When Sara Scully launched the ACME Screening Room in Lambertville nearly a decade ago, she ran into some discouragement from friends who asked, “Why are you doing this? Nobody goes to the movies anymore.”
Fortunately those friends were wrong. The ACME Screening Room is alive and thriving, and now it’s time for Scully’s second act — overseeing the relaunching of the Hopewell Theater, which opened in early September after an eight-month renovation, redesign, and fit out.
Last winter the lights went out on the Off-Broadstreet Theater (housed in the same historic building on Greenwood Avenue as the Hopewell Theater), and longtime patrons mourned its loss.
Now the Hopewell Theater has a new incarnation as a showcase for music, film, the performing arts, educational presentations, and more.
Just in the last six weeks or so, the venue has presented music by guitarist/composer Kaki King, neo-folkster Antje Duvekot, and Gypsy jazz band the Bailsmen. Next up is alt-country blues singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah, performing Thursday, October 26.
The film programming at the Hopewell Theater promises to be just as inventive. There will be an emphasis on area and regional filmmakers, as well as artistic indie works that are “a little out of the way of the bigger arthouse theaters,” Scully says.
The Hopewell Theater’s fresh look includes a new lobby, box office, concession stand, prep kitchen, as well as a state-of-the-art cinema system with surround sound and an expanded theater seating area.
The reimagined space is largely thanks to the production team of Scully and her business partner Mitchel Skolnick of Bluestone Farms of Hopewell, with its focus on breeding, racing, and marketing of Standardbreds. Scully, who serves as the theater’s executive director, oversaw the fit-out and interior decor of the space.
The New Hope resident founded and leads ScullyOne Productions, creating multimedia projects for non-profit clients. She has been a producer and social entrepreneur for nearly two decades, with a background in video/film, interactive media production, public relations, and special events.
“My founding of the ACME Screening Room and Hopewell Theater came from my love for film and contemporary arts spaces in New York City, where I lived for many years before moving back to this area,” Scully says. “There are so many multimedia spaces in NYC — places like Symphony Space, the 92nd Street Y — all these robust spaces where they have talks, film, concerts, etc. I was inspired by those places, and starting the ACME and Hopewell theaters came from that.”
“The vision behind this is to create a warm and welcoming venue, with top-notch independent cultural experiences, where you can sit around with your friends and enjoy light food,” she says. “In the digital age you’re competing with people who are insulated in their homes or watching a film or concert on their phones.”
Scully muses that home theaters are so cozy, and the iPad and its ilk are so convenient, that if you want people to leave their homes and watch a movie or hear a concert, you have to give them a little something more.
“It can’t just be, ‘come see a beautiful film on a big screen,’” Scully says. “We wanted to give people a venue where they have an extraordinary experience, or else they’ll just watch a film or concert on their iPad.”
The venue is casually elegant in design, with an interior that blends urban chic and classic country. The Hopewell Theater can handle more than 170 patrons and offers flexible seating options, from banquette table seating to traditional fixed theater seats, as well as a balcony overlooking the stage.
Along with favorite movie-watching foods like popcorn and candy, the Hopewell Theater offers gourmet small plates and desserts at its concession stand.
The custom menu includes fare from a variety of local restaurants, such as the Bent Spoon, Brick Farm Market, and Peasant Grill, and food can be enjoyed during the show.
In addition to the concession stand, the theater will offer a “Supper Club” from time to time, where full dinners are served by wait staff at the tables inside. (Check the dine-in schedule on the theater’s home page for a full list of upcoming Supper Club events.)
There is also a new, state-of-the-art digital audio system, which can support a range of events, from sound effects for theatrical presentations to live sound reinforcement for musical acts. There are speakers in the lobby, the second-floor lounge, and even the bathrooms.
Enthused by the space’s acoustics, intimacy, and availability of the talent in the region, Scully says, “We’re dedicated to having emerging, up-and-coming talents, the types of musicians you might hear on WXPN, and in all genres. We’re pleased to be able to give them a space to perform.”
Looking into November, the venue will welcome weekly music performances by such talents as Klezmer goddesses the Isle of Klezbos (Thursday, November 2), Cajun/Creole musicians the Bunkhouse Boys (Friday, November 10), and literary singer-songwriters such as Dan Bern (Thursday, November 16), to name just a few.
The Hopewell Theater’s cinematic schedule runs the gamut from indie and foreign movies, some with guest appearances by the directors, to multimedia presentations.
Early in October the theater screened “Sex and Broadcasting,” a new film about New Jersey’s no-holds-barred public radio station WFMU. Station manager Ken Freedman was on hand for a discussion and Q&A.
On Saturday, October 21, David Scott Kessler’s acclaimed documentary “The Pine Barrens” will be screened with music performed live by the Ruins of Friendship Orchestra, whose members composed the score.
Coming up Saturday, November 4, the theater will present “Discovery and Adoption: the Hanji Box,” directed by Nora Jacobsen, which tells the story of a difficult relationship between a mother and her adopted teen daughter. After the film stay for a discussion with director Jacobson as well as Joni S. Mantell, a veteran psychotherapist specializing in adoption and infertility.
“I’ve had a lot of thoughts about programming and curating for this space, and there are a lot of things that go into it,” says Scully, a filmmaker herself with a good sense of what is interesting and pertinent in current indie cinema. “You want a mix of priorities, you want emerging artists and forward thinking (subject matter), but also it’s about what’s available.”
“We want to be a first-run indie film house, although not screening all the ‘mini majors’ that you can see at the many great arthouse theaters in the area,” Scully says. “We want to develop a film program that features work you might have to go into NYC to see otherwise, as well as being dedicated to showing works by regional and local filmmakers.”
For talented folks in the area who want to reach out to the Hopewell Theater with questions about possible performances, the venue welcomes suggestions.
“They can submit an idea through our website, just by clicking ‘contact’ to tell us about their band, their film, anything we might consider to be part of the programming,” Scully says. “We also offer the space to rent for events, to rehearse, or to put on a show.
Raised in New Hope, Scully says her father was a physician, and her mother was a pilot for private clients and gave flying lessons.
“New Hope was a wonderful place to grow up,” Scully says. “I was always interested in the arts, and in school at one point I interned at the Bucks County Playhouse. Although I have to say that I am not a theater person. I have always been more interested in video and film.”
Scully majored in American studies at Bard College, graduating in 1992. She received a merit scholarship and graduate teaching fellowship from Tufts University, earning a master’s degree in history in 1998.
From 2009 to 2015 Scully was an adjunct professor at the College of New Jersey’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department, teaching courses on gender media and technology.
Prior to founding the Hopewell Theater, Scully combined her passion for media and education by founding, producing, and directing two successful film programs, Artist Visions Festival and, as mentioned, the ACME Screening Room.
Before that Scully had worked in documentary film production, with media production credits that include educational video projects for Scholastic Publishing, “New Visions for Public Schools,” as well as creating documentary films for cable and HBO.
She also produced her own documentary in development with HBO, titled “You Again: A Human Cloning Love Story.” Scully’s documentary short, “Public Weapon,” was narrated by activist and former Black Panther member Kathleen Cleaver and premiered at the Black Panther Film Festival.
As far the history of the Hopewell Theater goes, there has been an arts and community center on Greenwood Street for about 130 years, beginning from around 1880, when Columbia Hall stood on the same grounds as the theater. It served as a community center with a lyceum style theater, hosting lectures, performers, and films, as well as providing space for community meetings and elections.
In the late 1930s Colombia Hall was demolished and the safer, more modern Colonial Theater rose from its ashes and for about a decade dedicated itself strictly to showing movies. In the 1960s and through 1984 the building was owned by George Gallup, CEO of the Gallup polling group, which utilized the space for public polling events.
It was Gallup who leased, then sold the building to Bob and Julie Thick, who for 30 years were the driving force behind the Off-Broadstreet Theater, a beloved dessert theater featuring live theater and children’s shows.
Just a couple of years ago, after purchasing the building from the Thicks, current owners Jon McConaughy, Liza Moorehouse, and Skolnick gave the theater a much needed renovation.
Knowing about her background and commitment to the arts in the community, as well as her success with the ACME Screening Room, the owners reached out to Scully to do a business plan — essentially, to create a contemporary cultural experience.
“The investors gave me the opportunity — they came to me and asked, ‘now we own the place, what do you think we should do?’” Scully says.
“After the main renovation, when they put a new roof on and installed a new HVAC system, etc., it was bare bones, so then I headed up the fit out of the theater,” she continues. “Then I did the lobby, chose the furniture, the interior design, all to make it reflect the vision and the business plan.”
Scully has special thanks for her business partner Skolnick. “He’s the one who initially reached out to me, and he’s really helped make this re-launch possible.”
“But we’re indebted to all of them (the owners), as this building could have been a lot of things, but they decided to let it be a place for the arts,” Scully says. “In fact, that was the first phase of the relaunch, knowing that they were committed to a company that would keep it as an arts space. It could have been turned into a hotel, it could have been a Gap store or a Starbucks, or maybe even taken down completely,” she says.
By late September Scully was already fired up by the response to the new Hopewell Theater.
“We’ve only been open one week, but we’ve had good-sized audiences,” she says.
“It’s one thing to plan, to pick out furniture, to decide where everything goes, but until you have people in the building and see that they enjoy it, you don’t really know,” Scully adds. “I could see that the people were comfortable moving around, sitting and being in the space, enjoying themselves in the way we envisioned.”
“It’s been about how to create a contemporary place, a space where people can have this extraordinary experience. That was the overall vision — getting people to come together,” Scully says. “But it’s also about preserving community, so it’s a little fight against digitization and isolation.”
Hopewell Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Future concerts include: Amythyst Kiah, Thursday, October 26; Isle of Klezbos, Thursday, November 2; Bunkhouse Boys, Friday, November 10; Dan Bern, Thursday, November 16. Upcoming films include David Scott Kessler’s The Pine Barrens,” with music performed live by The Ruins of Friendship Orchestra, Saturday, October 21, and “Discovery and Adoption: the Hanji Box,” Saturday, November 4. 609-466-1964 or www.hopewelltheater.com.