Wilton Town Hall Theatre celebrates 100 years of movies

Last modified: 12/12/2012 6:37:35 PM
Walking into the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, you know immediately it is no ordinary movie theater. As you settle into your seat, instead of the usual advertisements on the screen and elevator music over the speakers, a red velvet curtain covers a stage and a live jazz duo at the front of the house provides some ambiance.

It’s all about presentation, said Dennis Markaverich of Wilton in an interview at the theater Monday. Not every film gets the star treatment, but for those special few Markaverich puts in a few extra touches for the audience, such as sweeping the velvet curtains open and closed between previews to really create a movie going experience people can’t get at large theater chains.

“It’s called dressing up,” said Markaverich, who has owned the theater since 1973. “You don’t do it for every film. You wouldn’t do it for ‘Transformers 4.’ You do it for the special films, where it fits. It’s part of the ambiance it creates. It brings back yesteryear. It’s things like that I revel in. It’s those things that set us apart.”

It’s an old-fashioned way of thinking, but Wilton Town Hall Theatre is an old-fashioned kind of theater. As its name implies, Markaverich leases half of the historic Town Hall building for the theater. That side of the building has been housing the town’s entertainment since 1886. It started, not as a movie theater, but as a vaudeville stage. The stage that now boasts the theater’s big house screen was once home to variety acts and the theater’s other screen, known as the “Screening Room,” was converted from the actor’s dressing room.

As film came onto the scene, replacing vaudeville as an entertainment source, the building kept up with the times, converting in 1912 to a silent movie house.

Now, 100 years after the building showed its first movie, the Markaverich, still keeps to the spirit that gave birth to it. The theater’s bread and butter is, of course, the evening showings of current releases. Even those have a more old-fashioned flair, projected as they are from 35-millimeter film in an increasingly digital industry. Markaverich said that even if he is forced to purchase a digital projector to accommodate releases that have abandoned 35-millimeter, he’ll never switch over entirely, he’ll always get releases in 35-millimeter whenever he can.

But Markaverich’s true passion is reserved for a different service the theater offers. Every month, the theater offers up a silent movie shown just as they were originally meant to be with a live piano player providing the soundtrack. And every weekend, the theater has a classic film on its screen. These aren’t the movies he makes money on, said Markaverich, but they are the movies that make owning a theater worthwhile.

Markaverich’s life has always revolved around movies. As a teenager growing up in Wilton, he would drive himself to Nashua to see great films. Like today’s youth, most teenagers of that era weren’t interested in seeing the films that would become known for greatness, he noted. Markaverich, though, could find himself absorbed in what would become some of the great classics. It’s a feeling he tries to emulate now that he owns his own theater.

Markaverich doesn’t make any profit from his classic and silent film series — admission is free, although donations are accepted. He does it because those are the films that touch people the most.

Many of those come in monthly to view the silent films are elderly, he said, and the movies can stir amazing memories and evoke great feeling in the viewers. He recalled during a viewing of a Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers film, when an elderly woman whose husband had recently passed away became overwhelmed and told Markaverich that the film was the first one she had ever seen with her husband back in 1934.

On another occasion, during a screening of a World War II Navy film, “Destination Tokyo,” a group of veterans wearing seamen’s hats came in, and Markaverich watched one man in the back of the theater begin to cry at the memories the film brought back. Markaverich himself became so overcome watching him watch the movie that he began to cry himself.

“It hit me so hard to see him so touched. It just hit me,” Markaverich said. “And it was wonderful. Those kind of experiences are what makes this for me. As long as I can have my Saturday classics, I don’t care about anything else.”

Despite the challenges of providing adequate street parking for the theater and an increasing trend for current releases to make digital prints rather than Markaverich’s preferred 35-millimeter, seeing great films affect his audience are the moments he stays in business for, he said. Films are meant to evoke emotion from their viewers, and Markaverich’s main goal is to create an atmosphere conducive to that.

It’s a aura his audience, many of whom are regulars, respond to.

“I love that it’s old and it’s small, that it’s special and unique,” said Amy Gibbons of Greenfield, who came to the theater on Monday to see “Anna Karenina.” “I love that you can get popcorn for $1.50. I come to every screening.”

Andrew Koutroubas, another regular, grew up in Lyndeborough and even though he now lives in Milford he returns to Wilton regularly for the movie theater.

“It’s a unique place, the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. This is the only place I come for movies. I don’t want to support big chain theaters when I know a place like the Wilton Theatre exists. Just the fact he uses 35-millimeter makes me want to come see these movies, rather than go to some place like Cinemagic,” said Koutroubas on Monday. “There’s a skill and an art to the way [Markaverich] does things, as opposed to a digital projector, where you just push a button.”

The theater is currently showing “Anna Karenina” and “Lincoln.” Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for children and seniors, and free for active military. For showtimes and more information about the theater, visit www.townhalltheatre.com.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.


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