town so they too could host screenings.
“Rocky understands artistic vision, and his own has been unwavering,” says Force. “He wanted [the theater] to be exquisite. And it is.”
Friedman opened the Rose on July 11, 1992, with the help of 33 other owners: Port Townsenders who purchased stock in the corporation Friedman formed in 1991.
And though some have moved away, none has sold that stock, Friedman notes.
Over the past 20 years, thousands have watched comedies, tragedies and dreams flicker across the Rose’s two screens; there have been dark and weird art-house films, hits like “Avatar” and “Slumdog Millionaire” and a whole lot in between. To start things off in the summer of ’92, though, Friedman picked “Some Like It Hot,” the classic starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.
Renata Friedman, 12 when her father opened the Rose, grew up at the movies — and herself embarked on a career in another kind of theater. As soon as she turned 16, Renata drove to Seattle to take weekly acting classes; then she went off to New York University to earn her Bachelor of Fine Arts. In recent years, she has become a formidable performer, appearing in plays at the Seattle Repertory, Yale Rep and now the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
“She is making her living as an actress,” her father says, shaking his head, smiling and knocking on a wooden beam inside the Rose’s projection booth.
Until this year, Renata has come back to Port Townsend for a month in late winter. She would spend a few weeks running the Rose while her dad took a vacation.
2012 is another story. For one thing, Renata has so much acting work, on stages around the country, that she can’t take a month off.
The elder Friedman, meanwhile, has his hands too full of fundraising.
This time around, instead of stock, he’s selling seats, glasses and stars. To bring in the $200,000 to convert the Rose to digital and 3-D, Friedman is using what he acknowledges is a nontraditional technique: offering people naming rights for all of the seats in the two theaters. It’s a $500 donation to have your or a loved one’s name engraved on one of the 237 chairs, and already Friedman is halfway there, with 138 dedicated.
He has also sold 38 bronze stars — in various sizes for various contributions from $500 to $5,000 — and 44 bronze plaques at $250 each, all of which will bear donors’ names and be displayed in the Rose’s lobby.
In addition, 20 donors have chosen the “Welcome to the Rose!” route, which for a $100 gift gives them the right to go before the audience and introduce a film. After this live performance, popcorn will be on the house.
For those who want Rose popcorn in their own living rooms, Friedman has devised the “Reel Digital Deal”: two engraved chairs, one 10-inch bronze star, two private screenings for 12 people, two movie previews in Seattle including lunch with Friedman, and home delivery of Rose popcorn once a month for a year. The price for all this: $15,000.
No one has seized this opportunity yet, Friedman said — though he joked that he thought the popcorn delivery would clinch it.
Numerous other gifts of cash, from people who don’t want their name on anything, have come in since the fundraising campaign’s official start in mid-January.
Then there are the 3-D glasses, which he is offering for $75 a pair. Yes, people have chosen this donation level, Friedman said, though he didn’t have a count this past week.
Many a cinephile has decried 3-D — and Friedman used to be one of those who didn’t think much of the effect. But after seeing a few movies in which the directors used it judiciously — “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s ode to Paris and filmmaking and “Pina,” Wim Wenders’ documentary about the late choreographer Pina Bausch — he has himself been converted.
The cost of 3-D capability at the Rose is a relatively small portion of the total Friedman has to raise: $25,000 per screen. It’s the digitalization that will cost $150,000.
Friedman readily admits that he cannot afford to borrow such a sum. And he acknowledges that while he and his board of directors are comfortable with this fundraising method — asking for donations to a for-profit business — there is an “oddness” to it.
So far, judging from the number of stars and seats sold, Rose lovers don’t find it too odd. And the supporters are coming from the far corners of the region — and the country.
“Most have come from people in Jefferson County, but there are quite a few from Port Angeles, Sequim and even Seattle. I’ve had one from Germany and one from New York,” Friedman reported last Monday.
He sends a thank-you letter to each donor, and asked the New Yorker what her connection was to the Rose.
“She went to grade school here, and in the space where the concession is, it used to be a radio repair shop,” was her response. She learned back then that the repair shop had once been a theater — and when she grew up, her dream was to restore an old theater.
Force, meanwhile, looking ahead to this September’s Port Townsend Film Festival, said the digital switch opens up the field both for filmmakers and for moviegoers. Fledgling directors can use the less expensive digital video format, hence putting more fresh stuff out there for people to see.
If local theaters did not go digital, “our choices would be so limited,” Force said.
And so the fundraising is going well, though Friedman says there is a long way to go before he can start buying equipment. His hope is to start the conversion in June, just before the 20th anniversary date. The Rose, which has not closed for even a single night since it reopened in 1992, will have to go dark for about a week.
Of course, he plans a grand celebration once the digital projection system is installed and to “thank the community,” he says, “for getting us to 20 years.”
The conversion, Friedman says, means survival for his movie theater.
For some time now, he’s been receiving letters from film distributors, informing him that they are no longer inclined to send out the traditional 35-millimeter film prints. Instead, they’re providing the far less costly digital video discs. Soon, distributors will not work with theaters without digital projection.
“I’ve seen this on the horizon for years,” Friedman admits. “I chose to bury my head in the sand.”
Now, he knows digital movies are more stable. The images are “rock solid,” he says, and the sounds and colors “stunning.”
But Friedman also admits to feeling a twinge of regret at the demise of 35-millimeter. He loves the tactile experience of building the reels of film, then seeing the light send them across the theater, from the booth window out to the screen.
The changeover from film to digital is as dramatic a shift as the silent-to-sound conversion back in 1927, Friedman says. Small-town theaters across the continent — and a few blocks away at the Uptown Theatre on Lawrence Street — are puzzling out how to finance the switch.
At the Uptown, owner Rick Wiley has said he’ll find funds for digital conversion later this year without asking his customers for help. He also plans to go digital at the Wheel-In Motor Movie, just outside town; the changeover is planned for spring 2013, as the area’s last drive-in marks its 60th anniversary.
The movie-theater business has been all about change ever since the first moving pictures flashed across a big screen. For Friedman, this line of work still brings fresh delight — pretty much every week. He goes to preview screenings in Seattle, and to the Telluride, Colo., Film Festival each September, to scout for films. Time and again his faith in this storytelling medium is renewed.
“There will always be artists out there, wanting to make movies,” he said.
Friedman has seen no shortage of inspirational fare: Just in the past few months, he has been enchanted by Scorsese’s “Hugo,” by the best-picture Oscar-winner “The Artist” and by “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” which like “Hugo” is the tale of a young boy seeking something his father left behind.
It is a joy, Friedman says, to show such movies. At 59, he still hurries into work every day.
And if Friedman’s plans pan out, the Rose Theatre will be here for at least another 20 years, offering that communal experience of seeing a story on a wide screen, with one’s neighbors.
“The Rose is one of my favorite places to see a movie,” said Bruce Hattendorf, the Peninsula College film professor who lived in San Francisco for three years and New York City for 10 before moving to the North Olympic Peninsula.
“I’m romantic about it,” he said, “but I think going to the movies should be something special. At the Rose, it is.”
“It’s just that Rocky loves movies . . . he really cares about what he’s showing.”
Friedman’s vision for this theater went beyond the screening of films. He wanted to bring directors and actors to town — the people he looks up to — and he has done so, with the late Sydney Pollack and Sally Field among the luminaries who have alighted at the Rose.As for Friedman’s own story, “it has worked out better than I ever imagined.”