Keeping a Small-Town Movie House Alive
BU husband and wife alums restart the projector at Maynard, Mass., institution
Les Gordon and Dafna Krouk-Gordon love going to the movies.
His favorite is Mel Brooks’ wild comedy The Producers, followed by The Usual Suspects. She names The Shawshank Redemption and the original The Day of the Jackal. Ask for a movie they didn’t like and their tastes align—they still remember walking out of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
But remember, they love going to the movies. For almost all of their half-century together, even when they were raising their two daughters, they made a habit of seeing a movie in a theater 25 to 50 times a year, visiting screens all over Boston and its suburbs.
“Neither of us have ever felt that watching a movie on a screen at home is any way to watch a movie,” Dafna says, as Les nods emphatically.
“It’s our primary social activity,” he says. “A movie and dinner.”
“We usually go with other people so I can discuss it,” she says. “I like to discuss it afterward. He’s just like, ‘I saw it. That’s it. Done.’” He smiles.
Now the Lincoln, Mass., couple have taken their affection for the cinematic experience one step further. A year ago they bought the Fine Arts Theatre Place in Maynard, Mass., a three-screen movie house in a former Ford showroom in the small town on the Assabet River, just inside I-495. The venue, which has been in operation since the 1940s, has an art deco feel, inside and out, mixed with a bit of Happy Days.
After fixing the roof and making a few other improvements inside, they officially reopened on May 20 with Downton Abbey: A New Era. They are trying to keep the three theaters busy—capacity 320, 125, and 65—as well as the Creamery, the ice cream parlor under the same roof, a longtime community favorite.
“We’re not doing this to make money for our retirement,” says Gordon (CAS’69, GRS’76). “It’s really a hobby. We love movies and we love ice cream, so it’s a perfect combination.
“In all the years you’ve worked, how often have you had a chance to do something where people laugh and they smile and they feel happy and thank you for the opportunity to come in and use the facility?” he asks. “That doesn’t happen very often. It never happened when I was asking people for money.”
Gordon is referring to his work as a fundraiser. He got his undergrad degree at BU, a master’s from Harvard, and a PhD from BU in American political history. He ended up working in the development office at BU, which, after a couple of interim stops, led to a 35-year career in direct-mail fundraising for clients including Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital. He retired in 2014.
Krouk-Gordon, a Wheelock graduate, is still hard at work as the president of Toward Independent Living and Learning, Inc. (TILL), a nonprofit serving people with physical and intellectual disabilities or on the autism spectrum. She founded TILL some 40 years ago out of her frustration working in government and for other organizations serving the same clientele. TILL has multiple locations and programs, and trains clients in two commercial kitchens that deliver nearly a million school lunches every year.
The couple had been kicking around the idea of buying a theater for some time, and had looked into the possibility of buying theaters in West Newton or Lexington. When the last owner of the Maynard venue died unexpectedly in 2021, COVID was still keeping audiences at home, and the future of the theater was in doubt. The two had been seeing movies there for a few years, renting it for private screenings when the pandemic ended regular shows.
“You could come in and for $100 to $125 see a first-run movie with three or four of your friends. We did that a few times,” Gordon says. For New Year’s Eve 2020, they brought a whole group, served champagne and cheese and crackers, and had a lovely time. When the Fine Arts went on the market, they took a closer look and finally decided to take the leap.
“The toughest thing about retirement is finding something meaningful, fun, and interesting to do,” Gordon says. “I was able to fill my time up with Zoom classes and bridge and men’s groups, but that’s not meaningful or exciting. This is fun!”
“I consider Maynard lucky to have a theater in town,” says Justine St. John, a member of the town’s Select Board. “It brings our community together and creates jobs and experiences for our youth. I have been privileged to watch it develop and grow over the years, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.”
It’s a tough time for movies. COVID. Streaming. TikTok. And everything Hollywood makes seems to be another addition to the Marvel Universe. Or multiverse, whatever. But Gordon and Krouk-Gordon are applying their combined bank of business, managerial, and marketing knowledge to make it a go.
Blockbusters in the big room. Family favorites in the middle. Arthouse gems in the smaller room. Reshuffle as needed. The two work with a booker who handles dozens of independent theaters, which gives them a better shot at the movies they want than they would have on their own.
“It’s still slow with attendance at our regular weekly screenings,” Gordon allows, although the new Top Gun did well for them. But of course that’s not all they’ve got in mind. “We are doing really well with special events and private screenings,” he says.
They recently hosted a realtor’s private screening of the climate change documentary 2040 for more than 150 guests. Filmmaker William McCann of Shirley, Mass., recently screened his new The Liberator there; the movie about Irish history was filmed in Central Massachusetts. Elder law attorneys will soon show a movie about the older LGBTQ+ community.
Other events include school outings and “lots of birthday parties,” Gordon says. They’re also looking at programs for local seniors groups, and Gordon is enthusiastic about trying live entertainment occasionally—a jazz band or an a cappella group, say—as there’s a little bit of a stage in front of the screen in the largest theater. And a medium is scheduled to appear close to Halloween.
They’ve also begun to involve TILL, employing the organization’s kitchens in Hyde Park and Nashua, N.H., to provide items like popcorn and the cookies for the Creamery’s ice cream sandwich. In the long run, having seen other theaters that employ people with disabilities, they hope to do more in that area, in line with TILL’s vocational education goals.
“My wife is an incredible businessperson,” Gordon says. “The reason we think we can do this is her strengths and my strengths are completely different. She is a great administrator. She knows how to run an organization and manage people, all these things I hate to do. I love to come up with marketing ideas and promotion ideas, I’m talking to community groups about fundraising ideas. I’m also picking the movies out.”
With six grandchildren and a place on the Vineyard, they don’t want to be at the theater every day, though, and have structured the operation so they don’t have to be.
“I did not want to be selling popcorn,” Krouk-Gordon says—and you can tell she’s not kidding.