Outside the Princeton Garden Theatre, on a hot spring night, a man sits at a brightly painted piano, hammering out an upbeat tune. The lights on Nassau Street twinkle, and the faint laughter of Princetonians — community members and students alike, walking out of restaurants or out of libraries — spills out under the lampposts.
The Garden Theatre, with its retro exterior, holds many memories for the town of Princeton. The theater is owned by the University, and its history is deeply intertwined with the campus and community. While the theater has struggled, especially post-pandemic, the University continues to support the theater, as part of a larger effort to engage with the town, including the Pay with Points program with local restaurants.
Back in the day, the Garden Theatre was the “runt” of the Princeton theaters, presenting a strong contrast to the flashier “Hollywood blockbuster theaters” in town, according to Chris Collier, the Garden Theatre's Executive Director. The days of many theaters in Princeton have passed. The Garden Theatre is one of the “the last remaining theaters” in Princeton, he said.
The Garden, as Collier referred to it, refers to itself as a “nonprofit community arthouse theater,” showcasing art house films — independent and possibly “experimental” films shown often at film festivals.
But, the theater has witnessed “many ups and downs” since it opened in 1920, Collier explained. In the 1990s, the University bought the theater to prevent it from being developed, in the interest of having a local theater that is within walking distance to downtown Princeton. Collier further credits the existence of this theater today to the University’s involvement.
By the turn of the century, the Garden “desperately” needed repairs, according to Town Topics. By November 1999, the Town Topics reported that there were “no plans by the University to rehabilitate the theater,” and floated the possibility of the Garden Theatre’s renovation becoming a “major town-wide effort.” By January, then town mayor, Marvin Reed, had spoken with the University and “believe[d] the University would repair the theater if it felt that it meant enough to the community.”
Town Topics noted that the Garden was “considered by residents and elected officials as important to the economic vitality of downtown.”
The theater was considered an important business in the Princeton community. In early 2000, Bob Potter, a concerned citizen and retired General Cinema Theatres Manager, wrote a letter to the editor of Town Topics titled, “A Plea to Save the Garden Theatre From One Who Learned His Craft There,” in which he implored the town to fix it, writing that there were “[s]o many memories [at the Garden] … Please save the theater.”
Despite the patrons’ hope to save the Garden Theatre, the issue at the center of the conversation was money. Who was going to invest in the theater that the community wanted to save?
In 2000, University director of community and state affairs Pam Hersh noted that “[t]his will cost a lot of money. We are still waiting to see if the community feels this is a project important enough for a major commitment by the University.”
Ultimately, the University did step in, initially financing $600,000 in renovations. This figure would skyrocket to over a million dollars by the time of the Garden’s reopening. The plan for renovations was made public and the theater was closed in August of 2000, with the goal of reopening by the close of the year. Post-renovations, it ended up opening back up in mid-2001.
There were still more trials ahead. The 2020 pandemic proved to be a huge challenge.
“2020 was supposed to be a spectacular year for the garden,” Collier stated. “We were gearing up to celebrate our 100th anniversary.”
The Garden received a notice to close in March 2020, just as the celebration was scheduled to start. A year that was supposed to be filled with an array of events and programs descended into limited showings reliant on support from fans and patrons, federal grants, lower attendance, and a general trend of departure away from the culture of movie theaters and toward home-movies and streaming.
The theater struggled, “fighting for grants” and “experimenting [with] virtual cinema,” Collier explained. And even after businesses reopened, the Garden still sells only 60 percent of the tickets it would have sold pre-pandemic.
“The biggest challenge was not having people in the theater,” Collier said. “We thrive on being that connector in the community and having a packed house and having the smell of popcorn drifting out on the street and people coming out of a movie, either wildly excited, or arguing about what they liked or didn't like. That, for us, is the whole reason we're here. So, to have the theater empty, nothing happening for over a year, was really hard for a lot of our team.”
“I don't think the theater would have survived had we not been nonprofit,” Collier added. “We really made it through that period without selling any tickets, through the support of our members and donors. And it is really their gifts and support that got us through that whole period.”
Although the theater has been open since June 2021 and made it through the “financial impacts of the pandemic” with the aid of federal grants, there is still a long road ahead for the Garden, according to Collier.
Collier detailed how the University’s COVID protocols were a challenge for the theater. After everyone came back to campus, the theater showed USG (Undergraduate Student Government) Movies’ films “[briefly],” until lockdown started back up. The “restructuring” of the program was somewhat a “balancing act,” but “an even stronger USG program” emerged, according to Collier.
Now that it has reopened, the theater hosts free movies for Princeton students every Friday and Saturday night, often providing free popcorn and soda to its student movie-goers.
USG Movies felt the pandemic’s effects as well. Before COVID, “USG Movies had a much larger presence on campus,” Addele Hargenrader ’24, a former Committee Chair for USG Movies, said. “Attendance numbers, although sometimes they're still really great, have dwindled in comparison to pre-COVID years.”
Nevertheless, Collier stated that he has seen “a shift younger in the audience [at the Garden].” He added that the shift has “allowed us to bring in some more titles that I think appeal to the USG crowd. So we've seen some really solid attendance at a lot of events so far this year. And we're hoping to see that continue.”
This is a “symbiotic relationship [between USG and the Garden Theatre],” said Hargenrader, in which “[USG Movies aims] to offer an alcohol free alternative to social life on campus.”
Reflecting on her experience with USG movies as a first-year student, Hargenrader noted how the movies provided a “really fun activity to do on the weekends” for people who don’t like to drink. The USG Movies program brings in mainly underclassmen, according to Hargenrader, those “who don't have the same kind of social life opportunities.”
Sreeniketh Vogoti ’25 spoke highly of the USG Movies program while standing outside the Garden Theatre before watching a movie, saying she thinks that, “It’s great that they’re engaging with having more interactions with the campus and The Street and having financial incentives that allow people to [do that].”
Collier is also enthusiastic about the theater’s connection with the University’s campus. “It's really wonderful to see, for instance, students so engaged and willing to come out to support the big screen experience and free popcorn and a fun night out with their friends,” Collier said.
Beyond campus life, Collier has seen the theater having a positive impact on the wider Princeton community. “The day that we were able to reopen, there were some people who rushed to the door right away saying ‘I wanted to be the first person back in the theater,’ or ‘I was here when the theater was renovated, and I wanted to be the first person back again.’ So that was just so amazing to see the support and love of so many patrons.”
With the return of events like the Hollywood Summer Night series, having visitors back in the building has brought Collier and his team much excitement and joy. The Garden Theatre team “was over the moon and just so excited to have that energy and enthusiasm of people, enjoying a night out and enjoying the movies back in the theater again,” said Collier.
“Because, again, that's why we're there,” Collier said with a soft smile. “That's the reason for our existence.”
Mira Eashwaran is a Features contributor for the ‘Prince.’
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