One-Screen Wonder: What’s Inside the Smallest Theater in Central New York?

Without the frills of big chain mega-movie-plexes, the Manlius Art Cinema attracts a loyal audience of independent cinema enthusiasts looking for one simple thing: a good movie.

Words by Danielle Roth

Nat Tobin, a white-haired gentleman and owner of the Manlius Art Cinema, moves away from the ticket booth that sits by the entrance and briskly walks into the theater, striding down the 100-foot center aisle. His brown trousers swish to the quick beat of his clip until he arrives and stops at the third row of the 200-seat theater at exactly 2 p.m. “Thanks for being our guests this afternoon,” he announces to the audience members. After brief applause following his four-minute speech describing why this British drama was nominated for an Academy Award, the audience sunk into the battered blue, high-school auditorium-esque seats to watch 45 Years. The audience, mostly older couples and some singles, reflect many elements of the story unfolding on screen: a thought-provoking analysis of an older woman’s failing marriage. On February 13th, the eighth coldest day on record in Syracuse for 2016, about 20 dedicated patrons rolled in to watch 45 Years.

The Manlius Art Cinema provides an alternative to the modern, mega movieplex experience. Like its owner, the building, and many of its patrons, it’s a bit bedraggled. Much of the floor beneath the seats lack carpet, exposing a cement floor, and at the front of the theater, a lone Shop Vac in the corner attests to occasional water issues. Cobwebs cover the stage beneath the screen, and the tiny, one-toilet-per-gender bathrooms feel like something out of a retiree’s cabin in the woods. But, for Tobin, this puts the focus where it belongs: on cinema. Despite its frayed edges, the one-screen operation possesses the charm befitting a nearly 100-year-old theater: wood-paneled candy counter (complete with popcorn machine), an antique machine that spits out tickets, a cork board where Tobin displays reviews and commentary on the movies in his lineup, and an owner loyal to his audience with an encyclopedic knowledge and love of film. He uses his pre-movie soliloquy, the theater’s website, and his weekly emails to patrons to share some of that knowledge. In fact, Tobin and his hard-to-find-elsewhere lineup are what keep patrons and independent film junkies coming to this theater.

The intimacy of the facility and the films keep Alex Epsilanty of Cazenovia returning once a month to watch a film. “If they showed the same movie at the DeWitt, whatever they call that theater, I wouldn’t go,” Epsilanty says. Unlike mega-theaters such as the Regal Cinemas Shoppingtown Mall (14 movies shown at one time) or Regal Cinemas Destiny USA (19 movies shown at one time), the Manlius Art Cinema shows one movie for about five weeks. When the audience gets bored, Tobin will handpick another movie based on input from his movie distributor and from his understanding of the audience’s preferences. British movies normally do well. “I think Americans are captivated by royalty,” he says. Michael Moore documentaries, foreign films, award-nominated films, and critically acclaimed American films normally fill seats.

His audience can be younger depending on the film, but don’t expect any superhero blockbuster’s to come through. The closest thing to a blockbuster that Tobin showed was Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. He showed this in the Westcott Theater, which he owned from 1997 to 2007, now a live-music venue. Patrons stood in a line around the block for a ticket. But, generally speaking, Moore is the documentary exception. “There are other films that could do better, but this is a business after all,” he said. “We aren’t a nonprofit unfort—,” he paused, continuing, “Well, fortunately or unfortunately.” The Manlius Art Cinema typically attracts an often small but dedicated legion of patrons. Tobin knows customers who come 50 miles from Oswego or 40 miles from Hamilton to visit Tobin’s cinema. Epsilanty and her friend, Lauren Spring, of Fayetteville, have been attending the theater separately for about 25 years, which is when Tobin took over the theater’s operation. “It’s nice, small town, local,” Spring says. “Not the big mall scene.”