Once a small-town movie house that navigated the local market with bumbling charm, the Garden Theatre has grown into an exhibit of Old Princeton nostalgia under its new management. This is all well and good for Princeton’s polished and intellectual reputation, but I’ll miss the old Garden’s cozy modesty.
In 2012, my mother and I saw Amour at the Princeton Garden Theatre. Amour is a Franco-German film about an octogenarian French woman who suffers a paralyzing stroke and her husband’s daily struggles to care for her. Much of the action transpires within the couple’s apartment, all greys and icy blues. The New Yorker called its style “retentive realism,” but a more appropriate term might have been “boring.” Some of this had to do with the general absence of music in the film—indeed, for the first fifteen minutes, I thought there was to be no sound at all, until an employee ran into the packed theater, bolted up the stairs and into the projection booth, and turned the sound on.
Last summer, Renew Theaters, a non-profit specializing in makeovers for old-timey Americana movie houses, took over management of the Garden. Presumably they wanted to cut down on incidents like the one at Amour. They cleaned it up, spiced up the décor, and installed a functional popcorn machine. The new Garden is, for all intents and purposes, a well-managed theater. But it’s not the same as the one I grew up with.
At the old Garden, the scene at Amour was nothing unusual. Since it opened in 1920—or, at least, since I started going there in 1995—the Garden serviced central Jersey’s intelligentsia unpretentiously. It catered to an audience that was frequently up to the challenge and reward of a Michael Haneke or Terrence Malick film, but also didn’t mind seeing Michael Bay blow up an entire city once in a while or bask in the latest adaption of a Nicholas Sparks novel. It showed European arthouse and summertime blockbusters with a carelessness that was almost quaint. Occasionally they’d forget to turn on the sound or dim the lights. And the men’s bathroom never had a door.
I didn’t care. Anyway, many of the movies I loved most—films like The Last Picture Show, Day for Night, or Cinema Paradiso—explored the relationship between a kid and his local theater. The Garden’s quirks made it unique, made it mine, brought me close to my favorite on-screen characters. To me, it was small-town charm straight out of Richard Russo, the closest thing Princeton had to the downtown diner where old men meet to discuss construction along 206 or what the Soviets are gonna do next. That, mixed with the Paris Opera House and any café in Montparnasse.
I remember childhood and adolescence by the moments there. In 2003, my brother and I watched The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King from the front row, our necks searing but our enthusiasm untarnished. When I was twelve, a classmate’s mom rented the theater for his birthday party; we spent the film’s two hours ransacking the place. A year later, a friend and I wriggled our way to the front of the line to get good seats for The Social Network, our sixth movie that month.
Sometimes the venue was packed, as with Amour or, more frequently, during the late May blockbuster and Valentine’s Day rom-com. I never saw it more filled than for The Amazing Spider-Man; never more empty than for a seven o’clock showing of Nebraska on a frigid Tuesday in mid-February. Over the years, Garden employees—classmates from high school, mostly—and the invisible management rarely seemed to care how many people attended their movies or which ones they preferred.
Given this, it’s probably no surprise that Renew Theaters wanted to get involved. The building itself was in need of repair, and the volume of ticket sales must have been unsustainable. The website for Renew says that the Garden has changed hands a half-dozen times since 1975; in nearly every case, a corporation managed the theater for a few years, sunk hundreds of thousands into renovations, then deemed the project no longer financially viable. New seats, bathrooms, and projection systems were installed in 2001. As recently as two years ago, the marquee read “ALL NEW DIGITAL PROJECTION SYSTEM!”
But Renew’s mission is grander, reaching beyond mere renovations into content and programming. They’ve added classic Hollywood movies on summer nights; filmmaker appearances; family movies on Saturday mornings; and nationally broadcast plays and operas. A month ago, I saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the 1920 German forefather of the horror film, with live, original accompaniment. Renew has excised the blockbusters and romantic comedies, sticking exclusively with “films of high artistic quality,” as the website attests.
So far, this part has been a success. The special programming is a huge coup: Hollywood oldies are perfect for lazy summer nights, performances like Caligari are well-fitted to professors and the retired, and the matinee shows introduce kids to landmarks like The Wizard of Oz and Space Jam. And as far as regular programming, I haven’t seen an empty showing in over a year.
The physical renovations are just as sweeping. Nineteen fifties-style carpets adorn the floor, a bathroom door allows men some privacy, a new paint job recalls The Purple Rose of Cairo, and the pre-show advertisements for local realtors have been replaced with Princeton trivia, courtesy of the Princeton Tour Company. In renovating the place, Renew has chosen the past over the future. Rather than play perpetual catch-up to the latest innovations in film technology, they’ve invested in what, to an outsider, makes the Garden successful: namely, as a preserved relic of a bygone age. It’s Disneyland for the sophisticated movie-going crowd.
Still, I miss the old look. It’s hard to blame Renew Theaters for interpreting the Garden as just another folksy movie house, and for capitalizing on that reputation. But in doing so they’ve sterilized it, detached it from its familiar game of slow technological advancement, of the pleasant awkwardness with which it navigated the local market. It was Princeton in all its contradictions: an Ivy-league town in the middle of suburbia, thousands of miles from the spires and quads its architects copied so meticulously but just forty-five minutes from the Jersey Shore; a place with both Small World and Hoagie Haven, Poe Field and the field behind Community Park, University students and townies. Cosmetically, the new Garden is exactly what a tourist might expect from a movie theater in the middle of Princeton University’s town; which is to say, it says very little about the actual town of Princeton. But I really liked The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, so I guess I’ll stick around.