To say a lot has changed within the past year or so is the most underwhelming statement of the century—so much so that that sentence in itself is pretty underwhelming too. But perhaps one of the most heartwarming and comforting things that have remained unchanged is the resilience and tenacity of the beloved Naro Cinema. That resilience will finally see a planned opening (with limited capacity) this June, according to one-half of the dynamic duo that has made the theater what it is today, Thom Vourlas. They’ve set their reopen date to June 4th. Additionally, Naro supporters can expect the theater to continue their wildly popular Mal Vincent Classic Series in July and August.
Originally founded as The Colley Theater in 1936, the 500-allotted seat theater went through the gamut of ownership changes from founder William S. Wilder (1936-1946) and wife, Myde Wilder (late 40s-1950s). The theater then was in the hands of local movie-chain owners Robert Levine (1960s-early 70s) before being passed on to creditors in the 70s. The Naro that we all know and love today has been under operation by film enthusiasts Tench Phillips and Thom Vourlas. And if being thrown around like a game of “hot potato” wasn’t enough, the Naro was met with other external factors that inevitably affected the way it operated.
As expected with time, the sociological and technological components of society caught up with the single-screen, Norfolk staple. A rising shift in demographics coupled with more accessibility to multiplex cinemas left the Naro hurting for business, ultimately leading the theater to take on a new identity as a playhouse (The Actor’s Theater) under the ownership of the Stein family. Eventually, the Naro returned to its roots with the help of Tench Phillips, Thom Vourlas, and their company, Art Repertory Films—-this time with a twist: The Naro would become the Naro Expanded Cinema, a name change reflective of the theater’s newly introduced focus on showing foreign, art, and independent films. But what sealed the deal in the success of this new era was a business decision by the duo to run the cinema solely as an independent theater. Following the boom of multiplex cinemas, the Naro set itself apart as a specially curated movie-viewing experience amidst the oversaturated market of big blockbusters, creating a monopoly on showcasing classic movies.
Fast forward to the 21st century, where the Naro collided with yet another obstacle in its path—-digital projection. Unfortunately for the Naro, that change would threaten the cinema’s very existence, as the theater’s novelty rested on showing independent films and the utilization of film projectors. But something raw and authentic doesn’t just fade away that easily–not if the Norfolk community has anything to say about it. By 2013, the Naro was provided a more than capable digital projection system through the efforts of a local crowd-funding campaign which raised over $80,000 within a few months. The Naro would be able to continue and then entered the final boss—-COVID-19.
Since the Naro temporarily suspended normal operations last March, they’ve been rolling with the punches just like everyone else. The past year has seen the theater ebbing and flowing like a trained boxer preparing for their next big fight. Despite having its doors closed, the theater has still interacted with its beloved community in various ways. Anybody could rent their marquee to wish their loved ones a “Happy Birthday.” They have courteously allowed private movie showings for small groups. Missed the most delicious popcorn in town? The ‘Popcorn Speakeasy’, was a thing on most weekends. Even dipping their feet into the streaming world with virtual screenings of contemporary films, the Naro made sure that, if anything, they weren’t going down without a fight. By the looks of it, they’ll keep fighting and will come out victorious.
Jasmine Rodriguez is a culture and music enthusiast based out of Virginia. When she's not writing for music blogs, you can find her working on her latest themed playlists, scouring for more new music, and taking pictures of her friends and life around her.