Nothing makes a pleasant village even more pleasant, than the marquee of a movie theater. The first light on in the evening and the last light to go dark, it’s a particularly fine sight on a summer night. The Arteco Lark Theater, a part of Larkspur for more than 80 years, is squeezed into a corner at the north end of the five-block-long stroll on Magnolia Avenue. It’s the kind of small neighborhood theater that’s gone extinct in most of the nation. It thrives here as a nonprofit, owned and operated by members, reopened 15 years ago this week.
The nearly 50-year-old Lark closed in the mid 1980s because of competition from home video and multiplexes. When it faced demolition in the early 1990s, Larkspur local Bernice Baeza organized an LLC to keep the then-closed theater from being gutted. The “Save the Lark” work continued after her unexpected death. Today, the Lark is still being renovated. Fundraising paid for a new HVAC system, and a parklet will soon open next to the theater so people can sun themselves before a show. This single-screen theater of less than 250 seats does everything: it has rotating movie programs, leases out the space for private parties and community functions and serves as a venue for high school classes. The Lark also runs a popular discount show: $5 plus a free small popcorn before 11am.
Matt Molloy, the Lark’s GM, worked at theaters from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz before he started at the Lark five years ago. Molloy meets with reps of other small, beautiful theaters at Utah’s Art House Convergence in January, held in advance of the Sundance Film Festival. Last year some 700 exhibitors and programmers met to discuss strategies to surviving the era of peak television. Molloy said that the community is essential for supporting these single-screen theaters. “The businesses here all help each other out,” he says.
Before the movie begins, there are advertisements for neighboring businesses—the Left Bank Brasserie, the Farm House Local and the Larkspur branch of Perry’s restaurant, operating in the site of the old Lark Creek Inn. In addition, Molloy notes, “We have the best volunteers around. The staff has very little turnover. The customers recognize the staff and vice versa.” Friends of the Lark come from as far away as Sacramento and Portland.
When digital cinema became a cost-effective replacement for 35mm film several years ago, small single-screens around the country had to dig deep to purchase the new technology. “Digital was the downfall for many theaters,” Molloy says, “but the Lark has been on a resurgence ever since.”
The stage lighting and sound system doesn’t eclipse the view of the screen or the gold-brocaded proscenium arch. Greek key pattern border the wine-colored walls. The current 4pm show is the independent documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache. As narrated by Jodie Foster, it’s Pamela B. Green’s deeply researched account of a French pioneer of early cinema. Seeing this crowd-sourced film was enlightening enough. Seeing it in a crowd-sourced theater with decades of history behind it was where the real magic came in.