Business & Economy

The Latchis is a landmark theater, hotel and pub. In a pandemic, that can be a problem.

Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.

The marquee of Brattleboro’s Latchis Theatre offers consoling words at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

When the Greek immigrant-turned-impresario Latchis family announced the grand opening of its namesake Brattleboro theater and hotel in the fall of 1938, members aimed to take the state by storm — even after the historic Great New England Hurricane hit the day before.

Thwarted by downed trees and utility lines, they nevertheless wrangled the 20th Century Fox movie musical “My Lucky Star,” the Felix Ferdinando Orchestra (“Direct from Million Dollar Pier, Atlantic City,” the bill exclaimed) and a full house of 1,200 people to stay true to the old saying, “The show must go on.”

Eight decades later, the four-story art deco landmark has survived everything from the advent of television to $500,000 in flood damage from 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene. Then 2020 dawned with news of a looming global pandemic.

“I remember reading the most likely affected industries would be hospitality and entertainment,” says Latchis Executive Director Jon Potter, who oversees not only a 30-room boutique hotel and four-screen theater but also the lease for a pub and several storefronts. “You couldn’t design something that mainlined to us any more directly.”

Upon the film’s opening, the Latchis had paraded Judy Garland’s Emerald City carriage through town to announce the 1939 arrival of “The Wizard of Oz.” And so, closing temporarily in March 2020, it wrote “There’s No Place Like Home” on its marquee and waited to see if it could weather the Covid-19 cyclone.

“At the worst of it, we were losing $1,000 a day,” Potter says. “We lost 96% of our income for two or three months in a row, but we still had to operate the boilers and run electricity through our projectors so they wouldn’t crash and fail. I was very concerned that a microbial virus — rather than the epic, biblical things we’ve withstood — would leave us dead in the water.”

A year and a half later, the Latchis is telling a surprisingly different story.

A vintage postcard for Brattleboro’s Latchis Hotel features a 1945 photo of the Main Street building. Courtesy of the Latchis

‘A Town Within a Town, All Under One Roof’

Back at the turn of the 20th century, 37-year-old Demetrios Latsis (more on that spelling later) bid goodbye to his wife and children in 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 would push and pull 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.”

Those letters and the man they labeled would go on to light more than a dozen marquees in New England during the Roaring ’20s, with cinemas in Brattleboro, Springfield, Windsor, Woodstock, and 10 other communities in neighboring Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

(Vermont writer Gordon Hayward tells the full story in his 2016 book “Greek Epic: The Latchis Family and the New England Theater Empire They Built.”)

After the patriarch died in 1932, his children honored him by constructing downtown Brattleboro’s Latchis Memorial Building.

“A Town Within a Town,” read advertisements of the theater, hotel, restaurant and shops. “All Under One Roof.”

The Latchis provided entertainment and escape during the Depression and World War II, only to struggle in subsequent decades as the arrival of Interstate 91 and the internet lured people elsewhere.

The family would sell off its cinemas one by one until 2003 when the nonprofit Latchis Arts organization raised $1.6 million to buy the Brattleboro building. Supporters raised $550,000 more a decade later to refurbish the theater with help from EverGreene Architectural Arts — whose clients include the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in New York City — and the Irwin Seating Co., supplier for Carnegie Hall.

Artist Lajos “Louis” Jámbor paints murals of Greek mythology before the 1938 opening of Brattleboro’s Latchis Theatre. Photo by Lewis R. Brown

‘What you can’t see can hurt you’

As Vermonters gathered for town meetings at the start of March 2020, the Latchis filled its Main Street window card with a movie poster for “The Invisible Man.”

“What you can’t see can hurt you,” its tagline read.

Little did anyone know that was less a plug than a prophecy.

Potter remembers hearing reports of a virus in China and on cruise ships when the Latchis hosted performances by the local New England Center for Circus Arts on the weekend of March 7 and 8, 2020.

“All of us were focused on handwashing,” Potter says. “We had no idea.”

Five days later, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott declared a Covid-19 state of emergency. In response, the Latchis laid off its two dozen full- and part-time employees and closed for what all hoped would be no more than a month.

“I have a distinct memory of the theater staff bagging up all the popcorn that was left in the machine,” Potter says. “It just sort of marked this grim moment in the saddest way.”

The hotel continued to host a few essential workers. But Potter, heading the rare nonprofit that owns and operates several for-profit businesses, was the only person around for most of the spring of 2020.

“I sat down every morning and tracked every check I wrote,” he recalls. “We had some money in the bank, but we were bleeding out cash.”

Potter won’t reveal specific finances other than to say pre-pandemic reserves were “in the tens of thousands of dollars” while expenses threatened to devour them in “a couple of months,” especially with a leased restaurant and bar space under renovation sitting empty.

“During the worst, our thought was to try to lose as little money as possible,” he says. “But so much of this building is nonnegotiable. Our annual flood insurance is north of $20,000. It was certainly a deer-in-the-headlights feeling.”

The main auditorium of the Brattleboro’s Latchis Theatre seats 750 people. Courtesy of the Latchis

‘This is how we’re meant to be’

Cue the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which granted the Latchis some $180,000 in the past year to rehire staff and reopen — starting with a screening of “The Wizard of Oz” in June 2020.

“I remember when the popcorn machine kicked back on and that smell filled the lobby again,” Potter says. “I thought, ‘This is how we’re meant to be.’”

Others felt differently. The theater’s four screens can host 1,000 moviegoers at a time. But on each of the first weekends back, the collective crowds were no more than three dozen people.

“We sort of felt like someone waiting for a date,” Potter says, “and the date maybe wasn’t going to show up.”

By August 2020, the theater decided to rent itself out for private screenings, with its main 750-seat auditorium priced at $125 for up to 75 family members and friends. 

Suddenly, the wallflower was back on the dance floor.

“There were some weekends when we would have a dozen rentals,” Potter says. “I joked that we became Brattleboro’s Chuck E. Cheese kids’ birthday headquarters, but it really reconnected us with people.”

Those 450 events not only helped pay the bills but also led to at least one marriage.

“There was a movie with a proposal scene, and a gentleman brought his bride-to-be on stage with the ring concealed in a bucket of popcorn,” Potter says. “Those kinds of stories are good anytime but particularly in the throes of a pandemic.”

By fall of 2020, foliage traffic and more federal and state money helped the Latchis turn a profit as it squirreled up cash for the coming cold.

“We’re like a farmer — we make our hay in the summer and fall,” Potter says, “and then in the winter, we eat our canned goods and look ahead to when we can get at it again.”

A 1939 parade sponsored by Brattleboro’s Latchis Theatre heralds the arrival of “The Wizard of Oz.” Photo by Lewis R. Brown

‘Resilience is evident in our history’

This spring brought the Covid-19 vaccine and, for business, a huge shot in the arm. The hotel, for example, has matched or exceeded its pre-pandemic bookings since Memorial Day, with July hitting a monthly high.

“I think there’s certainly pent-up travel demand,” Potter says, “and Vermont and New England have a safer track record.”

The theater has found 2021 more challenging. Business rose at the start of the summer, only to slip to about half the seasonal average when the highly contagious Delta variant increased local and state Covid-19 counts.

That, in turn, infected Potter’s email. One local wrote, “Why are you still open? You’re going to kill people.” A second countered, “As long as you continue to message about having to wear masks, I won’t come.”

In many ways, the Latchis is learning to navigate the space in between.

“We’re still very much in a pandemic, but this is also a transitional time,” Potter says. “We’re in the midst of tectonic cultural changes. It’s not what normal is going to be.”

Facing competition from streaming and other leisure-time choices, the Latchis anticipates its future will pull more from its past — when movies shared the bill with live stage shows — and will tap technology, opera and theater simulcasts from worldwide venues.

“I’m looking at this as a moment for us to figure out how we’re going to diversify our portfolio,” Potter says. “Even before the pandemic hit, the value of resilience is evident in our history. We’ve been through a lot, and we’re still going through it, but I don’t have the looming existential worries that I had at the beginning. We got a glimpse at the fact we’re still valued, and that keeps us going.”

Brattleboro’s Latchis Memorial Building remains an Art Deco landmark eight decades after its opening in 1938. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

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