Middlebury’s Marquis Theater plans expanded food offerings

MIDDLEBURY — Marquis Theater owner Bill Shafer hopes to reinvigorate Middlebury’s vintage movie house with a series of improvements that would include expanding food and beverage offerings, revamping two of the three screening areas to create more casual seating, and staging more live entertainment.
“I can’t survive anymore just serving Hollywood,” Shafer said of the theater’s current emphasis on screening major, new-release films.
Shafer acquired the Marquis Theater eight years ago and has been steadily investing in physical and technological upgrades to the facility. Those upgrades have included the addition of a third screen and an investment of $220,000 to convert to digital projection technology, which has become the standard in the industry.
But the Marquis, like most small community theaters in the country, has found it difficult to compete with the movie multiplexes that can offer more screens and amenities.
“They’re sucking the blood out of small-town theaters,” Shafer lamented.
It was last June that Shafer launched an online appeal for financial support to place the theater on a stronger financial footing. Shafer said that effort yielded donations that helped the theater weather a tough financial year. But he announced last week that an investor has stepped forward to help make such improvements as:
•  Renovating the lobby area to provide for a larger concession area that will feature southwestern-style food, such as tacos and burritos. Shafer plans on contracting with a local food provider to smoke the meats that will be used with vegetables and other ingredients for the menu items, which will be brought in and assembled on premises. Shafer will purchase a stove to make sure the food stays warm. Customers will be able to take the food into the movie theaters or purchase it to go.
In addition, Shafer has applied for a beer and wine license.
Shafer says the fortified concession area would assist groups that might cater future movies or shows at the Marquis. He noted an example of this might be Taste of India catering a Bollywood film night.
•  Flattening the floor and removing the current seating in the front third of two of the three theaters. That space would be kept clear for dancing and other special live events, and set up with bistro tables, couches and other casual seating for movie viewers.
•  Expanding entertainment options. Shafer plans to offer karaoke, poetry slams and live evening music performances. He is also seeking to add more independent film offerings and hopes to screen ads from the local business community prior to shows.
•  Using the walls of the theater to display works by local artists.
Shafer’s new business plan is similar to that of the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield, a facility he helped manage.
“Many small theaters nationally have found life with alternative uses,” Shafer said.
“By providing increased food offerings we can help enrich the entertainment experience for patrons and help create a more vital downtown area,” he added in a letter explaining his plans to the Middlebury Development Review Board, which will evaluate his application on Monday, June 9. “I am targeting doubling my annual patron visits from 35,000 to 70,000 annually within a year.”
Ted Dunakin, Middlebury’s planning and zoning officer, said he does not see any major issues with Shafer’s application.
If all goes smoothly, Shafer would like to complete his proposed theater improvements before the end of this year.
“Anything I can do to promote the use of this building and bring people to the downtown is a win-win, I believe,” Shafer said.
John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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