A Brief History of the Empire Theatre Building (by Robert Downie)


The Empire Theatre ca. 1882: The rollerskating rink/summer theater looks out on the intersection of High Street, Spring Street and Water Street. The statue of Rebecca was not erected until 1896.

They came ashore with the paraphernalia of their journey, looking to Block Island for respite and a bit of refreshment after the sea voyage. Their destination was the site of the Empire Theatre, where also perhaps, as a bonus to their main purpose, entertainment might be found meeting the quaint local people, so rooted on their isolated island.

These were not tourists with shopping bags and decorated T-shirts — these men carried muskets and swords. They were the empire — the British Empire — and they meant to preserve its mighty reign over the oceans of the earth. But first they needed to quench their thirst.

It was the War of 1812, and the new United States was fighting England for free use of the sea. Isolated Block Island could afford only to be neutral, and so British sailors often came to a tiny cove along the eastern shore to fill their water casks from a large shoreside pond. We call that spot Old Harbor.

27-1949? downie-#2-empire

The Empire Theatre in 1949: The sign for “Bowling” points to the bowling alley behind the theater, which was renovated in the 1980s to become the Seacrest Inn.

In 1882, 70 years later at that site, during the midst of Old Harbor’s frenetic building boom, the Empire Theatre was built as a roller-skating rink. By that time, the pond’s edge had been eroded by the sea, and the remaining wetland filled in by islanders — although the stream that fed the pond still flows down between High Street and Spring Street, disappearing now in the swamp near their juncture.

For most of the past 111 years, the Empire has presided over the hub of Block Island, providing refreshment and entertainment for a new wave of usually neutral invaders.

But at the height of the island’s recent popularity, the theater was inexplicably closed at the end of the 1986 season. It was a victim of Rhode Island’s main product during the late 1980s: political, real estate and banking fraud. The space in newspapers formerly used for movie advertisements was replaced with photographs and stories of the theater’s mainland owner, alleged to be one of the state’s 10 worst offenders in the widespread scandal — the same developer who turned Peckham Farm, next to Rodman’s Hollow, into a housing subdivision and enlarged the unobtrusive Cutting Cottages on Corn Neck Road.

During the next few years, several prospective purchasers of the Empire Theatre put forth plans to turn the site into a shopping mall, even an underground parking garage was proposed (with a large water pump, no doubt).

But — just as in a movie — Block Island experienced a real-life “Return Of The Empire” in 1992, when new owner Gary Pollard vowed to save the original building and reopen the theater. The new — or rather “newer” — padded seats still rest on the original hard pine floor, built with raised ramps along the side for skaters to roll back to their seats.

In August 1882 the inaugural opening was noted by Providence newspapers:

“The new rink has only been used once prior to last Saturday evening, which was chosen by the proprietors as the time for the formal opening under the management of Prof. F. L. Harrington, of Providence. An orchestra of eight pieces from Hartford furnished music, and Prof. and Mrs. Harrington gave some fine exhibitions of fancy skating. The attendance was very good in view of the fact that the entertainment has not been very generally advertised. A similar exhibition, with skating by the public, will be given on next Tuesday evening, and a game of polo on skates will be played next Thursday evening by the Providence Blues and The Block Island Reds.”

The game of “polo on skates” was a form of ice hockey, whose rules had just been formalized by Canadians in 1879. As Block Island’s bustling hotels were enlarged yearly in the 1880s, the skating rink remained a favorite, as in the summer of 1884:


The Empire Theatre in 1937: In 1937 Walt Disney’s first full-length animated movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” was well-publicized at the Empire.

“On Thursday evening, the skating rink was decorated with the nineteen flags of the international code, and lanterns in profusion. Professor Edwin Dennis gave a fine exhibition of aerobatic and fancy skating, after which the skating became public, and 150 skaters surged upon the floor, continuing the exercise until half-past ten, to the music of the National Orchestra of seven pieces, from Haverhill, Mass.”

By the late 1880s, the building’s owner — Block Island resident Cassius Clay Ball (1854-1925); known, understandably, as “C.C.” to everyone — changed the rink to a summer theater, providing dancing classes, masquerade balls, and vaudevillian works until 1905 when the use reverted briefly to a roller-skating rink.

That nearly 100-year-old canvas banner — 30 feet of carefully hand-painted lettering proclaiming “2 hours FUN for 30 cts” — was found under the old stage by Gary Pollard during exploration of the theater’s hidden areas, and now hangs inside on the wall opposite the movie screen. Other theater mementos — visible nourishment for the island’s love affair with its past — are displayed in the enlarged lobby.

About 1910, movies were shown on a regular basis — during the great “silent era” — and the building was for the first time called the Empire Theatre.

In 1913, the theater even produced a song, a four-page piece of sheet music titled “I’d Rather Be At Block Island Than Any Place I Know,” written by James Tammany. The gist, universal appeal, and faultless logic of the lyrics can be appreciated in the opening line: “Summer’s the time that we all like best cause vacation time is here.”

The Empire persevered through the Roaring ’20s, the Depression ’30s (when movies were needed most), and the relaxed poverty of the ’50s.

From the 1960s into the 1980s, under the able ownership of King Odell, shows were held twice nightly at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., with titles remaining the same for two successive nights — except for Thursday, when the movies were one-night stands aimed at the younger kids. No one minded, in that age before video rental stores made reruns easy to see, that the movies were usually six months to a year old.

The frequently changing schedule plus the $1 ticket price (50 cents for children, dogs free) encouraged movie going without much thinking — just as it should be. If you didn’t know what was playing, you went anyway, the expectancy of the event usually outweighing the reality of even the worst movie titles. In fact, the decision to go or not — for the youthful anyway — depended more upon who was in line along the sidewalk, or who could be enticed from the road as their car circled Water Street for the eighth time that night.

But what counted most for everyone was simply that when the marquee lights of the Empire returned, summer was back. Or, as the 1913 song says about Block Island: “The bathing is fine and you’ll have a good time at the Moving Picture Show.”

MHTF endorses Empire Theatre campaign

Pollard questioned on raising public funds

By Gloria S. Redlich | Jul 30, 2013
This article is reprinted with permission from The Block Island Times.

Empire Theatre owner Gary Pollard has been making the rounds recently to help raise money to purchase a digital projector. He’s begun a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $55,000, saying that without a projector to show movies in the digital format, the theater most likely will go dark. All Hollywood movies will be available only in a digital format by the end of the year.

At a recent meeting with the members of the Mental Health Task Force (MHTF), Pollard was making a pitch not to raise money but to say that if he had a digital projector, which is portable, he would be able to show movies year-round and would provide some necessary entertainment during the winter months.

At the meeting, Pollard was challenged by task force member Michael Brownstein, who asked Pollard why he was trying to raise public funds even though he was a private businessman.

Pollard said that Kickstarter’s guidelines did “not permit commercial enterprises but only creative projects.” He said that the Empire completely met the Kickstarter criteria.

Pollard pointed out that those making individual pledges would not be charged until the full objective had been achieved. He noted that his situation and project were not unique. He cited many such theaters attempting to go digital across the country that had created and mounted many successful campaigns.

In Rhode Island, he gave the example of the historic Jane Pickens Theater in Newport, which is also a privately owned enterprise that raised just over $61,000 for the same purpose last year.

After a lively exchange, the task force voted to approve a resolution to “encourage opportunities like those to be offered by Gary Pollard and the Empire Theatre, because they [provide] islanders with alternative activities.” The Task Force has an interest in fostering activities that offer alternatives to the consumption of alcohol, and Pollard said he felt that several movie nights a week might prove a viable option.

Pollard added that since a digital projector was portable, he would be able to move to a location that was heated, such as the Community Center, school or town hall. He said he would need to work out the details.

Not obsolete on Block Island: My life as a film projectionist

But the digital age is around the corner

By Leah Welch | Jul 22, 2013

This article is reprinted with permission from The Block Island Times. Photo by: Kari Curtis Leah Welch stands by the Empire Theatre’s 35mm projector.

Photo by: Kari Curtis Leah Welch stands by the Empire Theatre’s 35mm projector.The Lumière brothers began entertaining crowds with reels of celluloid through a hand-cranked projector — the cinématographe — right before the turn of the last century. The brothers outfitted 24 men with their invention and sent them into six continents to capture and show the images from these places. They filmed the power of Niagara Falls, the Wright brothers’ flights in North Carolina, and the first official new Olympic games.

About 100 years after the Lumière brothers presented their machine to the world, I became a projectionist. It’s a trade — a skill I accomplish with my hands. I take the head of the 35 mm film that runs at 24 frames a second and guide it through my machine. It moves like an agitated snake off the platter and through a set of rollers called “the brains.” Then it winds through the picture head, the film gate trap (this allows the lighthouse to project the image through the lens and onto the screen), to the sound head, around the drum, and then back to the platter. On a good day and with the right machine, I can do this in 49 seconds — a fact that only impresses a few.

I learned to be a projectionist from my manager, Dave Armstead, at Cinemark Theaters in Zanesville, Ohio. Armstead told me that those projectors had functional parts from the 1930s. I ran 10 projectors simultaneously. I was good. I cared for my machines, knew by sound when a film was scratching against a roller or was beginning to “brain wrap,” a term used for when film winds around the brains too tightly and threatens to rip through a projector. I had duties that included emptying out our cat litter trays that helped catch dripping oil from our projectors, cleaning out the machines with Q-tips, rubbing alcohol and painter’s brushes, and going to all 10 screens with a giant brush or baby diapers to clean off the dust, cobwebs or soda pop.

I loved the people I worked with: college kids like me, or almost-out-of-high school ushers who in their spare time worked on cars and chased girls. When I opened up in the morning, Armstead and I would sometimes picnic in the lobby eating donuts and Taco Bell. Movie theater workers get an hour break for lunch or dinner because of the movie schedule and so my crew would sit in the back of the auditorium on the floor watching parts of movies and eating free popcorn. It was a young person’s ideal job.

After a move from Ohio to Pennsylvania, I ended up living in Virginia training for stunt work with Grand Master Dean Pyles and his family. He was a man I met while filming the movie Warrior in Pittsburgh. When I settled into his house and our routine of working out for six to eight hours a day, I went straight to the local movie theater. I figured I possessed a unique skill, and equipped with it I applied and got the projectionist job running a three-screen movie house.

The perk of this job was that the manager gave me keys to the building and permission to watch films any time, day or night. From September to December of that year, I watched every new release at 2 a.m., alone in a pitch-black theater emptied of texters and talkers. It was a pleasure that spoiled me.

One of the strange quirks of running movies at that house was that the film would often brain wrap because of the static in the air – it was something I’ve only ever encountered in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The solution the manager found was to use static guard aerosol and to keep the A/C running through the winter months. It was typical to find the other projectionist, a retired high school football coach — who only took the job for the free movies — wearing his cardigan, covering his mouth and spraying down a film mid-way through a movie.

After a move back to Ohio, and a car accident that left me having to learn to walk again, I decided to go back to grad school in Pittsburgh. I figured my record was good and so I applied and got a projectionist job in Monaca, Penn. It was a 12-screen movie house run mainly by projectionists-turned-managers, Ryan and Andre. These two guys taught me more than anybody else about projecting. They were fresh into their 20s, fun, and very smart. If the industry wasn’t converting to digital projectors, these two guys would have become theater technicians — a job that has a skilled projectionist trained in the maintenance and repair of the machines.

Ryan and Andre taught me how to build a digital playlist, how to fix a brain wrap by disengaging the motor and spinning the platter backwards, and running razor blades up the tension bands to remove compacted film dust. I can tell when I love doing a job because I’ll sing and make baked goods. Every week I brought in cookies, muffins, pies. Because of the gas prices and the hour’s distance I transferred to a closer movie house that needed a projectionist.

It was an 18-screen with an IMAX. Stairs led to at least three of the projectors and the projectors were housed in two different parts of the multiplex. The theater originally had two projectionists running each side but cutbacks led to only one projectionist running from one part of the building to the next, up and down stairs, often times trying to start two different films with the same start time in opposite parts of the building. A month of this with my bad knees had me crying on the stoop to my apartment complex because I was unable to climb my stairs after a shift. I quit; a few weeks after that they went under new management.

I thought I was done. The approaching conversion to digital had me thinking that I was obsolete: that after three states and four projectionist jobs that was a part of my life with a closed door. But then a craigslist ad had me hoping.

Projectionist/Manager wanted for summer season for historic single screen movie theater on Block Island, R.I.

I wanted it. I had gunned for it since 2007 but not until now have I had a summer free. Gary Pollard and his wife Jessica gave me a Skype interview on Easter Sunday and a week later he offered the job to me with a start date in late June. I packed up my bags and my brother and I long-hauled it from Cambridge, Ohio, took the hour-long ferry ride over and met my boss face-to-face.

It’s a last hurrah in a more vast and sadder good-bye. It will probably not only be my last time as a projectionist, and the last time for 35 mm to run through a projector at The Empire Theater. But the chatter online is that U.S. production of 35 mm film ceases at the end of 2013. Pollard is already trying to go digital with his Kickstarter campaign, and if it fails the theater probably won’t show movies anymore. It’s a story that other smaller movie houses are dealing with as well.

Labor Day is my last day as a projectionist and then I’m moving to Los Angeles. I’ve driven to almost all of the continental United States and every movie house I visit I ask to see their projection booth. I’ve gotten free movies from talking shop in Oklahoma, Washington D.C. and Shreveport, Louisiana.

I would like to think that maybe I could get a film archival position at a museum or university, but that doesn’t replace that feeling of taking 7,200 frames of film into my hand and running it through a projector, then watching the tail of the film snake through the machine at the movie’s end and coil into itself back onto the platter with the heat of the lamp house burning up the booth.

Empire Theatre looks to the future

By Margie Bucheit | Jul 01, 2013
This article is reprinted with permission from The Block Island Times. Photo by: Kari Curtis

Empire Theatre, Block Island“Cinema Paradiso” is the story of a classic small-town movie theater that played an oversized role in knitting a small Italian community together. The Empire Theatre has performed a similar role on Block Island for most of its 131 years.

And now owner Gary Pollard, who has run the classic cinema since 1992, is asking patrons for help to keep the small theater alive on the island. To keep the films rolling for the children and grandchildren of year-rounders, for summer residents and visitors who love to watch films in his old-time theater, he must spend a hefty sum of money for new digital equipment.

To fund a new projector, Pollard is launching a Kickstarter campaign on July 6 to raise $55,000 for new projection equipment that will take the Empire into the future. (Kickstarter is what is known as a crowdfunding site, which allows people to donate to a project they’d like to support.)

The movie industry has moved beyond 35-millimeter film. Films are now sent out to theaters through a digital system that allows theaters to download a file. Digital films can be far less expensive to ship and project than film. Large multiplex cinemas are being given a 70 percent subsidy by the film industry itself to replace 35 millimeter with the expensive digital upstart.

Such is not the case for smaller independent theaters like the Empire, often located in downtown areas of cities and towns across the United States. For these smaller theaters, the film industry had no such deal. The indies had to start their own campaigns and raise the dollars needed. Really, they have no choice. Theaters that decide not to make the change will have to close their doors at the end of 2013 because celluloid will simply no longer be available.

On Block Island, no one wants the Empire closed, least of all Pollard. He will raise a banner above the marquee July 4 weekend, which tells patrons about the all-important, all or nothing, Kickstarter campaign. That’s the way Kickstarter works. If he doesn’t raise the entire goal of $55,000, he doesn’t get any of the donations. The theater that he has so carefully and vibrantly brought back to life will also at some point this summer host an onsite fundraiser (in conjunction with Kickstarter) to draw attention to the campaign.

And when purchasing tickets this summer, patrons will be given a reminder. Each will be handed a postcard featuring a classic old photograph of a horse and buggy pulled up in front the theater. On it will be information about the Kickstarter campaign and how to contribute.

“This place has been showing films for a long time; in fact, since 1905,” Pollard says, “and before that there was live theater and vaudeville, and before that, roller-skating.”

Only once in all those years did The Empire go dark and that was in 1986. The business remained closed for seven years until Pollard bought it, restored it, and brought the fun and joy of good cinema back to Block Island.

The Kickstarter campaign ends on Sept. 3. There must be a lot of people out there who love the Empire, besides the residents themselves. There are all those boaters who enjoy a few days or a week on the Great Salt Pond or rafted up together in Old Harbor. There are those who visit the inns, bed and breakfast places or who rent houses here for the summer. And there are all of those people with memories of visiting this theater in days gone by. Surely all would hate to see it close its doors and go back to… roller-skating?

Here is something to contemplate. Though The Empire is not a non-profit, what it gives back to the local community is worth thinking about. Start with the entertainment, the opportunity to seen first-run moves at this classic site. On top of that, there are the rainy day events for children. With the new equipment, Pollard could stay open into the shoulder seasons and show more films, maybe into November, depending on the weather.

In the winter, when the Empire must close because it is not heated, the newer portable projection system can be moved to a heated space, making year-round cinema a reality on the island, he said. Also through this new age of digital, Pollard can tap into live, theater-to-screen presentations from places like La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy or theaters in London. The owner says the digital age has opened doors to collaborations only dreamed of in the era of 35-millimeter film.

Pollard’s family has now joined Block Island’s year-round community. They have moved from New York, a city over-abundant with cinemas of all shapes and sizes, to an island where winter entertainment is very much on the quiet side. When the winds howl in January, residents hunker down at home and hope the ferry will run in the morning. A year-round theater, even if it is partially a mobile one, seems a welcome diversion.

The historic cinema will open its doors again for the 124th time on June 28 (there were those seven years when it went dark). The first film will be “Man of Steel” — the new Superman reboot — and if you buy a ticket look carefully at the postcards that will accompany the tickets themselves when you go to see a film. Patrons truly will decide the future of this local cinema, and they will decide this summer.

One patron compares the meaning the Empire has to Block Island to what Fenway Park means to Boston: “The island would not be the same without it,” he says on the Empire website.

What will be the outcome? Will Block Island’s indie theater-goers help Pollard rise to the challenge with which he is faced; much as patrons of the Jane Pickens Theater in Newport did recently? Or will the Empire, like the Cinema Paradiso in the classic film, fade into history?

You decide.

Empire Theatre asks for help to make switch to digital

By Pippa Jack, This article is reprinted with permission from The Block Island Times.

Empire Theatre, Block Island

He’s not giving up on the place yet: Gary Pollard has decided to try to raise the $70,000 or so it will take to switch the Empire Theatre to digital equipment, and he’s going to ask his customers to help him.

Changing industry standards mean the phasing out of traditional 35mm projec- tor systems, which must be replaced with digital projectors within the next two years if theaters wish to show current films. It’s a big blow to small independent theaters like the Empire, and many are projected to close.

But Pollard says he’s been touched by offers of support from island residents who read that the Empire could close in a late July B.I. Times article — and inspired to try to raise the money he needs to keep the historic theater’s doors open. “After the B.I. Times piece came out, many people approached me very concerned about the fate of the Empire and I received many offers of support,” he said. “Along with my own passion for the place, this show of support made me feel we have to keep the theatre alive.”

One big bonus of switching to digital: the equipment will be a lot easier to run, so he could delegate the work to an employee after returning to New York. That means, he says, the theater could stay open longer — maybe even six months of the year.

Movies at the building, which was built as a roller skating rink, have long been an important summer institution on Block Island.

“When I bought the Empire I was taken in by something magical about the place,” New Yorker Pollard says of his decision, 20 years ago, to buy the building. “I never had thought of restoring an historic theatre, or of operating a theatre, but bringing back the place to life is what drove me. I don’te it become a retail shop or restaurant.”

Pollard says he didn’t at first think it would be realistic to try to fundraise for a private business, and so only this week decided to go for it. So there’ll be no events this summer — he and his wife Jessica have to get back to put the kids in school — but he’s working on getting an online fundrais- ing campaign together.

“I wish I had started sooner, but I plan to do an online campaign, using our website and maybe through crowd funding,” he said. “I’m not sure an event will be held. If so, I guess it would be next summer.”

What would be kept alive by keeping the theater running? “One of my favorite things about the theatre is standing just inside the auditorium doors and listening to people’s comments to one another about how cool the theatre is as they first enter,” he says. “Sometimes I forget how special the place is, but I’m reminded of it when I see many people taking pictures of the interior, or of themselves inside the theatre. It’s very gratifying to know you’ve given people an enjoyable experience, through both the unusual setting and watching the movie.”

Pollard isn’t the only one who thinks the place is special. The cinematreasures webite lists this comment from Gerald A. DeLuca: “In 2003 when I saw Freaky Friday here to a packed house of all ages, this place gave me the feeling, lost for so long, of what it had been like going to a local single-screen movie theatre as part of a community. With the almost Draconian restrictions against “development” rightfully promulgated by conservationists, here’s the last place in the world you will ever see a multiplex, and I say whoopee to that!”

For more info about the Empire Theatre go to: cinematreasures.org/theaters/6419, and the Empire’s soon to be launched site, empiretheaterblockisland.com.

Empire Theatre could close

Industry switch to digital projectors forces costly upgrade

By Stephanie Turaj; This article is reprinted with permission from The Block Island Times.

The lights look dim when it comes to keeping Water Street’s historic small theater afloat.

Empire Theatre, Block Island

Empire Theatre, Block Island Ticket Booth

Costs are high and industry-wide movie theater attendance is down, says Empire Theatre owner Gary Pollard. Couple these stresses with changing industry standards that are phasing out the traditional 35mm projector systems and replacing them with digital projectors — which could cost around $70,000, says Pollard — and things don’t look promising for small, locally owned theaters such as Block Island’s Empire Theatre.

According to a 2011 Deadline report,Twentieth Century Fox International announced it would no longer release film prints to theaters in Hong Kong and Macau effective January 1, 2012. The only film content available to these foreign theaters will be in digital format. While this may seem like no big deal, Fox also announced that they would be phasing out film media in other markets “over the next two years,” reported Deadline.

What this means for local theaters, such as the Empire, is eventually, owners will be forced to buy digital projectors — or close their doors.

“There’s no way that theaters like us can swing this,” Pollard said. He estimated that 25 to 30 percent of independent theatres would close within the next year.

The Empire is in a different situation from Block Island’s Champlin’s Marina and Resort, which offers its small Oceanwest Theatre as part of its larger business. Owner Joe Grillo says they would hope to go ahead with the digital upgrade when it becomes necessary to do so. However, he did not comment on how he would fund the new projector. “It depends on when we have to upgrade,” said Grillo. “We’ll deal with that when the time comes.”

But Pollard doesn’t find the prospect of purchasing a new projector likely, and may be one of those to close within the next year, although he warns that nothing is finalized yet.

He would like to fundraise, but because the Empire is a private for-profit business, he worries that this may not be a viable option.

He added that the Empire’s seasonality and “transient audience” (which includes summer-only residents and visitors) would make it even more difficult to raise enough money.
If the Empire ceases to show films, Pollard has thoughts of turning the historic building into a combined video game room and retail booth area. The future remains uncertain, but as far as keeping it a movie theater and buying a digital projector without fundraising, “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Empire Theatre, Block Island Projection Booth

Empire Theatre, Block Island Projection Booth

Currently, the Empire Theatre operates a 35mm projector that hails from around the 1960s. The projector has been in operation for the past 15 years, and previous to that, another projector from the 1940s was used. In contrast to the longer lifespan of the 35mm, Pollard says that the digital projectors have a lifespan of about 10 years.

A digital projector is also needed to show films in 3D, another more recent technology trend, and Pollard said that adding 3D capabilities would tack another $20,000 estimate onto the projector price. However, he doesn’t see 3D as a huge issue, citing his belief that this is just an industry trend, not something he thinks will become a standard. “Right now, I’m just concerned about showing films in 2D,” he said.

“I’ve known this was coming,” said Pollard. “Everybody knew this was coming, but I don’t think we expected it to happen so quickly.” He thought that maybe the film distributors would still continue to supply 35mm film prints to qualifying small theaters like his, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

“We’re a very small part of their market,” he added. For film distributors, making the switch to digital could save them thousands of dollars in cost and shipping per print. And according to a May 2012 Deadline report, another big reason for the shift is the rise in the price of silver, heavily used in film processing — prices raised from $5 an ounce to about $25 this year.