Screen Legend: Tivoli Cinemas

Offering more than just movies, KC's oldest independent theatre continues to evolve.

Owner Jerry Harrington at Tivoli Cinemas

   Full disclosure: I’m biased when it comes to the Tivoli theatre, located inside the Manor Square complex in the heart of Westport.  For a decade I’ve been teaching UMKC film classes in the 300-seat “Theatre Two,” showing classic movies to students the way they were meant to be seen: on that glorious big screen.  

     Film classes are only one of the many unique events that happen in the three auditoriums beyond the neon-tinted lobby, accented by classic foreign-film posters.  Operas, live theatre and even museum tours on film are being presented in the digital venue via the Performing Arts Series. In 2013 the Tivoli celebrated its 30th anniversary — three decades of showcasing popcorn-worthy films and cultural moments.

     “We do a lot of different things,” says Jerry Herrington, who in 1983 took over the tiny Bijou Theatre on Westport Road, rechristened it the Tivoli and committed to showing first-run art films. “With only 104 seats we couldn’t call it something like The Majestic, so we picked Tivoli because it was a small-sounding name. At the time there was a renewed interest in independent and foreign films. We showed Louis Malle’s “My Dinner with Andre” (1981) and “Diva” (a 1981 French thriller). We were only a year after John Sayles’ “Return of the Secaucus 7” (1979) came out, which I always viewed as the first film in the independent boom.”

     Harrington took advantage of that indie boom and in 1992 opened The Tivoli at Manor Square as well as Tivoli Home Video on Broadway.  “That was an interesting time. I could walk to all three,” he laughs. The video store closed in 1998 and the little Tivoli a year later, leaving Manor Square, with its three 35mm screens to carry the brand.  The willingness to change venues, move in and out of home video and now offer digital presentation of special events speaks to a flexibility needed to survive in the world of independent theatres.    

     “This industry is constantly changing. Sometimes to the point where I wonder if any of us know what we are doing. The Internet, the rise of digital screenings is changing how things are done. Fifteen years ago there were times when very few films were available to me. Now there are so many worthy films, that you can’t possibly play them all.”

     According to Film Comment Magazine, 1,000 films were released theatrically in 2014 and there’s no accurate count of how many more appeared on Pay-Per-View. Given those numbers and the big chains’ ability to chase indie films and even muscle out the smaller theatres, I ask Harrington how he decides what to book.

      “You have to understand a lot of this is my tastes. I have an interest in opera, I enjoy live theatre, I have an interest in art, so I go after what interests me. We’re going to show a film shot during the Matisse cut-out exhibit from MoMA that’s still going on. In March we’ll be showing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “Love’s Labours Lost” which is set during World War I, so we’ll be partnering with the National World War I Museum. “

     But he also point out that after thirty years he knows how to cater to his audience.

     “I get suggestions all the time and often they are exactly the right idea.  So when I see something out there my audience wants, even if it’s only for one showing, I’ll get it.  The national chains can’t do that because they aren’t local.  For example, we always show the Oscar-nominated shorts in live action, animation and documentary. We have a contest and everybody votes. It’s a lot of fun.”

     He also recognizes key audience groups that pay attention to the Tivoli.  “We’ll do one-offs of films with certain political, spiritual or art themes. We just showed “Awake: the Life of Yogananda” because that topic appeals to one of our major support groups. We also have the gay film festival. That’s an important part of our customer base.”

     The latest Tivoli evolution has been its expensive conversion to an all-digital theatre. Whereas the national chains had a loan program with the major distributors, there was no such support for independent theatres forced to change over to the new technology. So the Tivoli launched a Kickstarter campaign “Go Digital or Go Dark” to raise $130,000 in less than one month. It was an all-or-nothing proposition: Make the goal or get zilch. Harrington wasn’t sure it would work.

     “At the theatre we try to make things happen smoothly. The audience gets in, goes out, the staff is there to make things happen and we can be fairly invisible.  And that’s the way I always thought – but now I had to ask for help. And our customers said, “Jerry needs help. Let’s do it.”

     Not only did they make the goal, but they exceeded it.

     The digital conversion has been a success, allowing for The Performing Arts Series to thrive. The indie features “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Imitation Game,” all screened at Tivoli, were  financial successes and have garnered Oscar nominations. Harrington readily admits that luck has a lot to do with it. But he clearly puts even more stock in his audience.

      “I’ve met so many people whose faces I have seen for years, who would maybe say hello – but I know them now. We have a very loyal and enthusiastic audience. I never really knew that until the Kickstarter.  That was amazing.”

     Tivoli Cinemas is located in Manor Square in Westport at 4050 Pennsylvania Ave; Kansas City, Mo. (816) 561-5222,