There’s really nothing like a good cry in the dark to expulse any demons who might be poking their pitchforks under your skin. When that good cry in the dark takes place in the blackness of a movie theater, while you’re watching someone on the screen whose problems are much worse than yours, even better. If that someone is an innocent young boy with a heartwrenchingly sweet British accent whose mother recently died, bingo. You’ve hit the mother lode, as I did, when I went to see "Millions" with my husband and 10-year-old son at the County Theater in Doylestown. Spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about the end of the movie later – but trust me, you should still see it.
But what this story is really about is County Theater. We had heard from a friend of ours in Sergeantsville about "this little theater in Doylestown I can’t even remember its name but it’s great." Thanks to Google, I found out it’s County Theater. Now all I needed was a good movie to see. I had recently seen the trailer for "Millions" – the story of a little boy who, after his mother died, moves with his father and big brother to a new development by the train tracks. One day the boy finds a duffel bag, thrown from a passing train, containing millions of pounds. It is a perennial tug of war between good and evil: the younger brother wants to save the world with it, but his older brother wants to spend it all before the looming deadline when England had to turn in all its pounds for Euros. I thought it would be a perfect "money lesson" for my son, plus the trailer was a total four-hankie (remember there’s nothing like a good cry in the dark).
When I saw on County’s web site that "Millions" was coming, I called the theater to find out when. Here’s the first wonderful thing about County: They have a phone alert system; you simply call the theater and tell them what movie you want to see and give them your phone number, and a human being – a real person, not a recorded voice – will call you before the movie opens. (You can also sign up to receive a weekly E-mail of films currently playing coming attractions.)
Here’s the second wonderful thing about County: the concessions are as far from the multiplex as you can get. Hazelnut coffee (with real half and half), 10 kinds of tea, hot chocolate, and two kinds of root beer. European chocolate, including Ritter Sport from Germany, three kinds of Toblerone bars, and nine kinds of Lindt bars, and that do-gooder Endangered Species chocolate. Multiple toppings to dress up your popcorn: jerk seasoning, parmesan cheese, garlic pepper, Old Bay, garlic salt, and for the purist, salt. I’m not done. Bakery cookies – which I later found out come from local bakeries – chocolate chunk, oatmeal raisin, and peanut butter, and three kinds of biscotti. And "boomer candy" – you know, Dots, malted milk balls, Mike and Ike, that stuff. It gets better. It’s not even expensive. A root beer, box of Dots, bar of Lindt, one biscotti, and a bag of small popcorn only set me back $8.75.
Here’s the third wonderful thing about County: the ambience is as far from the multiplex as you can get. Built in 1938 in the Art Deco style, the theater enjoyed its golden years in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, but the ’70s, the theater was overshadowed by the popularity of TV, shopping centers, and multiplexes. By 1990, it was dark. In late 1992 Closely Watched Films, a local film society that had been showing art films in Doylestown, leased the theater and reopened it as a nonprofit community-based project with the screening of the British film "Enchanted April."
According to director of development Jim Sanders, the rest is history. "County Theater is a very early example of downtown revitalization with the use of the local community theater as an anchor. It required a few people willing to take a leap of faith." And it required a lot of money, says Sanders, who earned his MBA with a focus on nonprofit management from Rider University in 1990, then served as the associate marketing director at McCarter Theater before coming to County to manage its capital campaign in late 1995.
Closely Watched Films morphed into Renew Theaters Inc., which now staffs three revitalized theaters including County; the Ambler Theater, a 1,200-seat theater built in 1928 in Ambler, Pennsylvania; and the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, built in 1925 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Sanders says it took a million dollars to bring County back to life, including the lease-purchase option and renovation costs. Most of that money came from negotiated loans and gifts from individuals.
Like a fairy godmother, County has entirely changed the face of Main Street in Doylestown. "In the early 1990s, the vacancy rate was 50 percent. Now there are no vacancies. Retailers moved back to town from the strip malls. We must have 40 restaurants, clothing shops, high-end shoes, gift shops," says Sanders, adding that same trend is also emerging in Ambler, where the Ambler Theater has only been open two years. "The dollar store across the street is now an Irish pub. Of the two vacant stores in the theater’s building, one is now occupied by a personal trainer and the other is a restaurant." County is smack in the middle of the historic district so it has "a high geographical profile," says Sanders. "It’s a reason for other retailers to be open at night. And people have to eat."
With the reopening of County Theater Doylestown found itself at the cusp of what has mushroomed into one of the biggest suburban trends: the renaissance of the village square. "People really like walking towns, a combination of residential and commercial," says Sanders. "The newest housing going up in town, two blocks from the courthouse (and right around the corner from County), is literally taking an urban block and making townhouses right on the street. It’s very 19th century, a village square and boulevards, garages around the back in an alley."
County received the jewel in its crown in June of this year, when the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission chose County Theater for the image on its newest poster celebrating the 30-plus historic theaters in the state. "County Theater is a model for other nonprofits," says Sanders, adding that County has been sharing its story with historic theaters across the country.
The operative word here is historical. Something tells me a mainstream movie theater wouldn’t have the same effect on revitalizing a town. It’s a subtle connection but the fact that County is a historic property seems key, a fact that plays not only into the theater’s programming but also the kind of retail shops and restaurants that would surround such a theater. County’s two screens show only art films, indie films, foreign films, and documentaries. "We work with a film booker out of New York, Jeffrey Jacobs, who does booking for small independent theaters, including the Paris Theater in Manhattan," Sanders says. "John Toner also makes annual visits to the Toronto Film Festival. Films are selected based on how they fit into the County sensibility: a combination of people here love English period pieces. Also we’ll bring in the edgy, like ‘Broken Flowers,’ the new film with Bill Murray, and films by certain directors like Sally Potter (‘Orlando’ and the new ‘Yes’ with Joan Allen) and Jim Jarmusch (‘Broken Flowers’). We also have a lot of foreign films – where else are you going to see films from Germany, Pakistan, and Afghanistan? And a lot more documentaries."
The theater recently had the only suburban screenings of "Music from the Inside Out," the documentary about the Philadelphia Orchestra. Now County is helping the filmmaker market the film for wider distribution, through audience surveys and special events like discussion evenings at the theater with members of the orchestra.
Other programming goodies include appearances by filmmakers; a Saturday kids matinee series, which starts up again in the fall; and the Hollywood Summer Nights series, featuring old movies like "Breakfast at Tiffany’s."
"County Theater is and always will be your hometown theater with the personal touch," says Sanders. "We’re casual. But it takes a lot of work." By work, Sanders means money, and a significant amount of funding for the theater comes from its members (basic membership $40; $65 couple).
All I know is that, settled into the darkness, with my husband on one side, my son on the other, my mouth full of biscotti, and an adorable British boy on the screen, my heartstrings were being tugged in all the right places. I was definitely going to get my good cry. Alex Etel, who plays the little boy, is a wide-eyed, freckle-faced scene-stealer, who is visited throughout the film by the saints he is studying in school. He asks each, "What was your miracle?" At the end of the film, he goes back to the train tracks, where he sees his mother. He sits down on a log with her and they have a lovely mother-son chat about this and that, no different than any real life day. She tells him that she is OK, that he shouldn’t worry, and that she is looking after him from heaven. Then he looks at her and says, with that lilting musical accent, "What was your miracle?" She simply says, "You."
Pow. The geyser erupts. The lights come up and there I am, tears streaming down my cheeks. God, I am so predictable. My husband and son roll their eyes and exchange that look that says, "There she goes again." My son rubs my back, as if I have just witnessed a car accident or something. "It’s OK, Mom. It’s just a movie." But to me it isn’t just a movie. It’s a reminder of everything I hold dear in this life. My good marriage, my wonderful child, my health – things most of us take for granted but could be taken away at any moment. But after a good cry in the dark I feel better, a little soggy but renewed. I highly recommend it.
County Theater, 20 East State Street, Doylestown, 215-345-6789, www.CountyTheater.org.
More in Doylestown
Here are a few other little discoveries we made walking around Doylestown’s historic district that will help round out your afternoon or evening in town. Hint: Get on the mailing list for County Theater’s "Previews" newsletter, which contains an excellent map. Also visit www.discoverdoylestown.com.
The Paper Unicorn (pictured at right), Main & State streets, 215-345-8655. Gift items and paper goods, bath and body, and Godiva Chocolates displayed on charming old apothecary shelves.
Cyborg 1 Comic Books, 5 South Main Street, 215-348-1451. A little slice of heaven for comic book lovers.
Circles, 5 South Main Street. 215-340-9395. Children’s clothing, gifts, and bedding, infant to 4T.
Lilies of the Field, 1 South Main Street, 215-348-8355. Boutique, beads, shoes.
County Linen Interiors, 22-28 South Main Street, 215-348-5689, www.coutylinen.com. Fabric and bedding.
Lily’s Gourmet, corner of Court and Main. Massive sandwiches.
Maxwell’s Restaurant and Victorian Pub, 37 North Main Street, 215-348-1027. Varied cuisine suitable for businesspeople, family, and friends. Kids menu.
Chambers 19 Bistro and Bar, 19 North Main Street. 215-34-1940. Menu includes fresh strawberry salad, lobster ravioli, grilled boneless breast of duck with sundried wild cherries; one-alarm chili; crabcake sandwich, and fish and chips. Weekends: live entertainment and no cover.
Paganini’s Trattoria, 81 W. State Street. 215-348-5922. Italian cuisine in a contemporary European setting. Fresh pasta, wine, homemade desssers. Enjoy cocktails by the fountain across the street at Pags Cocktail & Wine Bar.
Mesquito Grille, 128 West State Street, 215-230-7427. Beer bar (three fridges full and about 20 tap lines), patio dining, BBQ and southwestern cuisine, frozen margaritas.
The Night Kitchen, 45 East State Street. 215-348-9775, www.NightKitchenBakery.com. A charming bakery similar to the famed Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street in New York. Lemon bars, cupcakes (mocha with mocha or buttercream, yellow with lemon curd, and carrot cake), cheesecake, tarts and pies, cinnamon buns, scones.
And on your way out of town, stop by Artefact, three miles outside of town at the corner of Old York Road and Edison-Furlong Road. 215-974-8790, www.artefactantiques.com. An 18th century stone barn and formal gardens filled with architectural salvage and artifacts, from wrought iron gates and carved mantelpieces to beveled windows and doors.