BRATTLEBORO — Vermonter Gordon Hayward has heard all the campaign cries to “build a wall.” But the nationally recognized garden writer is throwing open the gates onto a higher sort of immigrant story.
Back at the turn of the 20th century, 37-year-old Demetrios Latsis said goodbye to his wife and growing brood of children in his native Greece and sailed west in search of the American dream.
Reaching the Statue of Liberty, the peddler aspired to build a business — starting with a fruit cart he’d push and pull a half-dozen miles from town to town — before returning to his homeland to retrieve his family.
But first, Latsis faced an immigration officer who, asking for his last name, misspelled the answer as “Latchis” — not knowing those letters and the man they labeled would go on to light more than a dozen cinema marquees in New England.
Hayward has chronicled the resulting history in a new book, “Greek Epic: The Latchis Family and the New England Theater Empire They Built.” The 220-page illustrated paperback tells of four generations whose legacy is encapsulated in downtown Brattleboro’s Latchis Memorial Building, an Art Deco hotel and four-screen movie house now owned by a nonprofit organization.
“This book happens to be about one Greek family,” Hayward writes in his introduction, “but it is a story written millions of times over all across America in the lives of immigrant families — which, in fact, means all Americans, unless you are descended from the native peoples or you are of African descent and were brought here against your will.”
Then again, not everyone who arrived in the country in 1901 turned a handcart full of bananas and oranges into a horse-drawn carriage, then a motorized chassis, a Main Street storefront and, diversifying upon the suggestion of his children, a chain of 14 cinemas in Vermont (in Brattleboro, Springfield, Windsor and Woodstock) and neighboring Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Had Demetrios, born in 1864, stayed in his native Greek village of Kastanitsa, he wouldn’t ever have plugged into electricity, as his birthplace wasn’t wired until a century later in the 1970s.
But in the United States, the family had the power to open its first theater in 1920 (with the silent film “When the Clouds Roll By” starring Douglas Fairbanks) and introduce “talkies” in 1927.
After the patriarch died in 1932, his children honored him by constructing a $530,000 downtown Brattleboro block (a cost equal to nearly $9 million today) featuring a hotel, restaurant, shops and a 1,200-seat theater with hand-painted murals based on Greek mythology and a midnight-blue ceiling starry with the 12 signs of the zodiac.
“A Town Within a Town,” advertisements exclaimed, “All Under One Roof.”
When the family set the grand opening for Sept. 22, 1938, members aimed to take the state by storm — even after a historic hurricane hit the day before. Thwarted by downed trees and telephone lines, they nevertheless wrangled the 20th Century Fox film “My Lucky Star,” the Felix Ferdinando Orchestra (“Direct from Million Dollar Pier, Atlantic City”) and a full house of spectators into their places to stay true to the old saying, “the show must go on.”
A year later, the Latchis would not only present the local premiere of “The Wizard of Oz” but also parade Judy Garland’s Emerald City horse-drawn carriage through downtown. But a business that provided entertainment and escape during the Depression and World War II couldn’t compete in subsequent decades with shifting cultural and economic forces ranging from the Interstate to the Internet.
“In many ways,” Hayward writes, “the complexity of what the Latchis family had built was getting beyond their ability to manage.”
The family would, one by one, sell all its cinemas. Spero Latchis, great-grandson of Demetrios, valiantly preserved the last — the Brattleboro crown jewel — through the end of the 20th century before what’s now the nonprofit Latchis Arts organization bought the building in 2003.
To do so, current caretakers raised $1.6 million, only to find it the first of their challenges. In 2011, for example, a tractor-trailer crashed into the Main Street marquee that July and Tropical Storm Irene filled the basement with floodwater that August, forcing a six-week closing for a $500,000 cleanup and repair of the cellar electrical, plumbing and heating systems.
Surviving that disaster movie of a year, the Latchis embarked on a $550,000 facelift in 2013. EverGreene Architectural Arts — whose clients include the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in New York City — refurbished the zodiac ceiling while peers from the Irwin Seating Co. — supplier for Carnegie Hall — removed and replaced the upholstered chairs.
This spring, the theater made back some of that money by screening the latest film adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” written by Rudyard Kipling a century ago at his onetime home just a few miles north.
“This building points to one of the key elements of life in Vermont,” writes Hayward, who serves as both the Latchis’ historian and head of its nonproﬁt board. “We live in the present surrounded by the past.”
The author will unveil his book at the Brattleboro Literary Festival on Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Latchis, which will serve family-made baklava and locally produced Greek yogurt, with more information available at latchisarts.org.
Hayward notes that, without community support to purchase and maintain the property, his “Greek Epic” could have been a tragedy.
“It’s such a dramatic story,” he concludes. “We all take the Latchis for granted, but it’s a great treasure in plain sight.”