Kathy Staab bought the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport, Rhode Island in 2004, initially simply as an investment while still active in her long and successful career in fashion and retail. Over the years she had held various merchandising executive positions at Brookstone (Gardeners Eden), Talbots, Jordan Marsh and Macy’s where she developed a clear sense of current trends and customer demands. When exactly the theatre became not simply an investment but her passion is unclear but today she’s using all the skills she learned in retail to revitalize and remake one of the oldest theatres in North America.
Admittedly, the historic and wealthy town of Newport offers many opportunities that are not available to every art house theatre. Among others, Newport is home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, home to the Newport Folk Festival and home to several major sailing events. There are also several colleges in the area including Brown University, Roger Williams University and the Rhode Island School of Design, to name just three. Taking full advantage of all of these resources is another matter but Kathy Staab seems to work tirelessly to engage every corner of her community into the life of the Jane Pickens.
The building was designed by well-known Rhode Island architect Russell Warren and originally built as the Zion Episcopal Church in 1834. Located in Washington Square at the heart of the city, the building was one of Newport’s first Greek revival structures. However, its neoclassical façade – with pediment and columns – was lost when it was transformed into a theatre in 1919. Then known as The Strand it offered the standard entertainment fare of the day including music, theatre and silent films. The theatre’s current name honors a long time Newport resident.
Jane Pickens was an accomplished singer and entertainer who had a very successful show business career in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The original act, the Pickens Sisters, sang together for only five years. After that Jane was a soloist with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. She had her own radio program Saturday Night Party on NBC and worked virtually nonstop with that show and other radio appearances six nights and two afternoons every week. She was married three times to T.J. Russell Clark (divorced), stockbroker William Langley (deceased) and Walter Hoving (the head of Tiffany and Bonwit Teller) and had one daughter, Marcella. She lived her retirement years in Bellevue House, an inn not far from the theatre in Newport. She continued to stay involved in charity work and fundraisers and spent time with her friends such as Doris Duke and Anita O'Day. Former owner Joe Jarvis changed the name to the Jane Pickens Theatre in 1974 following a ceremony during which Jane and sister Patti gave a dedication concert. In 2005 the Jane Pickens Theatre was renamed the Jane Pickens Theatre & Event Center to better reflect its new life as a community gathering place for both films, music theatre and other special events. In 2008 The Friends of the Jane Pickens was established to preserve the building long term and to enhance the use of the theatre for educational purposes.
Since taking over the theatre nine years ago Staab has continued to look for new ways to involved the community and reinvent the idea of what a movie theatre is in the 21st Century.
As just one example among many, she has been able to work through all the necessary channels and red tape over a number of years to be able to have a liquor license granted to the theater in July 2012. This change has allowed an enhancement of the experience of going to the movies with the ability to enjoy a glass of wine or a beer as you enter the theater. She is also working to develop specialty cocktails that can sometimes even be tied to the films. One local favorite is the “dark and stormy” with local Thomas Tews Rum, which has been a big hit with the sailing community.
She is working on a concept of treating the lobby of the theater more like a candy store that features a broad assortment of unique and interesting candies. The concept will be that the store will be open even when movies aren’t playing and will become a destination for tourists and locals alike. “There are a lot of different ways of creating revenue streams,” Staab said.
Another option for funding is social media and, in particular, Kickstarter and Staab has used it aggressively. So far the Jane Pickens (most people in town call it simply the Pickens or the JPT) has conducted two Kickstarter efforts. The first effort was completed December 28, 2012. In that one, 535 backers contributed a total of $61,351, which exceeded its goal of raising $55,000. Staab laughed at the memory of those efforts but suggests that both while successful were more than a little stressful. She said that as the end of the first effort approached they were still well short of their goal and it was three days before Christmas, a time when few people were all that focused on the fate of an old theatre. Still she didn’t regret setting a deadline and continues to believe in their effectiveness. “You need to create that sense of urgency,” she said. She doesn’t offer details of how that particular Christmas miracle happened but the goal was met and exceeded. All she would say was, “That was a nail biter.”
The money was used to purchase a Christie Solaria digital cinema project and supporting technology and that opened the door to offering an even wider range of programs and movies.
The second successful Kickstarter effort was held to pay for the need to fly the movie screen so that it can be raised as needed to expand the stage to make way for bands and other musical productions. It was completed this past June 28; a total of 96 backers contributed $14,712 toward a goal of $14,500. Once again, Staab successfully enlisted the community’s help. As an example, as part of the fundraising campaign Jay Sweet, producer of the Newport Folk Festival promised to do one pushup on the JPT stage for every five dollars pledged. The theme for that was “Let’s make him sweat.”
The playfulness did not hide the reality that a larger stage was critical to the Pickens’ long-term success. The existing stage in the theatre is 14 feet deep by 30 feet wide. As Staab said, “By replacing our fixed frame with a lighter aluminum frame that can be raised when needed, we can enlarge the performance space to 28 feet deep by 30 feet wide. That’s large enough for a full size orchestra. This will provide a larger creative space and expand arts offerings in our community. To be able to continue giving back to the community in our new creative space is vital, and to provide a space that is large enough for creative endeavors to exist is an important mission.”
As that successful effort demonstrated, Staab respects the integrity of the Pickens but also understands perhaps better than anyone that nothing can change the realities of a 178-year old building. “We’ve been here since silent films,” she said. That understanding played a role in the recent collaborative effort with the architecture school of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in nearby Providence.
The Jane Pickens Theatre & Event Center was chosen as the subject of a project by the Department of Interior Architecture at RISD to study adaptive reuse. The building was one of four buildings considered for the program. The study focused on the preservation, code and economic challenges presented in the operation of a historic building in an urban environment. The JPT building was chosen due to its history as one of the oldest theatre buildings in America, its urban issues, programming, community involvement, economic viability and its high value for the revitalization of its neighborhood.
The graduate students who were part of the program did historical and building documentation in January and February 2012; the actual project lasted for the spring semester from that February 20th to May 24th. It was made possible in part by a grant to RISD from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation to give the students an opportunity for a real world application at an iconic local venue in the inaugural year or its Adaptive Reuse degree. That spring project was called past. present. future.
Working with Staab and the Jane Pickens Friends group, the students researched the structure, brainstormed ways to expand its commercial uses and created innovative designs to accommodate these new uses. “Our job was to open everyone’s eyes to what the building could be” while at the same time paying homage to its unique history, said Joe Epstein, one of the students participating in the studio.
The students considered various ways of transforming the theatre into an entertainment hub that would bring in new audiences and help revitalize the area. Monica Alicea Matos proposed creating spaces for a children’s theatre workshop during the day and a nightclub to attract young people in the evening, while Aarti Kathuria envisioned adding high-end residential units on top of the two-story building. Beatriz Cardona Rivera proposed restoring the neoclassical façade while transforming the interior of the building with the inclusion of extra space above for future programs. “In the past, preservationists would have simply restored the façade” and left it at that, Cardona said. “My design would keep the language of the structure but create a completely new experience once you enter it.”
Staab said she was very pleased with the ideas the project generated and seems to hold out the hope of implementing some of them. “It was exciting to see the variety of creative ideas for the building that students had developed,” she said. “At the JPT we encourage out-of-the-box thinking as a part of our mission and this partnership with RISD has been an interesting way of expanding the possibilities of what might be.”
The RISD experience reflects Staab’s desire to simultaneously pursue creative ideas designed to benefit both her theatre and the community. With that in mind, she has experimented with several colorful event ideas and most have succeeded. “The day of the royal wedding we invited people to a breakfast and told them to dress as if they were going to a wedding. More than 250 people showed up at 5:00 in the morning to watch,” she said, still somewhat at amazed at the huge turnout for the event. Many people showed up in formal dress or suits and ties. A few came in their pajamas and bathrobes. At 6:00 in the morning they all watched the lavish ceremony live on the big screen. Every local television station and media outlet covered the event.
Staab said the challenge is to “not just show films but create experiences for our clientele. The goal is to make our events memorable and unique in their presentation, approach and/or mix of media. And we try to never take ourselves too seriously as we build events that inspire, challenge or make the experience just plain fun. Our objective is also to utilize this historic building as a tool for fundraising for a variety of non-profit causes within our community.”
Other examples include:
The screening of Doctor Zhivago with free White Russians on a freezing cold winter night as a fundraiser for a new heating system for the building.
A wedding rehearsal dinner event complete with a film festival created by the bride and groom starring their friends and relatives.
A live Skype feed from Newport’s entrant in an around-the-world sailing race as the ship passed around Cape Horn. Newport’s entrant finished second in the race.
The Great Gatsby Movie Experience, an annual event held on two Sunday mornings in August with the screening of the 1974 film that includes a continental breakfast and a tour of Rosecliff Mansion where The Great Gatsby was filmed.
Opera, ballet and similar cultural programs have become a staple of art houses in this era and the Pickens is no exception. Staab would have signed up for Regal Cinema’s New York Metropolitan Opera package but she was told that the Pickens is too close to a competing Regal Theatre and was turned down.
So, to augment the movies that the Pickens presents, Staab has worked with content providers Emerging Pictures, By Experience and others to offer screenings of live performances from all over the world. Staab said, “Our live and encore pre-recorded screenings in high definition on our big screen include La Scala Opera House in Milan, the National Theatre in London, Royal Opera House and Royal Ballet in London, and the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.
That will continue as Staab seeks to deliver what she calls “a mix of entertainment,” to her community. She seems to see her mission, in part at least, as a blend of old-fashioned community service and new technology. The Pickens has already had a live Twitter wall on screen during an event and encouraged audience members to contribute Tweets. That will be repeated whenever it seems appropriate. She has done live Skype Q and As with filmmakers. “We have to be much more creative,” she said. “Growing an organization like this is very much a community thing.”