Several years after receiving a drastic facelift, the Princeton Garden Theatre has bloomed into a modern venue that attracts University students and the Princeton community alike. But few realize how far the theater has come from its roots as a live-performance stage and the effort that goes into its maintenance.
The Garden Theatre, owned by the University, was built in 1919 to house the University Triangle Club. By 1925, however, Triangle had moved to the newly-constructed McCarter Theatre, and the Garden Theatre began to show its first feature-length films.
Over time, the two-screen complex evolved into a unique establishment where locals could enjoy an eclectic range of movies. "My intention was to do one art specialty or foreign film and one upscale film," said Louise Stephens, owner of Garden Theatre Inc., which manages the theater's movie operations.
After overseeing the theater for more than 10 years, Stephens admits that following her initial agenda has not always been easy.
She said balancing big-budget motion pictures with limited release films can be difficult.
Stephens spends much of her time attending advanced screenings of movies and selecting those she thinks would be appropriate for her movie complexes.
Obtaining approval to show certain movies at the Garden Theatre is a "difficult process," she said, because movie distribution companies are often reluctant to release more mainstream movies to small venues.
Because there are no smaller sister theaters to which a film could move after showing at the Garden Theatre, studios do not see as much potential for consistent profit, she explained.
When Stephens secures the rights for a movie, she also negotiates with the movie's distributor to determine how long it will be shown at a theater.
"[The cinematic industry] is like a baseball game," she said, "where some movies are like players that hit a .500 [batting average], and some hit a .300."
Stephens named some of the bigger hits at the Garden Theatre in recent years.
"With 'A Beautiful Mind,' we had the film company calling us, saying 'Did you really make that much money?'" Stephens recalled.
The documentary "My Architect" played for only one week at the theater but still drew large crowds, she said.
It took Stephens six months to persuade the film's distributor to allow her to show it at the Garden Theatre.
However, the theater has also had its share of misses. "The majority of movies are great, but this one was just bad," said Nathan Sellyn '04, upon leaving a screening of 'Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius.'
Sellyn's disappointment with "Bobby Jones" did not affect his fondness for the theater, though. He said he still prefers the Garden Theatre to larger theater complexes because it "plays indie movies that AMC and other big theaters don't play."
"If you go to other places, you've got to find a way to get there and get back," he added.
Wade Gibson '06 also praised the proximity of the theater. "[The Garden Theatre] is a lot more convenient," Gibson said. "And it's a lot less impersonal."
Small theater, big show
Stephens said she was proud of the theater's ambience. "There are very few two-screen theaters with stadium seating and wall-to-wall screens," she said. "[The Garden Theatre] is probably the most elegant two-screen theater in the Northeast."
Stephens attributed the theater's distinctive atmosphere to the blend of University students and Princeton locals that frequents the establishment. During the school year, she said, University students make up roughly half the theater's clientele.
Managing the business at the Garden Theatre is "much more fun to do than at other 20-screen theaters that we own," Stephens concluded.
"Right now we have a beautiful theater that will stay beautiful for the next 10 years," she said.
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