PORT TOWNSEND — Rocky Friedman knew the day would come when he’d be ready to sell the Rose Theatre, the business he had established and nurtured for 30 years to become not simply a venue for moviegoing, but also a cherished community institution.
He just didn’t know how he’d know when the time was right.
“The only answer I ever came up with was one day it’s just going to be evident,” Friedman said. “And, sure enough, that is exactly how it happened. I woke up one morning in December of 2019 and the first thought in my head was, ‘I’m done with the Rose.’”
Well, not quite done.
Friedman still has to find a buyer for the Rose Theatre who will not only meet the asking price of $899,000, but also can convince him that he or she is the right person to guide and create a new legacy for the independent theater.
Friedman must also reassure the theater’s devoted fans that the sale is a positive step that will bring new energy and focus to the Rose, its Rosebud Cinema and the Starlight Room.
The decision to exit the Rose came to Friedman with the same clarity he had experienced when he first resolved to open a movie theater in Port Townsend despite his lack of money, experience running a business and no place to screen films.
His lawyer recommended he form a corporation and sell stock, which turned out to be more than a way to raise capital. It introduced him to a generous and loyal group of supporters and it established a culture of community investment in the Rose.
A vaudeville-era house that opened in 1907, the Rose ceased operating as a theater in 1958. After completely renovating the building, Friedman reopened the 158-seat Rose in 1992.
Three years later, he added the 79-seat Rosebud Cinema in the adjacent building.
In 2013, he introduced the Starlight Room where patrons could sip a drink, select from a menu created by the Silverwater Cafe and sink into upholstered chairs and couches while watching a movie.
Central to the Rose moviegoing experience has been Friedman’s carefully curated program of first-run and classic Hollywood movies, independent and foreign movies and documentaries.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, the Rose offered a “virtual screening room” that streamed new films and began live simulcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the National Theatre in London. The June 5 schedule of “Downtown Abbey: A New Era,” “Top Gun: Maverick” and the French classic, “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg,” was typical of Friedman’s touch.
“That is what I’m going to miss more than anything else, the programming,” Friedman said. “Whenever I discovered a movie that was just incredible, what was so exciting to me was, ‘I get to share this with my customers.’”
Keeping the Rose a viable commercial venture has meant returning to those customers and the community for support.
In 2012, Friedman launched a campaign to raise the $200,000 required to convert the Rose and Rosebud from film to digital screenings. It took less than six weeks to reach his goal.
“It was completely overwhelming,” Friedman said.
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, the Rose, like all entertainment venues, was forced to close. But there were still bills to pay: insurance, utilities, staff.
“You can’t just turn off the heat for 499 days,” Friedman said of the time the theater was shuttered.
When Friedman applied for, but did not receive, a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, his daughter, Renata Friedman, convinced him to once again turn to the community for assistance by starting a GoFundMe campaign.
Within two days, they had raised $93,000 of their $110,000 goal, which then increased by $50,000 to pay for COVID-19 measures like cleaning and disinfecting, and installing hand sanitizing stations.
“We hit that total within one week,” Friedman said. “That got us through the pandemic.”
By the time COVID arrived, Friedman was already moving ahead with preparations to sell the Rose. The announcement in May made public a process that had been in the works for almost three years.
When he informed the 21 remaining shareholders of Rose stock of his plans to sell, he said, they respected his decision.
“No shareholder has raised their hand and said, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t want to,’” Friedman said.
The Rose (and Rosebud Cinema) and the Starlight Room are two separate businesses. They are for sale — not the building at 235 Taylor St. owned by the Rose’s long-time landlords Sandra and the late Phil Johnson. Friedman owns the Starlight Room outright and owns 66 percent of the stock in the Rose.
The first step for anyone interested in purchasing the Rose is answering five questions Friedman came up with to get a sense of who they were and why they wanted to own the Rose. Among the most important was if they did not already live in the area, would they be willing to relocate?
“Over the last few decades, it’s become apparent that the owner of the theater has to live in Port Townsend full-time,” said Renata Friedman, who began working at the Rose when she was 12 and is now an actress in New York City.
“The local community is everything to the Rose, and the theater needs someone running it who’s a part of that.”
Friedman also wants to know what appeals to the potential buyer about owning the Rose Theater, film and business background and possible partners.
Because the community has invested in the business, there is a sense of protectiveness and proprietary interest in the Rose. People don’t want anything to change — from the real butter on the popcorn to its pressed tin ceiling.
“We’re all concerned,” said Cathy Ferges, a customer who has lived in Port Townsend since 2013.
“It’s not just the building but the things that happen inside it. Rocky is such a valuable member of our community. We hope he stays around.”
Friedman said he isn’t going anywhere. He’ll stay in Port Townsend, although he’s not ready to say what his next step might be.
But, he has faith that the Rose will live on and thrive, even though it probably won’t be — and shouldn’t be — the same place he worked so hard to build and make a success.
“What we’ve created there is bigger than any one person, and it will go on,” Friedman said.
“I’m exercising my control to try and find that person or couple who gets what we’ve done and is smart enough to recognize, oh, this works. Let’s continue this.
“Then they get to put their own creative imprint on it.”