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September 2, 2008

Best Little Moviehouse in the Adirondacks

Old movie theaters can become new local commons

By D. Megan Healey

It is Saturday night at the Indian Lake Theater in the small town of Indian Lake, New York. The coming attractions have only been playing for five minutes when the sound slows down and the screen suddenly turns black. I am the projectionist so I rush upstairs and find a tangled pile of film unraveling out of the projector onto the floor.

I run back downstairs to face the puzzled crowd. “Hi everyone. As you know, I’m new at this,” I say. “I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I’m going to do my best to fix the problem and get the movie running again in no time.” To my nervous surprise, the crowd cheers.

The Indian Lake Theater, in this small town of 2,000 in the Adirondack mountains, closed for two years. So moviegoers are grateful to have this important cultural common space back, and they’re willing to give it a chance.

When the town lost its beloved theater in 2006, it not only lost the option for residents to see the latest Hollywood hit on a Saturday night, but also lost one of the most important community gathering spots. The theater is literally located in the center of Indian Lake, just across from the post office and a short walk from the majority of the town’s businesses and restaurants. Over the years it has been the principal venue for Hollywood as well as classic and independent films. In addition, community theater shows and concerts by professional and school musicians—in fact, group gatherings of all kinds— have regularly packed the house.


About 30 minutes go by and I am still struggling to fix the film. Despite the long wait, the crowd is having a great time. They visit the concessions stand and catch up with neighbors and friends. I offer to give the audience their money back. A few people leave but refuse the return of their money. They figure the Indian Lake Theater needs it more than they do.

Finally, after 15 more minutes I fix the film. The audience erupts with roaring cheers.

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When the Indian Lake Theater was closed, the town’s culture suffered along with the local economy. The theater provided a hub that allowed both local citizens and outside visitors to connect easily with other activities and services in town. Many local merchants businesspeople reported that the closing of the theater had adversely affected their businesses – from the ice cream shops, to hotel and cabin rental businesses, local restaurants and antique stores.
Once a small town loses its theater, when the seats are pulled out and the projector sold, a sense of community spirit is lost along with the movies.

But a group of local citizens in the Indian Lake area came together in fall of 2007 to devise a plan for purchasing and reopening the theater as a non-profit community stage and screen. A community board of directors, whose mission is strengthening the sense of community as well as watching the bottom line, now manages the theater. Ben Strader, managing director of the Blue Mountain Center, is the president. The Theater now has a paid director and local young people make good wages selling tickets and popcorn. A corps of volunteers handle other tasks that makes it possible for the Indian Lake Theater to host other events such as school music and theater productions, public meetings and even a Magic Lantern performance to celebrate the town’s sesquicentennial. All this, and Indiana Jones, too, along with independent movies. The theater is now more of a town commons than ever.

Harriet Barlow, Senior Fellow of On The Commons and founding director of the nearby Blue Mountain Center, who helped organize efforts to save the theater, notes “The Theater provides a sort of living room for the community, a rare opportunity for cooperation and collaboration. Most of all, it makes people happy!”

When the theater reopened last spring word spread across the Adirondacks and many folks sent donations to support it. Now, with this vision of a community center in place, the theater hopes to provide economic stimulus to the town, while breathing new life into the cultural scene of Indian Lake and the surrounding region.

The Indian Lake Theater, Blue Mountain Center and On The Commons are exploring the possibilities of creating a national network of community theaters. For more information, contact Harriet Barlow at hbarlow@onthecommons.org.