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Avon Cinema marks 80th birthday

February 14,2018 00:25

PROVIDENCE. R.I. — There is a time capsule smack in the middle of the constantly changing parade of coffee shops, restaurants, shoe stores, ice cream shops, gift stores, and the looming presence of Brown University on Thayer Street. It's the Avon ...


It's a time capsule smack in the middle of the constantly changing parade of coffee shops, restaurants, shoe stores, ice cream shops, gift stores, and the looming presence of Brown University on Thayer Street.
Andy Smith Journal Arts Writer asmith651
PROVIDENCE. R.I. — There is a time capsule smack in the middle of the constantly changing parade of coffee shops, restaurants, shoe stores, ice cream shops, gift stores, and the looming presence of Brown University on Thayer Street.  It's the Avon Cinema, a proud visitor from 1938, which celebrates its 80th birthday on Feb. 14.
In an ad that ran in The Providence Journal on Feb. 14, 1938, The Avon proclaimed it would be devoted "to the showing of unusual pictures," with a special preview that evening and a gala opening to the public on the afternoon of Feb. 15. Harry Bauer was starring in "Life and Loves of Beethoven."  Tickets were 25 cents before 2 p.m., rising to 40 cents in the afternoon and an extravagant 50 cents after 5:30 p.m.
Prices have certainly gone up since then, but Richard Dulgarian, who owns the theater with his brother Kenneth Dulgarian, said he wants to keep the Avon experience as close to 1938 he can.
"I try to keep the experience as close to how our grandparents saw movies as possible. If it didn't belong here in 1938, I try to keep it out. I don't even like to have a Phillips head screw showing if they weren't used in the theater back then. Who notices these things besides me? I don't know. Someone notices," he said.
Dulgarian, 64, said the Avon still uses real butter in its popcorn, instead of artificial flavoring, because it tastes better.  It still uses an old-fashioned concession jingle to sell snacks ("Let's all go to the lobby/ Let's all go to the lobby").  It doesn't run ads before its movies, and limits the previews to 10 minutes.
The Avon was built around 1915, when it had a very brief run as The Toy Theater.  For the next two decades or so it may have been used as a garage, until the Dulgarians' grandfather, Krikor, re-opened it as a theater in 1938.  It's been in the Dulgarian family ever since.  Richard Dulgarian said he wasn't allowed to hang out in the theater as a child, since the Avon was showing European fare considered too racy for impressionable young eyes.
It's true there have been some changes to The Avon since Richard Dulgarian began managing the theater on a day-to-day basis in the 1970s.  He added the heavy maroon curtain that covers the screen.  In the '80s, the Dulgarians had a ceiling removed in the lobby to reveal the original elegant arched ceiling.
They threw a party in 1988 to celebrate the renovation, complete with live music, limousines, searchlights, red carpet and tuxedoed ushers. "Avon goes Hollywood at gala reopening" read The Providence Journal headline.
But maybe the biggest change at The Avon was the installation of a digital projector in 2014, which Richard Dulgarian estimated cost $80,000.  The Dulgarians didn't have much choice, because Hollywood stopped making movies on heavy reels of 35-mm film.  Digital projectors don't need projectionists, and Dulgarian said he misses talking to them, since the Avon's projectionists were often film buffs or would-be filmmakers.
Digital projectors or not, a 486-seat single screen theater such as The Avon is an anomaly in an era of multi-screen complexes and streaming movies that can be seen on computers, tablets or phones.
"We're showing films the way they were meant to be shown, the way they used to be shown," said Dulgarian. "We have to live and die on whatever we are showing that week. I can't count on the movie showing in Auditorium 18 to help pay for what's showing in Auditorium 2." 
The films showing at The Avon are booked by George Mansour, based in Cambridge.  Mansour, 83, said he's been associated with the Avon for about 40 years.  He said The Avon will never be the place to see blockbusters like "Black Panther" or the upcoming Han Solo movie.  But it has shown recent Oscar contenders such as "Call Me By Your Name" and "The Shape of Water."
How has the Avon managed to survive for so long in a rapidly changing media world? Mansour ticked off a few reasons.
One is its location, close to Brown University and RISD.  Another is that the Dulgarians own the real estate, so the theater is not at the whim of landlords and developers.  A third is the Dulgarians themselves, particularly Richard. "He is terribly devoted to that movie house," Mansour said.
"I love the business," Dulgarian said. "People are happy to come here, as opposed to, say, the DMV. And we have great customers, knowledgeable, intelligent, articulate.... I have the best job in the world."
—asmith@providencejournal.com
(401) 277-7485
On Twitter: @asmith651

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