New Peter B. Lewis Theater in Uptown is Date-Night Destination
A photo of an empty movie theater appears on the July bulletin of the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. Typed across the photo is -30-, which old-time newspaper reporters used to tap out on their Smith Coronas to signal a story’s end.
And -30- is how John Ewing, co-founder and director of the Cinematheque, marked the end of an era for the alternative theater. On July 30, the Cinematheque closed out its 29 year run in Aitken Auditorium on East Boulevard with a screening of “The Last Picture Show” – a movie chosen in a vote by patrons.
Two days later, Ewing launched his internationally celebrated theater into the 21st century with an opening night party in the Peter B. Lewis Theater, in CIA’s new George Gund Building, which is adjoined to its Joseph McCullough Center for the Visual Arts on Euclid Ave. Casablanca marked the first regular film in the new location, with August 7 showings in both 35mm and digital versions.
The new place is just part of the renovation and expansion of CIA in University Circle’s Uptown neighborhood.
Like the rest of the complex, the theater is being hailed for its spatial beauty and its technological improvements. “I think it’s a very handsome theater,” said Ewing. “Everybody who sees it is struck by what an attractive space it is.”
It also has a whopping new surround-sound system and great acoustics, plus capabilities for screening movies both digitally and on film.
CIA brought in the acclaimed Boston Light & Sound early to plot the installation of projection and audio equipment. The specialty company thrives on solving the challenges unique to each project, said CEO Chapin Cutler. In this case, that meant designing a way for six projectors to line up as closely as possible to the imaginary line that runs from the center of the booth to the center of the screen to avoid “keystoning” of the image.
Cutler’s team built vertical spaces for two 35mm reel-to-reel film projectors, a 4K digital projector, an HD projector (for lecture presentations) and two 16mm projectors. The setup turned out to be a feat of design. “There is no machine that is further off center than a foot and half,” he said.
The Cinematheque now has the flexibility to screen virtually anything really well. The result for audiences will be “the best looking and the best sounding show that anyone has ever seen,” Cutler said.
He credited CIA for insisting that the new facility meet or exceed the highest industry standards. “The mission of this facility with the Cleveland Institute of Art was to do it the way it should be done,” Cutler said.
Oh, and the 300 seats are an upgrade from the wooden models with collapsible desktops at Aitken. At best, those old seats served as a quaint reminder of Aitken’s lecture-hall pedigree and reminded filmgoers they were in an institution of higher learning. At worst, they tested one’s devotion to cinema.
“If everybody who tells me they don’t come to Cinematheque because of the seats comes to the new place, we’ll be golden,” Ewing quipped.
An affable and enthusiastic ambassador for the art, Ewing has plenty of affection for the old place, too. He came across Aitken Auditorium in the mid-’80s, when he was scouting sites for the non-profit theater on behalf of founding partner, the late George Gund III. Ewing liked Aitken and the space and its context. “I loved that it was part of the Cleveland Institute of Art,” he said. “I think film is an art, and it’s a visual art.”
Then CIA president Joseph McCullough had some doubts about whether it could succeed. Suburbanites might be too wary of University Circle at night to come down for films, he thought. Ewing tested the waters with a screening of the indie film “Vortex” in 1984. Hundreds turned out, and by August 1986, the Cinematheque was up and running at Aitken.
Over the following decades, the Cinematheque presented thousands of feature films – an estimated 5,000 in the last 20 years alone, Ewing said. Supported in part by the county cigarette tax administered by Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, the Cinematheque has won accolades internationally and achieved beloved-institution status among the locals.
And Ewing would love it if the new digs pique interest among a broader audience.
Its location in hip Uptown — surrounded by places to stroll for food and drink before and after shows — positions the Cinematheque as a great date-night experience. But Ewing is also clear about the mission. With repertoire ranging from the silent era to experimental film to crowd favorites, Cinematheque remains focused on creating access to the most interesting possible film experiences.
He respects his audience and knows how they differ from both the multiplex moviegoer and the throngs that make the Cleveland International Film Festival an annual success.
“People say, ‘Let’s go down to the film festival,’ and in many cases they don’t even know what they’re going to see. They just want to be part of the event,” Ewing said. “When people go to the Cedar Lee (in Cleveland Heights) or the Cinematheque, generally they’re going to see a particular movie.”
The Cinematheque will always be more specialized, he said. The goal is not to duplicate the mall-theater experience.
“We really do show films that are truly exceptional. And now we can show both film and digital in a truly exceptional way. This is why we’re based at an institute of art and not a shopping mall. We’re showing art films in the truest sense.”
For more information about the Cinematheque, including the film schedule and directions, go to cia.edu/cinematheque.
Karen Sandstrom is a writer, illustrator and CIA graduate. She works in marketing at Cuyahoga Community College.