Film buffs in the mid-Hudson have reason to rejoice this week: Not only are long-awaited movies held back by studios on account of COVID beginning to surface in our local theatres, but one of the most beloved of those cinemas is about to reopen. Closed since March 2020 and acquired in July 2021 by Upstate Films, the Orpheum Theatre, located at 198 Main Street in Saugerties, will reopen its doors to the public on Thursday, November 4.
Opening night will feature “sneak previews” of two movies officially scheduled for release the next day: The Eternals, a new superhero saga set in the Marvel Comics Universe, directed by Nomadland’s Chloe Zhao; and Wes Anderson’s latest opus, The French Dispatch, about the quirky people who work at an overseas bureau of a magazine very like The New Yorker. Eternals previews at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the three-screen cinema and French Dispatch at 8:15.
But that’s just for starters. The two films will continue showing daily for the rest of the Grand Reopening week. Passing – a drama starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as two Black friends during the Harlem Renaissance, light-skinned enough to pass for white, who choose different paths – will be shown November 5 through 7. Daily from November 5 through 10, and at intervals throughout the rest of the month, there will be special screenings, live performances and discussions.
These one-off events get underway on Friday with an 8 p.m. showing of the Buster Keaton silent classic Sherlock, Jr., with live piano accompaniment by Barbara Lee. On Saturday, November 6, the Saugerties Public Library is sponsoring a free 11:30 a.m. family showing of The Wizard of Oz. And the 6 p.m. showing of Passing will include a question-and-answer session with the film’s editor, Sabine Hoffman, and critic Lisa Schwartzbaum.
The renovated former vaudeville theatre, built in 1908, celebrates itself at noon on Sunday, November 7 with a panel discussion with Dave Kehr, Tom Thornton and Katie Cokinos titled “A Brief History of the Orpheum.” A favorite live offering of the theatre from 2004 to 2015 will be revived at 2 p.m.: the John Street Jam.On Wednesday, November 10, a discussion with special guests Peter Walker, Richard Peete and Robert Yapowitz will accompany the 7 p.m. screening of the music documentary Karen Dalton: In My Own Time.
Special events already announced for the weeks to come include My First Film, a multimedia performance by Zia Anger at 8 p.m. on Sunday, November 14; Cheri Magid’s film/play A Poem and a Mistake, followed by a discussion with the playwright, at 7 p.m. on Monday, November 15; and a Skype discussion with director Alonso Ruizpalacios and Robert Stone following the Wednesday, November 17 screening of A Cop Movie.
Built by the Davis family, the 6,480-square-foot Orpheum started its life as a popular stop on the vaudeville circuit between the Collingwood Opera House (now the Bardavon) in Poughkeepsie and similar venues in Albany. Burns and Allen, Gypsy Rose Lee and Cary Grant, when his name was still Archibald Leach, were among the showbiz luminaries on record as having performed live at the Orpheum. The original floor was flat, suitable to be cleared of seats for dances and even roller-skating.
Byron S. Thornton, patriarch of the family who were the most recent owners of the building, acquired it in 1919, renovated it and installed a sloping floor more suitable for film projection. With the advent of “talkies,” speakers were installed in the 1930s, and the space acquired a reputation for excellent acoustics. By the turn of the millennium the single-screen auditorium was divided up into a triplex, with two of the theatre spaces seating 138 viewers and the third seating 145. The 35 mm reel-to-reel film projectors were converted to digital systems in 2012, with a 3-D-capable projection and screen installed in one theatre.
According to Upstate Films’ co-director Jason Silverman, Phase One of improvements to the building, including a renovated lobby and updated safety and technical features, is nearly complete, with additional work set to continue through late 2023. “Upstate Films intends for the Orpheum to be an inclusive cultural space: one that supports local businesses, provides entertainment and information for the community, serves as a site for civic engagement and offers educational opportunities for learners of all ages,” says the reopening announcement.
A Kickstarter campaign is currently underway at www.kickstarter.com/projects/upstatefilms/renew-the-orpheum to help the not-for-profit organization finance the ongoing renovations. For more information about both the Orpheum and the Starr Theater in Rhinebeck, visit www.upstatefilms.org.