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With warm popcorn and James Bond, a Princeton institution reopens after pandemic closure

<h5>The Princeton Garden Theatre</h5>
<h6>Isabel Kingston / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The Princeton Garden Theatre
Isabel Kingston / The Daily Princetonian

Today, the Garden Theatre is known as a community gem, a town cultural hub, and an oasis for the weary Princeton student. The theatre has kept its doors open for the past century thanks to the resolve of community members who kept it afloat through various ups and downs — most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The kick-off event celebrating the Garden’s 100th anniversary was scheduled for March 12, 2020. In the final days of planning, the event was postponed due to the pandemic. In the weeks that followed, it became clear that the Garden would have to close indefinitely, like so many other businesses at the time. The projectors were turned off, the doors were locked, and any hopes of holding a birthday party for the theatre were extinguished. 

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Thanks to the ongoing partnership between the University and the Garden, it did not face real jeopardy of closing permanently due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, its temporary shuttering was a loss to the community with which it has engaged for so many years. 

At the time of the Garden’s opening in 1920, it was known as “the runty one, the offshoot,” said Chris Collier, the current executive director. 

Built in the side garden of the house where the Art Museum Store now stands, the Garden was originally intended to be a performance space for Princeton Triangle Club. The club never adopted the Garden as its home, however. Instead, as the century progressed, the Garden began showing specialized and independent films. 

“I think it would shock the majority of people who knew the Garden back in the day … that it would be the only one of three theaters still standing,” Collier said. After all, the fate of the theatre has been thrown into question on multiple occasions. 

Thirty years ago, the Garden was in dire need of a facelift. 

“The University was thinking of giving up on the theatre,” said Pam Hersh, a long standing supporter of the Garden and former Director of Community and State Government Affairs for the University. 

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The University had purchased the property in 1993, but it was struggling to find a management company to take over the upkeep. Hersh credits former Princeton Borough Mayor Marvin Reed with spearheading the charge to save the Garden. Through his determined negotiations, that same year the University contracted with the Theater Management Corporation, a small company that transformed the Garden from what Hersh termed a “decrepit mess” to the charming establishment that it is today. 

Although these new management efforts led to promising renovations, it eventually became clear that making a profit on a two-screen movie theater was practically out of the question. In 2014, management of the theater was taken over by Renew Theaters, the non-profit at the helm of its operations today. The nonprofit's tax exempt status was vital to the Garden’s ability to survive the pandemic and continue to serve the community. 

The USG Movies Committee held free weekly showings for students on Friday and Saturday evenings at the Garden before the pandemic. During the pandemic, the Committee screened films on Canvas. On Oct. 8, USG Movies had its first in-person screening since the start of the pandemic with the new James Bond film “No Time To Die.”

“It’s really great to be partnering directly with the student government to show students that the theater is there to offer programs that are free for all students,” Collier said. 

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“I think the best part of USG movies is that it creates a place for a film community — even for casual movie-goers! — on a campus that can otherwise feel scattered,” said Melina Huang ’23, one of the student leaders of the program. 

“Another big part of the program is supporting a wonderful local theater that’s done so much to cultivate a community for the greater Princeton area, and it’s been a great experience so far to be a part of that,” Huang continued. 

The students who attended the USG movie events shared Huang’s enthusiasm.

“I really love the Princeton USG program and am so happy that it’s finally back after a year of Covid and not being able to go to the movie theater,” said Emily Schoeman ’23 after seeing the new Wes Anderson film, “The French Dispatch.” 

“It can be a great alternative to going out on the weekends,” she continued. “It’s something you can do with your friends where you’re getting off campus but it’s still right nearby, and it’s affordable.” 

Barely a five minute walk from the main gates, the Garden has been an ideal place of retreat for many. Students needing a break from the mania of papers and problem sets can find comfort in the plush seats, the scent of warm popcorn, and the soft glow of the screen. 

The Garden has often collaborated directly with Princeton professors, inviting them to pick a movie, give an introduction prior to the screening, and lead a discussion afterwards. These screenings were held in a virtual format during the pandemic and were popular among community members. 

When a neuroscience professor chose “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and then proceeded to talk about how erasing someone’s memory is not, in fact, a thing of science fiction, “it was pretty mind-blowing to the people there,” Collier shared. 

The Garden also collaborates with outside programs such as Deep Focus. Deep Focus is a similar discussion-based series that, according to its website, offers four different events, all related to the same theme and all “led by expert speakers, ranging from professors, to film critics, to members of the industry.” The Garden is currently hosting events pertaining to Asian American identity: on September 20, English and American Studies professor Anne Cheng ’85 led a discussion on Henry Koster’s “Flower Drum Song” and, on October 25, Associate Professor of English and African American Studies Kinohi Nishikawa led a discussion on Justin Chon’s “Gook” and “Blue Bayou.” 

The next discussion is slated for December 20, when Stephen Chung, an Associate Professor in East Asian Studies and Chair of the University’s Committee for Film Studies, will lead a conversation on Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari.” 

The Garden’s imprint on the community is deeply rooted and far-reaching. One of the most loyal champions of the theater was Phyllis Marchand, former Princeton Township mayor.

Over the years, she took on countless projects to improve the Garden and sustain its link with the University, and, according to Hersh, she was on the planning committee of the 100th anniversary party.

Hersh smiled through the phone when talking about Phyllis, who passed away in March, and her legacy. 

“She was a passionate moviegoer,” Hersh said “I don’t think she ever missed a movie there.”

“Every week she would call me up and say, ‘Hey, something’s showing at the Garden, you want to go see it?’”

Isabel Kingston is a Features contributor. She can be reached at ibk@princeton.edu.  

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