Inexperienced entrepreneurship is eternal; there will always be newbies. Why, for example, just because you’ve never run a restaurant, should you hesitate if you’re a good home cook? As for us, we just loved going to the movies.
A friend recently sent me a clip about a theater in Baltimore whose story of redemption by first-timers seems remarkably familiar, with some important differences which may boost its chances of survival. A 617-seat neighborhood theater, the Art Deco streamlined (cream with chrome, black edging and glass brick) Pikes Theatre, in Pikesville, Maryland, opened in 1938 and operated as a movie theater until 1984. A patchy period, during which it functioned as a catering hall or nothing at all, was followed by a brief period as a cinema. Then, roughly a year ago, along came Anthony Fykes and Robert Wright, two buddies, who took over as operators, creating Next Act Cinemas. Beyond their newbie status, what makes the Next Act story compelling in another way is that Fykes and Wright are African American theater operators, a rare thing indeed.
While Next Act has not missed an opportunity to screen Harriet, a recent film on the life of Harriet Tubman (born in Maryland), and will soon screen The Banker, Fykes points out, “We just want to show good movies...” Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, for example.
How did it all begin? These guys were friends at work who hung out after hours in Wright‘s “man cave,” with a big screen and surround sound. So it was that the entrepreneurship bug bit them.
They couldn’t get backing from a bank, which rang some bells for me. Young, out of work, with several thousand vacant seats facing a single screen, we struck out with the banks too. It was the dawn of the multiplex era, a real challenge for single screen theaters of any kind. In the Netflix/streaming era, the new theater operators have their work cut out for them.
We had no money, so substituted sweat equity. We did have investors who were our partners, but the money ran out way too fast. Fykes and Wright apparently had some savings. Are their investors numerous, with deeper pockets? I hope so.
With a staff of 13, which includes one full-time employee, they’re hiring from the streets, and so did we.
“These are good kids,” Fykes notes, “...giving them jobs gets them off the street.”
Amen! Our staff was our greatest — perhaps our only — asset. Almost fifty years later, I know more than a few of these former teenagers, now in late middle age.
In 1976, children’s theater (the Paper Bag Players), Chaka Khan — before she was recognized, an on-stage concert by The Brooklyn Bridge, and some other lesser programming made us, briefly, a kind of community center. Robert and Anthony have hopes for jazz nights and Karaoke, the model these days, for a refurbished neighborhood or small town movie house. We were just a little ahead of our time, a disaster for a storefront business.
But here’s where the differences really show: they only have 43 seats in each of two auditoriums to fill. Good for them I say! Keep those books in the black, the way ours never were. They actually have hopes of turning a profit by 2021! I would have settled for paying ourselves.
The dollars these partners raised to refurbish their auditoriums went into creating the kind of twenty-first century viewing experience that offers chicken, crab cakes, wine and beer, along with traditional concession (popcorn and the like), along the lines of the Nite Hawk, and Alamo Drafthouse. Who’s providing those meals? Enviably, the diner next door, owned and operated by their cooperative landlord. Sweet!
Well, our concession stand was almost a restaurant, featuring kosher hotdogs on hand-made Italian rolls, the first ever Haagen-Dazs ice cream (the year it appeared in the world with its pseudo-Scandinavian name), and popcorn with real clarified butter. We had the highest food stand per capita in the five boroughs of NYC back in the day; it just couldn’t support the movies. Late nights cleaning up, we joked about letting the screen go dark and just serving food. As for the guy who owned our theater building, suffice to say “cooperative” plus “landlord” comprised, for us a classic oxymoron.
I wish these guys the best of luck — a lot more than we had. But no matter how Next Act turns out, I guarantee them they’ll always have amazing stories to tell.
1. For reasons of necessity, black-owned theaters back when, say, Pikes Theatre opened, were far more common than they are now. The dividing line is 1964, the year congress passed the Civil Rights Act which guaranteed desegregation in public places, including theaters. With mixed audiences, African American ownership tanked and has yet to return with sufficient numbers. It’s ironic that Jim Crow actually reinforced black business ownership.
2. Credit is due to The Baltimore Sun and author Mary Carole McCauley.