The Latchis is a landmark theater, hotel and pub. That can be a problem in a pandemic.

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

When the Greek immigrant family Latchis announced the opening of their theater and hotel of the same name in Brattleboro in autumn 1938, they wanted to take the state by storm – even after the historic Hurricane Great New England had broken out the day before.

Thrown by fallen trees and supply lines, they still fought over the 20th Century Fox film musical “My Lucky Star”, the Felix Ferdinando Orchestra (“Direct from Million Dollar Pier, Atlantic City”, it said in the bill) and a full house with 1,200 people to stay true to the old saying “The show has to go on”.

Eight decades later, the four-story Art Deco landmark has weathered everything from the advent of television to $ 500,000 in flood damage from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Then 2020 dawned on news of an impending global pandemic.

“I remember reading that the hospitality and entertainment industries are most likely to be affected,” said Jon Potter, executive director of Latchis, who not only runs a 30-room boutique hotel and four-room theater, but also does the rentals a pub and several shop windows. “You can’t design something more direct that suits us.”

When the film opened, the Latchis had taken Judy Garland’s Emerald City carriage through town to herald the arrival of “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939. And so it wrote, which was temporarily closed in March 2020, “There’s No Place Like Home” on its marquee, waiting to see if it could survive the Covid-19 cyclone.

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

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

A vintage postcard for the Latchis Hotel in Brattleboro shows a 1945 photograph of the Main Street building. Courtesy of the Latchis

“A city within a city, everything under one roof”

At the turn of the century, the 37-year-old Demetrios Latsis (more on this spelling later) said goodbye to his wife and children in Greece and sailed west in search of the American dream.

When the peddler reached the Statue of Liberty, he aspired to start a business – starting with a fruit cart that he pushed and pulled from town to town – before returning home to fetch his family. But first, Latsis faced an immigration officer who, when asked for his last name, misspelled the answer as “Latchis”.

Those letters, and the man they labeled, would light more than a dozen marquee tents in New England in the Roaring Twenties, with movie theaters in Brattleboro, Springfield, Windsor, Woodstock, and 10 other towns 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 with the construction of the Latchis Memorial Building in downtown Brattleboro.

“A city within a city” was the advertisement for theaters, hotels, restaurants and shops. “All under one roof.”

The Latchis provided entertainment and escape during the Depression and World War II, only to fight in the decades that followed when the arrival of Interstate 91 and the Internet drew people elsewhere.

The family gradually sold their theaters through 2003, when the nonprofit Latchis Arts raised $ 1.6 million for the purchase of the Brattleboro building. Backers raised an additional $ 550,000 a decade later to renovate the theater with help from EverGreene Architectural Arts – whose clients include the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in New York City – and Irwin Seating Co., supplier to Carnegie Hall .

The artist Lajos “Louis” Jámbor painted murals of Greek mythology before the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro opened in 1938. Photo by Lewis R. Brown

“What you can’t see can hurt you”

When the Vermonters gathered for city assemblies in early March 2020, the Latchis filled their Main Street window card with a movie poster for “The Invisible Man.”

“What you can’t see can hurt you,” was the slogan.

Hardly anyone knew that this was less of a plug than a prophecy.

Potter recalls hearing reports of a virus in China and on cruise lines when the Latchis were staging performances at the local New England Center for Circus Arts over the weekend of March 7th and 8th, 2020.

“We all focused on washing our hands,” says Potter. “We had no idea.”

Five days later, Vermont Governor Phil Scott declared the Covid-19 state of emergency. In response, the Latchis fired its two dozen full-time and part-time employees and closed for a period of time everyone hoped it would last no more than a month.

“I have vivid memories of the theater staff who bagged all the popcorn that was left in the machine,” says Potter. “It marked that dark moment in the saddest way.”

The hotel continued to house some important workers. But Potter, who ran the rare nonprofit that owns and operates several for-profit businesses, was the only person for most of the spring of 2020.

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

Potter won’t reveal any specific finances other than saying that pre-pandemic reserves were “in the tens of thousands of dollars” while spending threatened to swallow them up in “a few months,” particularly with a rented restaurant and bar space currently being renovated is empty.

“In the worst case scenario, we wanted to try to lose as little money as possible,” he says. “But so much of this building is non-negotiable. Our annual flood insurance is over $ 20,000. It was definitely a deer-in-the-headlight feeling. “

The main auditorium of the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro seats 750 people. Courtesy of the Latchis

“This is how we should be”

Keyword the federal paycheck protection program, which granted the Latchis around 180,000 US dollars for reinstatement and reopening last year – starting with a screening of “The Wizard of Oz” in June 2020.

“I remember when the popcorn machine started again and that smell filled the lobby again,” says Potter. “I thought: ‘This is how we should be.'”

Others felt differently. The four screens of the theater can accommodate 1,000 cinema-goers at the same time. But there were no more than three dozen people on each of the first weekends.

“We felt like someone waiting on a date,” says Potter, “and the date might not show up.”

By August 2020, the theater decided to rent out for private shows, with its 750-seat main auditorium costing $ 125 for up to 75 family and friends.

Suddenly the wallflower was back on the dance floor.

“There were a few weekends when we had a dozen rentals,” says Potter. “I was joking that we became Brattleboro’s headquarters for Chuck E. Cheese’s kid’s birthday party, but it really got us connected again.”

Those 450 events not only helped pay the bills, but also resulted in at least one marriage.

“There was a movie with a marriage proposal scene and a gentleman brought his bride-to-be on stage with the ring hidden in a bucket of popcorn,” says Potter. “Stories like this are good anytime, but especially in times of a pandemic.”

By fall 2020, leaf traffic and more federal and state funds helped the Latchis make a profit as they wasted cash on the coming cold.

“We’re like a farmer – we make our hay in summer and fall,” says Potter, “and then in winter we eat our canned food and see when we can get it back.”

A parade sponsored by Brattleboros Latchis Theater in 1939 heralds the arrival of “The Wizard of Oz”. Photo by Lewis R. Brown

“Resilience shows in our history”

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

“I think there is certainly a lot of catching up to do in travel,” says Potter, “and Vermont and New England have a safer track record.”

The theater found 2021 to be more difficult. Business soared at the beginning of summer, only to slide to about half the seasonal average as the highly contagious Delta variant boosted local and state Covid-19 numbers.

That in turn infected Potter’s email. One local wrote: “Why are you still open? You will kill people. ”A second replied:“ As long as you continue to announce the wearing of masks, I will not come. ”

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

“We are still in a pandemic, but this is also a transition period,” says Potter. “We are in the midst of tectonic cultural changes. It’s not what will be normal. “

Faced with competition from streaming and other recreational offerings, the Latchis expects its future to draw more from its past – when movies split the bill with live stage shows – and will leverage technology, opera and theater simulcasts from venues around the world.

“I consider this a moment for us to see how we can diversify our portfolio,” says Potter. “Even before the pandemic broke out, the value of resilience is evident in our history. We’ve been through a lot and are still going through it, but I don’t have the existential worries that I had in the beginning. We got an impression that we are still valued and that keeps us going. “

The Latchis Memorial Building in Brattleboro remains an Art Deco landmark eight decades after it opened in 1938. Photo by Kevin O’Connor / VTDigger

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