The Belcourt Theatre always had a heart bigger than its body. That’s why in the fall, when Nashville’s nonprofit cinema announced The Belcourt Campaign, a $5 Million capital campaign to renovate its aging building, filmgoers and other supporters rejoiced. The heart of the Belcourt would finally get the body it deserved.
As Belcourt executive director Stephanie Silverman will tell you, what those filmgoers and supporters have long loved about the theatre was never simply the building. It was the impeccable programming by Toby Leonard, dedication to its mission and education, and deep sense of community that kept people coming back and renewing their memberships. The renovation meant all those elements would finally be able to fully thrive.
It wouldn’t happen overnight, of course. The Belcourt has been closed for over five months now, and still needs a couple more months of renovation. Silverman says they are shooting for a July reopening, with an exact date to be determined.
But as the hard hat tour we were given this week by Silverman impressed upon me, the wait will be well worth it. The familiar 1925 and 1966 Halls will both have new screens and double sets of doors to keep lobby light out. The new lobby will have bigger men’s and women’s restrooms with wheelchair accessibility, an expanded concessions area, an elevator, and an alcove where visitors can sit and relax and wait for friends before screenings. Did we mention the bigger restrooms? The second floor will include a 40-seat screening room and an education/engagement space for classes, visual literacy teaching and other public programs.
Even with little in place within the walls of the building—we had to ask several times, “Wait, so where am I now?”—it was easy to visualize the future as we walked through with Silverman. We were joined by Belcourt education and engagement director Allison Inman, programming and education associate Zack Hall and communications and marketing director Cindy Wall.
Guests will now enter the building from the southwest corner closest to the parking lot. They’ll be able to walk into the box office (no more standing outside at the window) and will be greeted by digital billboards both inside and out, with rotating information about upcoming films and screening times. This area will be completely wheelchair accessible. Men’s and women’s bathrooms will be just beyond the box office, off a wide lobby that will extend the majority of the length of the building along Belcourt Ave.
From the lobby, guests will access the 1966 and 1925 Halls, an expanded concessions area with the best popcorn in Nashville, food from the Mesa Komal Kitchen at Casa Azafrán, alcoholic beverages and all the other movie snacks you’ve come to expect. There is also an alcove where guests can relax wait for films to begin. Fun re-purposing fact: benches in the alcove (as well as the staircase to the second floor) will be made from wood salvaged from the fly loft above the 1925 Hall’s stage. Likely added to the building in the 1930s to accommodate theater and music productions, it had to be removed during the current renovation. Securing the fly loft would have required dramatic structural changes in the historic 1925 Hall, including adding support columns from the roof and into the hall and bedrock below, with substantial and very costly impact.
To make room for the new restrooms and expanded lobby, that bank of rockers sectioned off at the back of the 1966 Hall is gone. Standing in the space, it’s hard to remember that it was even there. Numerous tech upgrades will take both the halls into 2016, including the installation of an induction loop system that will connect with any hearing aid or cochlear implant made with T-Coil Technology, improving the movie-going experience for the hearing impaired. The 1966 theatre will also continue to screen both digital and 35 mm prints.
One of the most exciting additions to the theater is the expanded second floor, accessible by both stairs and an elevator, which will now include a third screening place, the Manzler/Webb Screening Room, that will hold 40 people. It will be a valuable additional space for the first-run, repertory and retrospective programming, but also be a place to screen films as part of Inman and Hall’s educational outreach. In the extension above the box office will be the education and engagement space, where children will watch clips, engage in hands-on activities, take part in discussion groups and seminars and more.
Behind that, stretching along the west wall, will be the area particularly exciting to staff: their new offices. Brightened by a wall of windows, it’s impossible to overstate what a difference this will make to the staff’s physical work environment. Before renovations, four of the offices were actually inside the 1966 Projection Room. In addition to the cramped environment, that meant listening to the soundtracks of films over and over again. After Boyhood’s months-long run, most of the staff likely know the words to Family of the Year’s “Hero” by heart.
To date, the Belcourt Campaign still has $940K to raise to completely fund the renovation. To learn more about the campaign, contribute or follow along, visit belcourtcampaign.org. An official grand reopening date, along with what programming might accompany it, is being kept under wraps. Whatever is screening come July, we plan to be there and hope you do, too. In the meantime: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYFaghHyMKc