A narrow, century-old movie theater opens its faded yellow door to the quaint village of Manlius every evening, and one quiet couple is behind its ticket desk, concession stand and projector.
Nat Tobin, Manlius Art Cinema proprietor since 1992, greets moviegoers at the independent theater, which is nestled in the small suburb southeast of Syracuse. After taking money and making small talk – “You’re from the North Shore of Oneida Lake? Adrien Brody, that’s who has a place there,” – Tobin walks the one, long, dimly-lit aisle of the theater to the screen, where he introduces the evening’s film.
“His personalized message beforehand is my favorite part about the cinema,” said Manlius resident Andrew VanNorstrand, who has seen around 10 films there.
The tradition, which he started when he also operated the Westcott Theater in Syracuse for five years as a movie theater in the ’90s, creates what he says is an instant rapport with the audience.
“I do it for every movie if there’s enough people in the audience for me not to be embarrassed,” he said with a smirk.
That doesn’t seem to happen too often though, Tobin indicated. He said that the past two years have been very successful, and several families and local people shuffled into the cinema on a Monday night, one of their slowest of the week.
While Tobin prepares the audience and starts the film reel, his amicable wife Eileen Lowell mans the concession stand where attendees can purchase traditional movie candy like Raisinettes, as well as freshly-popped, buttery popcorn. As the projector reels, Lowell and Tobin are at home under the bright marquee lights of the small foyer.
“It’s almost as if we are opening our home to visitors,” Lowell said. “Sometimes I forget to charge for coffee!”
For the couple, Manlius Art Cinema is all about the audience in attendance. “I love the product and I love the audience,” Tobin said. To him, a film’s greatest value is its message getting across to the viewer. “It’s like going into an art museum and seeing a piece by Picasso. Everyone comes away with something different.”
Tobin said that viewing a film as a group is what makes the cinematic experience. “When you’re laughing with other people, it’s funnier. When you’re shocked with other people, it’s more of a shock,” he said.
Hannah Nast, an employee at the cinema for almost six years now, said that she understood that idea in a “defining moment” watching the drag queen documentary “Kinky Boots” in 2005.
“It was a fantastic film. It was kind of controversial for Manlius at the time,” she said. “But the theater was packed and everyone was laughing and enjoying it. No one left in a huff and by the end everyone was crying.”
To the community, the Manlius Art Cinema serves as the only venue in Central New York that shows independent flicks.
Nast’s father, Philip Nast, is a big fan of indie film, particularly foreign movies, and often chats with Tobin about movies and the industry.
“Without Nat’s theater, there’d be nothing but mainstream movies in the area,” Nast said.
VanNorstrand said that the theater is a part of the town, with a rich history. “It’s an institution here,” he said. “I love it. It’s very quirky and unique.”
The theater was designed specifically for film, not staged shows, and has stood in Manlius since about 1918, said Tobin.
Philip Nast said that while fans might be able to track down indie films on DVD, there’s nothing like going to the theater to watch a movie. “It’s the type of theater I went to as a kid,” he said.
“I appreciate what Nat does and I hope he hangs in there,” Nast said. He said that he could see how running a small business that deals with large distributors isn’t always easy.
While Tobin is quiet in his accomplishments and careful in everything he says, Lowell is quick to praise her husband’s dedication to the theater. “He does his research. A lot of research,” she said, when it comes to selecting movies to show.
Tobin explained the process. Movie distributors determine whether or not films are sold commercially or through independent theaters. Those available to independent theaters like the Manlius Art Cinema are then up for owners to chose.
Movie distribution and advertising got Tobin into the business years ago, when he was growing up in New York City and a family friend worked for United Artists, an American film studio founded in 1919 by film greats including Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.
Tobin worked for the company now called Allied Integrated Marketing, an advertising agency whose clientele includes may major film studios. At the time, movie advertising was done cooperatively, with the distributor responsible for most of the advertising as it is now, but the theater responsible for a small portion. His job, which is no longer relevant in the industry, was working with the theater side in Upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania.
During that time, he moved to the Syracuse area and became familiar with the Manlius theater.
“What attracted me to movie advertising was that the products were always changing,” Tobin said. “I liked the fast pace.” The product – the films – were always his source of passion, though, he said.
As a kid, the same family friend who introduced him to the movie circuit used to show movies in his basement, an activity Tobin remembers fondly.
Since those days, Tobin has seen a lot of films, so naturally it’s difficult for him to pick a favorite. “It’s like asking to pick favorite children,” Lowell chimed in.
Yet, some have stood out in different genres. “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo” are a few of Tobin’s favorite comedies, both by the Cohen brothers. He said that the Italian flick “Mediterraneo” is his favorite foreign film, and that he appreciates foreign films. “ I think foreign directors tell film in a different way, and I find it refreshing.”
Until Thursday, the cinema will show “The Tree of Life,” directed by Terrence Malick. As regular guests made their way to their seats Monday, they asked Tobin what to expect.
“It’s a very interesting film,” he mused. “You’re going to want to see it several times. So I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The Manlius Art Cinema tends to draw a returning audience; Tobin and Lowell certainly don’t see themselves leaving any time soon. “I feel a special connection to this place. I feel a special obligation to my audience,” Tobin said.
Tobin said he doesn’t need much else but the theater and his family. When his grandson, who lives in Charlotte, N.C. comes to Manlius, they spend much of his visit in the theater, since he loves to work there as much as his grandfather. “This is somewhere between a hobby and a job,” Tobin said.
“We have faced some tough years here,” he said. “We could have turned our backs, but I love what I do too much.”
The Manlius Art Cinema is located at 135 East Seneca Street in Manlius, N.Y.
You can keep up to date on what’s showing and other news at manliusartcinema.com.