An Uncertain Future For the Troubled Community Theatre in Fairfield

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Last weekend downtown Fairfield held a curious sight: the Community Theatre was dark. The marquee was still lit up, but it was free of movie titles. The doors were locked. The lights inside were off. The concession stand was cleaned out. And when you tried calling the theater, you got a message that said the phones had been disconnected. A week later and no one can quite figure out what is going on.

David Pollack from the Pollack Westfair Association, the real estate group that owns the Community Theatre, refused to comment on if and when the theater would reopen. When I peppered him with questions, he clammed up. Would the theater reopen? Would he make some kind of announcement soon? Nothing. He did confirm that, the way that zoning laws are configured, the space can only operate as a theater of some kind (it can't for instance, become an Old Navy next week).

The Community Theatre opened in 1920 as a single-screen movie house in downtown Fairfield. In 1979, two years after audiences for Star Wars snaked through the center of town, the building was split down the middle and a second screen was opened and the live show component of the theater was shuttered. (For some reason, the positioning of the seats were never adjusted, so they were always slightly askew — both audiences directed toward a larger screen that wasn't there.) In the late 1990s and up until 2001 the Loews theater chain operated the Community as a stately, well-kept art house theater.

In 2001 real estate investor Leo Redgate reopened the theater as a nonprofit operation, later dubbing it the Community Theatre Foundation and announcing a slew of programs (the most recent being the Community Film Club, which you bought into yearly and awarded you certain benefits) and festivals. It was awarded money from the town and state, received donations from townspeople and had corporate partners in Newman's Own, Film Movement, Fairfield University's Media Center, and Film Movement, as well as local business partners like Media Wave Video.

And then … not much happened. In the decade since the theater opened, there have been a negligible amount of special events, the most special being the 2002 regional premiere of future "Inglourious Basterd" Eli Roth's Cabin Fever. Most of the events that took place at the theater were hosted by outside organizations, like the Westport Student Film Festival, that just rented the space.

The theater limped along, occasionally mixing up their schedule with revival runs of things like Gone with the Wind (run, not from a 35mm print, but off a rented DVD), while the building deteriorated, badly in need of maintenance and general upkeep. Last summer Redgate publicly sought donations, sending a letter to local papers and websites, trading not on what the theater had accomplished, but asking if sympathetic townspeople could "imagine the center of Fairfield without the historic Community Theatre."

Afterward, things got really sticky. This summer it was revealed that the theater had had its tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS because they hadn't filed the annual "information return of notice" for the past three years. It seems Redgate should have known about the revocation before he sent out his letter pleading for money. All of the generous donations received would now be subject to taxation, and a lot of people's income taxes would have to be readjusted. (And what of the teen volunteers who served as the theater's employees? What would they write on their college transcripts? "Worked at a for-profit theater … for free"?)

Since the revelation that the theater was no longer the warm-and-snuggly community asset it made itself out to be, things have become more nebulous. Redgate failed to return our calls for comment. According to a volunteer at the theater who wished to remain anonymous, since the tax-except status was publicly announced, its staff of volunteers has run the theater, led by a manager who is also a sophomore in college.

But what, exactly, happened last week has left almost everyone baffled.

"It's my understanding that it's only closed for repairs," Michael Tetreau, the First Selectman of Fairfield, told me. No one has seen any work being done to the building or the interior, and Tetreau says he "remains concerned" until the theater reopens.

"That theater was where I had my first date," he says. "It's got a lot of personal history with me. And it's an icon of the town. I'm hoping the rumors I'm hearing are true and it'll reopen soon."

Tetreau said the town doesn't contribute money to the theater anymore.

Over the weekend, it was revealed in the Fairfield Sun that the theater was being sued by several of the movie studios (including the notoriously litigious Disney) over unpaid dues and disputed "theater totals" for showings of certain films as well as facing a lawsuit from a Norwalk man who claims he "fell violently from a raised platform in the floor." He's seeking in excess of $15,000. The studios want considerably more.

Andrew Servetas, who owns the Las Vetas coffee shop on the same block as the theater (just a few doors down), told me, "It's crystal clear that the theater has issues." As it happens, Servetas has a plan for the space too.

Without jeopardizing the coffee shop, he would pursue running the theater "as a for-profit thing," he said. "I would be interested. And everyone would get paid." He admits that the Community Theater has fallen into disrepair and would take a major effort to rebuild both the building and the community's goodwill toward it. "There's got to be a middle ground," he says, in terms of getting the theater into working order without going bankrupt.

Adam Birnbaum runs Stamford's Avon Theatre, which is protected under similar nonprofit tax codes. "It's a shame to learn about the theater's closing," he said. "I hope the community bands together to keep it from falling by the wayside like so many other historical theaters."

"I don't know what's going on," Patricia Ritchie, President and CEO of the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce, told me before asking me if I had any ideas. "All I can say is it's an icon," she said, "and if it closes it would leave a big fat hole in the landscape of Fairfield."

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