Written By: Michaela Flaherty
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit small businesses hard in March 2020, Madison Art Cinemas in the Connecticut shoreline town of Madison was no exception. Known for showcasing art films in a refined, old-school ambiance, the historic theater’s longtime owner Arnold Gorlick was forced to close its doors indefinitely.
Fortunately, Gorlick passed on the torch to new co-owners Bill Dougherty and Harold Blank, who also own Mystic Luxury Cinemas in Mystic, Connecticut, and All South County Cinemas in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. The fully renovated dual-screen theater, which now plays both indie and Hollywood films and subsequently rebranded by dropping the “Art,” reopened in January 2022.
Despite growing up just north of Madison, I rarely ventured into Madison Art Cinemas, primarily because its patron base was older film connoisseurs. So, I was thrilled to hear Madison Cinemas now welcomes families and younger viewers on the shoreline with its new selection of Hollywood film showings—all without completely sacrificing its arthouse atmosphere.
Naturally, I had to visit the new theater during my spring break spent at home. After attending a screening of The Batman (don’t get me started on the excellently choreographed car chase or Michael Giacchino’s masterful soundtrack), I was lucky enough to sit down with Madison Cinemas’ general manager, Lizzy O’Gara. O’Gara, a resident of Groton, Connecticut, previously worked with Dougherty and Blank as a concession worker in Mystic for three years and as a floor manager in South Kingstown for one year prior to beginning her position in Madison. Tucked away in the theater’s dining nook, we discussed the cinema’s reopening, the importance of storytelling, and the nitty-gritty of the film industry.
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Michaela Flaherty: Okay, so first, tell me a little about yourself! How you got your job here, your interest in cinema, or anything like that.
Lizzy O’Gara: I actually worked for the owners for, I think it’s been five years at this point, at their theater in Mystic and then South Kingston. And it’s a great company. Both the owners have such a passion for [their work]. And [Madison Cinemas is] very unique, so it doesn’t have that corporate feel. I just love it. This theater means a lot to one of the owners because his parents grew up here [in Madison]. So, he wanted to make sure he bought this theater eventually. And I just think there’s such an art to movies. My favorite movie of all time’s Rumble Fish, and that was made in the ‘80s.
F: Yeah, I’ve been to the theater in Mystic before, and I heard [Madison Cinemas] was being run by the same people! I like how [the theater in Mystic is] very small, tucked away, and in Olde Mistick Village. [The reopening] is also interesting because there isn’t much around here for movies. There was one [theater] in Branford but that closed in December, so I was excited to hear that [Madison Cinemas] was opening up. Can you elaborate on any of the challenges you had in reopening this place? What went into reopening?
O: Well, the full renovation took a lot longer than planned. We wanted to open in December for [Spider Man: No Way Home]. And you know, with COVID-19, materials were delayed [throughout the summer]. There were a bunch of little errors that came in and prolonged the process. We ended up having to replace some things. A big [challenge] was even just [deciding upon] the films [we wanted to screen] because everyone who knew the cinema before knew it as a fine arts cinema. And we wanted to play The Batman here!
F: I came here a few times when I was younger, and I remember watching The Imitation Game and thinking it was pretty mainstream for this theater. [The theater showcased] more artsy stuff.
O: Yeah, we’re doing kind of a mix [of mainstream and indie films].
F: I think that’s good! It draws in a wider audience. [For instance], I know you all have the five-dollar family movies [on the weekends], like [various] Harry Potter [films], which draw in a younger audience. I don’t think a ton of kids want to go to artsy movies, which definitely cater to an older audience. So, sort of on that note, how do you think this theater will help to shape the shoreline community? [Do you see it] bringing in different [viewers] or exposing new audiences to film?
O: I’m really excited to see families come here. [Fine arts films] weren’t really kids’ movies. And I really like how the owners decided to do it, where they are getting fine arts films, but they’re also getting kids’ movies. I grew up with seven siblings. I’m the second oldest. So, I love kids, and it means a lot to be able to bring families here for the first time. I get so excited when I see kids watching their first movie; there’s just something really special about it.
F: And it’s great that you opened in time for the summer! I have very fond memories of going to the Westbrook movie theater, which had free family movies in July and August. So [going to Madison Cinemas] will be a great activity for families who want to escape the outdoor heat and do something with AC for a couple of hours. Now, a bit unrelated, but when I walked in, I saw there was a sign for a film about a Danish art collector, like a [filmic] art gallery, which isn’t your typical movie. Can you tell me a little more about [this screening] and if this is something the theater has always done? I’m unfamiliar with [its past indie showings].
O: Yeah, so that’s actually something Mystic did. Since [Madison Cinemas] is run by the same owners as [Mystic Luxury Cinemas], it was easy for us to set it up. It’s very unique. It’s literally like going through a museum, and [the narrator’s] explaining the art and its backstory. It’s definitely for a very specific audience, but it’s very cool. I’m glad that they brought [the filmic art gallery] up from Mystic and decided to keep doing it here because I think it fits in with [the theater’s] original arts theme.
F: I know we’ve already touched on it, but there are so few movie theaters in the area, at least to my knowledge. And [ironically, and in this case, unfortunately enough,] I think film is really powerful and probably more accessible than museums or even books (since a lot of people don’t like sticking around for the whole multiple-hour commitment reading can take). What can accessibility to storytelling mean for communities, especially when it comes to film? Has your experience working in cinema impacted how you see stories are told?
O: Oh, definitely. It wasn’t until I worked on the projection booth—actually ingesting film, seeing what goes into movie theaters, what makes the film happen—that I really got an appreciation for the art of [cinema]. For instance, I don’t know if you’ve seen Baby Driver?
F: I have, yes!
O: To really get that story down for him and his whole thing with music and his character development, [the film’s sound mixers] made it so that in theaters, whenever he had in one earbud, music was only coming out of [that] one side [of the theater]. So cool! And someone went in, did some sound mixing, and made that feature so cinemas could play it that way. So, you wouldn’t get that [same experience] at home; it would only be in cinemas where you would get that effect with all the music coming from one side [of the theater]. And on the story aspect of [Baby Driver], I feel like [this effect] really paints the picture of Baby, who, when he was listening to music but also listening to people talking to him, could comprehend both [sources of input]. It really enhances [the film].
F: See, that’s so interesting because I never watched it in theaters, only at home. I never got that [listening] experience! You brought up that you worked in projection. Just to go back to the beginning [of our conversation], how did you get into cinema? Did you start by working on projection?
O: I started by working concession, but after a while, I started to learn more about the company, and about how to ingest film and make the playlists. Some people think that trailers come with the film, but we add those in separately. We add [trailers] to cues for when the lights come up for credits, we have to [consider] whether it’s a flat or scope [aspect ratio] film. There’s a lot that goes into just putting the film on the screen. This morning, one of the issues I was dealing with was a broken [projection piece] from last night, so I had to reconfigure it upstairs and call the person who works on projectors, who had to come in and see what the issue was. And it took a few hours. I’ve been here for probably three hours already and we haven’t even opened yet! It’s been a process.
F: What advice would you give to people who want to get into [the] cinema [industry]? Or even specifically the making of movies?
O: One of the hardest things I had to learn was that there’s going to be mistakes; there’s going to be breakdowns of technology; there’s going to be issues, and it’ll just be your luck they will happen on a rainy Saturday with a sold-out house. And suddenly the power goes out, or something horrific happens where the movie can’t play and you’re going to have hundreds of angry people. And at that point, you just have to do the best you can. You hand out passes, you do whatever you can to fix the situation. And that stuff is unfortunately part of the business. Anyone going into any form of film is going to learn that, especially nowadays, one of the [field’s] biggest challenges is technology; technology breaks while making films, playing films. The best thing you can do is be patient with yourself and know this happens. It’s going to happen and you [have to] handle it the best you can. One thing you don’t want to do is have an anxiety attack every time you’re in the parking lot going to work, thinking, “If something’s going to break, what’s going to happen?”
F: Is this what you always pictured yourself doing?
O: It just kind of happened. And that’s actually one of the main reasons I’m really glad we’re playing different films; it’s nice to see people around my age also coming to the movies and loving movies, loving the art behind them, like the sound mixing for Baby Driver. Rashmi [Hauser], the general manager in South Kingston, and I (but him even more than me) love movies. And we’re both very odd, we’re very young [for this industry]. It’s nice to see people with the same passions.
F: I’m an avid Letterboxd user, and I feel like you see the passion of a lot of young people [towards film] on [that site], which maybe you haven’t seen in the past. These [types of] online networks really open up routes for different people to become connoisseurs of art, to really appreciate cinema. So, I agree. It’s interesting to see younger people—I’m 21, so people around our age—now coming to theaters and appreciating film, really getting into its discourse.
O: Yeah, in Mystic, we had a theater [rented by a] high schooler who made a film about their soccer team. They rented out the theater and played it. And all the families [in town] came, and it was just so cool to see this high schooler already having a passion [for cinema], creating their own films. It’s hard to picture the younger crowd coming in with Netflix and Hulu and all [those streaming services]. It’s so nice to see people coming to theaters [despite the prevalence of] streaming services.
F: One last question: do you have any goals for this theater in particular? Maybe a new program you want to implement, or ideas for other family movie weekends?
O: I would love to see more theater rentals. It’s kind of hard to fit in with just two screens. We do a lot of them in Mystic and South Kingstown. But I really actually want to—and this probably will never happen—but I want [each staff member] to play their favorite movie and show it to the public. I want to play Rumble Fish here! That’s my honest goal. I want to see Rumble Fish on the big screen.
F: I went to the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban [family fun] movie last weekend, and it was really cool to see [the film] on a big screen because I wasn’t old enough to go to theaters and watch it [when it originally came out]. I watched it on DVD with my dad when I was nine or ten, a couple of years after I finally got around to reading the books. [But at Madison Cinemas], I got to relive my childhood and finally see [the movie] on the big screen. I’m 21 and I went to the family fun series and had a great time! It was so fantastic. And I do consider [director Alfonso] Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban to be a work of art, [which truly registers in a proper theater].
Following our conversation, O’Gara kindly took me on a tour of Madison Cinemas’ projection room, which also doubles as her office. I experienced the making of trailer playlists embedded with lighting cues, as well as the process by which movies are projected onto screens—an exciting experience for any film fanatic or cinema newbie alike. Learning firsthand about the behind-the-scenes efforts that go into sharing stories with the shoreline community was the perfect conclusion to this eye-opening afternoon spent at Madison Cinemas.
You can purchase tickets to Madison Cinemas in person or through its online box office.