POSTED ON JULY 9, 2008:
More to Grow On
Octogenarian landmark survives the demolition of others of its kind, looks forward to a new era of movie going
Dynamic Trio. From left, Stephanie LaFevers, Clark Wiens and Amberla Tepe are the three behind the Circle Cinema's most recent success and its future expansion.
Eighty years ago, in the stifling heat of an Oklahoma summer, this young, vibrant, growing city celebrated the opening of its first suburban movie theater. Prior to the theater's opening, all movie going--and nearly all recreational activity--of the time was restricted to downtown Tulsa. Developments like this interrupted a neighborhoods' rows of houses and provided neighbors the commodities they needed and wanted within walking distance of their homes. They are also what helped the city achieve growth and expansion.
On Tuesday, July 15, the Circle Cinema turns 80 years old and stands as the sole survivor of the Golden Era of movie houses in Tulsa. Its counterparts, such as the Apollo, the Grand and the Broadway, have long since closed and their buildings demolished or converted to make room for new business. But sitting quietly on the outskirts of downtown, the Circle remained, and, eventually, a few locals sought fit to restore the old theater--and to give it a purpose higher than the average blockbuster.
The Circle Cinema was added to the National Register of Historic Places in April of 2003, which speaks to its relevance. Being added to that list means a building is more than a mere building. It means the walls have borne witness to the making of the modern world. It has seen things most of us living today have not.
But still, if it were just a movie theater with the latest blockbuster of the week, it might be nothing more than a novelty, an old-school place to see a flick, talked about for the first six months and then slowly fading back to obscurity.
But that's not what the Circle is and not what it does.
To hear the people who work there talk about it, the Circle isn't just a movie theater. It's a beacon of hope. It's a base of operations for using the power of film for something other than mindless entertainment. It's a place of education, tolerance, literacy and hope, and it's vital to the community.
I've said it before, and it's not something I can be objective about so I'm not going to bother--you should be going to the Circle for a cup of coffee or some gourmet Popcornopolis popcorn.
I'm a fan of the Circle Cinema. I find it hard to imagine that anyone who loves film could walk through the doors, past the posters and the glass block, see what they're trying to accomplish and what the Circle has to offer, and not come back.
It's a place of, by and for film lovers. It's a friend of movie junkies, so to speak. And what do you do for friends on their birthday? You go to the party and sing the song.
The birthday celebration is a month long, with activities scheduled every week, though really, with the exception of the actual birthday party on the 15th, most of the events are run-of-the-mill Circle Cinema happenings. Films from other countries. Provocative documentaries. A film festival. Special guests out the wazoo and even a midnight movie with a bicycle giveaway.
This stuff isn't special for the Circle. It's the norm.
And to think, the place is still running with just one full-size screen. It's unfortunate because that wasn't the plan. If Clark Wiens, co-founder and president of the Circle Cinema Foundation board of directors, had his way, the Circle would've been restored to its full glory two years ago.
The history of the Circle is well documented on the theater's Website, but I'll go ahead and give you the CliffsNotes version here. Leigh Ann Zeigler and Cynthia Savage put in all the hard work originally.
Built in 1928, the Circle Cinema was at the forefront of modern construction, with a "steel foundation" capable of supporting four additional stories. That's what the history says, anyway. Wiens has a different take.
"All these buildings were built in 1928. There is no foundation," he said. "They're just looking for an excuse to fall down."
By "all these," he's referring to the rest of the storefronts of Whittier Square, Tulsa's first suburban shopping center and the Circle's home.
The theater's second story featured "modern" efficiency apartments with electric refrigerators, while the first housed the theater itself, complete with pipe organ for the occasional silent film (the pipe organ has been restored and will again take up residence in the building upon completion of reconstruction, said Wiens).
The Circle operated pretty much continuously until the early 1960s when it was closed temporarily for renovation, then reopened. At some point between the mid-60s and mid-70s, the Circle closed again. It was later reopened as an adult theater, something the current proprietors would rather forget.
The theater had been sitting empty for nine years when it was purchased by the Circle Cinema Foundation in February of 2003. At the time, Whittier Square was itself in the midst of a rebirth of sorts, and it was just such a thing that attracted the Foundation to the old building.
"We wanted to be a part of bringing the neighborhood back," said Wiens.
And so they have. The Circle II, a new theater in the space next door to the original Circle, opened on Oct. 1, 2004.
"We've probably had 100,000 people go through here in the past four years," said Wiens.
There's just the one theater with a mere 110 seats, and yet 100,000 visitors. Just wait until they get the other two screens functioning.
Two weeks ago, Clark Wiens gave me a tour of the Circle, just as he did back in October 2004. Just as he did almost four years ago, he filled my head with visions of the future, painting over the construction of the present with visions of digital Technicolor and the dulcet tones of Dolby Digital.
The difference between then and now, however, is striking. Back in 2004, when we stepped between the lobby of the Circle II and the old Circle theater, you could see the ribs of the venerable theater, steel girders exposed to the air. You could walk down the slope of concrete and peer at the back wall and imagine what the place looked like.
Now there's a plywood door in a makeshift wall, padlock threaded through a simple metal latch. When you open that plywood door and peer out to where the heart of the Circle once stood, there's nothing but a muddy puddle, open sky and a nice view of the back parking lot.
It wasn't meant to be that way. When the project began, the plan was to use the existing structure and remake the insides. And then the construction crew happened. A mistake was made and the back wall was torn up, the end result of which was the demolition of all but the front quarter of the building.
"The roof had to come off," said Stephanie LaFevers, executive director of the Circle Cinema Foundation. "There was no shell left."
Worse still, though Wiens had taken out insurance policies above and beyond the call of adequate coverage and the fault was admitted by the construction crew, the insurance company did not want to settle. They brought in a whole crew of high-priced lawyers. Wiens said they were basically outgunned.
"The settlement was not adequate," he said.
The new date for the reopening of the reconstructed Circle is spring of 2009. When that happens, there'll be two new theaters--the Circle and the Circle I (that's three total). The former will seat 250, the latter 125. Both will be state of the art, with digital projectors and bleeding edge sound systems.
They've even picked out the chairs. There's a blue one sitting in the lobby of the Circle II. You're more than welcome to drop by and sit in it. For $480, you can get your name on one.
But in the meantime, the lack of seats has been a continual problem for Wiens and Amberla Tepe, the Circle's office manager, as they try to book bigger and better films, only to lose them to the AMC. Distributors want guarantees. They see fewer seats as a loss of potential income.
"Programming is so stressful because we only have the one screen," said Wiens. "We have a good relationship with distributors, but we can't sell enough tickets."
Tepe said they go the extra mile to get films, stopping short of actually begging.
"The distributors don't expect us to do everything that we do," she said.
"We'll promote your film," said Wiens. "That's our job."
"Promote" means something different to the staff of the Circle than it does everywhere else. At most movie theaters, promoting a film means building a six-foot cardboard standee for the lobby and displaying the poster.
At the Circle, it means there'll be an appearance by the film's director, actors, subjects, producers, writers... Someone who had a hand in the film will be on hand before or after a showing on opening weekend to discuss it.
For instance, Tulsa actor Tim Blake Nelson was on hand to discuss his film, The Grey Zone, sometime during the Circle's first year, and Larry Clark, another Tulsan, visited to discuss Wassup, Rockers in 2006.
This is not passive entertainment.
It's an experience that caters to the film lover, and adds an educational component to the experience.
The hard work has paid off as occasionally, the Circle has managed to get exclusive showings of higher profile films, which in turn has brought more viewers to the theater.
"I think it's good we sometimes have the films with the big stars in them," said LaFevers.
Another challenge for the theater has been the location. Being the northernmost movie theater in Tulsa means people who live in south Tulsa think they're going to north Tulsa to watch a movie. Like it or not, when you say "north Tulsa" to a southsider, there are certain connotations associated. They automatically feel unsafe.
"In our three-and-a-half years, we've convinced people to come to north Tulsa," said Wiens. "We've never had a problem. We've never had a car broken into. So in that way, the community does support us. That they drive all the way up here shows they support us."
The Circle crew hasn't let the setbacks inhibit its agenda. It's just made them creative. They've rented out the Circle II to businesses for meetings and are in the process of installing laptop hookups in several seats in the theater.
"They'll be hooked directly into the projector," said Wiens.
And then there's the Quad. The Quad is a small screen in the back of the gallery section of the lobby. I say lobby. I'm not sure what to call it. The current "lobby" area features a concessions stand, an art gallery, what looks like sidewalk seating for maybe 100 and, of course, the Quad itself, which can be closed off for private meetings, or opened up for standing-room only screenings of any kind. They've shown the OSU/OU Bedlam game there. The Oscars. The Golden Globes. You name it.
"The Quad is full all the time," said Wiens.
Partnering with the Community
The Circle's primary mission is "to use film to foster understanding and appreciation of the diversity of the human experience, and create community among the viewers in the restored historic Circle Cinema."
In the past four years, LaFevers said, the Circle has accommodated more than 120 different schools and non-profit organizations.
"There's not a non-profit we haven't cooperated with," said Wiens. "We look for them. It's really been one of our specialties. It doesn't make you rich, but it makes us more valuable to Tulsa. We've had a lot of people thank us for showing films."
According to Wiens, ahead of pretty much everything else, the primary function of the Circle is education.
"We want to make our community as smart and literate as we can through film," he said.
The primary outreach program for the Circle is "Journeys in Film," which was founded in 2003 to "promote international education, cultural understanding, diversity learning, media literacy and civic engagement among middle-school students."
The pilot year included 18 teachers from eight schools throughout Tulsa. More than 1,800 students participated. It's grown since then. The curriculum of the program focuses on exposing students to foreign language films and includes planned discussions and progressive lesson plans for the teachers.
"If you come here during the day, two or three days a week, you'll find school children here," Wiens said. "We get so many thank-you letters from kids, we have to throw them away. Kids like movies. If we can convert that into a learning experience, you've won that battle."
The most successful partnership has been with the Kendall-Whittier Elementary School. KW Elementary has 11 first-grade classes with students from the poorest demographic in the city. The program began with just first grade, but each year, they've added another.
"This year, we're adding third grade," LaFevers said. "We do that as part of the partners in education program through Tulsa Public Schools."
But the Circle doesn't just cater to elementary school children.
"We work with TU a lot," said Wiens. "All their film festivals are here, and we employ several TU grads and interns."
The Circle is also home to several multicultural clubs, such as Alliance Francais de Tulsa. When we say "home," consider that the theater has made an effort to feature French language films, such as Priceless, Flight of the Red Balloon (July 18), Tell No One (Aug. 1) and The Last Mistress (Aug. 29).
Additionally, the Circle has thrown open its arms to the Oklahoma filmmaking community. For the past three years, each Thursday, the Oklahoma Moviemakers have met in the Quad. In the future, LaFevers said, they hope to offer filmmaking workshops.
"We've entwined ourselves with the film community," said Wiens. "They can use our facility for nothing. We don't claim to be the center, but we certainly want to be a part of it. Most of the films made in Oklahoma we're getting to premier here."
At some point, Wiens' own films will play at the Circle. Since construction began, Wiens has had a film crew documenting the Circle's journey back to life. It's going to be called Saving the Last Picture Show.
"We've been filming since the first day we started," he said. The footage is being cut together by former Tulsa film critic Dennis King and has already debuted in two shorter-form works.
This is in addition to the documentary he's already been working on for years, Thumbs Up, Vietnam, a full-length doc about his late brother-in-law's tour or duty during the Vietnam War.
The Circle has also become the favored venue of most of Tulsa's homegrown film festivals, such as New Genre, Blue November, MS Regatta, OUT-OK, PFLAG Pride, Bare Bones International, OSU Women's, Tulsa Overground, First Circle Native American, Tulsa United, CAN, and Dance on Camera film festivals.
That averages out to one a month over the course of the year. Basically, it's all the festival you can eat. Combine the festivals with the aggressive programming and you have plenty of reasons to visit the Circle.
A few years back, the Oklahoma Walk of Fame debuted. It's an installation along the lines of the stars in the sidewalks in Hollywood, only these are circles with the names of Oklahomans who've made an impact in the world of movies.
"I want people to be able to come walk the Walk at 3am," said Wiens. "We'll have 24 in total when we're finished."
Some of the upcoming circles will feature Bill Hader, Chuck Norris, Reba McEntire, Ben Johnson, William Boyd, Brad Pitt, Dennis Letts and Gene Autry.
They Don't Do It For the Money
First, there's the obvious. The Circle is a non-profit. Raking in fistfuls of cash is not the objective here. Wiens doesn't ever discuss the theater's box office take, probably because, to him, it's irrelevant. Up until this past year, the only numbers kept were those of paying customers. Free events weren't counted.
"Twenty-five percent of our events are free," said Wiens. "We don't keep track of who's through here."
Wiens' motivation for being involved is overt: he's a film junkie and what's more, he believes in the power of film to change the world.
He's a guy who'll watch five movies on a Sunday, who will travel to New York City just to screen a film for a potential showing at the Circle. He's tireless and his enthusiasm for the Circle is boundless.
"For all of us here, because the theater is 80 years old and we're not, it means this thing is bigger than we are," said Wiens. "Anytime you work on something bigger than you are, it's important."
LaFevers is no stranger to working on projects bigger than herself. Prior to taking the job with the Circle, she spent 15 years in the non-profit health industry.
"My interest was in bringing the Circle back to life," she said. "It's a part of Tulsa history, the last of the old movie theaters. Hearing the stories people have who came here as children is heartwarming."
For Tepe, the gig at the Circle was her first right out of college. A graduate of Oklahoma State University, she received her degree in English, with an emphasis in film studies.
"It was a perfect fit for me because I love film," she said, "but I've stayed here because of the people. Everyone here is very passionate about film. It's not for the money. We're providing the community what no one else is. You can't go to the AMC and listen to Tim Blake Nelson talk about his film.
"And it's not corporate. It's something we're all working on together and it's different every day. I like that it's not spelled out for me."
The Circle is the kind of place that attracts individuals who want to change the world.
"Educate. Enlighten. Entertain. Those three words are the crux of what we do here," said LaFevers.
"We're trying to educate through entertainment," Wiens said. "We're trying to make our community conscious of everything going on in the world through film. We want to show people what its like to life in different communities around the globe.
"The world is a very small place. We're all such different people, we just have to learn to live together. The more we know about each other, the better we'll get along. Film can help us learn."
In spite of all the good the Circle has done the first few years of its renaissance, it now needs the help of the community it serves.
The construction problems have sapped the financial reserves of the Circle Cinema Foundation. Where once there was a theater to be renovated, now there's a hole filled with muddy rainwater.
The Circle needs Tulsa's help.
The capital campaign Coming Full Circle kicks off Tues., July 15. The goal is to raise $1.5 million to complete the project.
"Beth Bovaird is going to be our chairman," said Wiens, "and our honorary co-chairs are Tim Blake Nelson and Peggy Helmerich."
"Our chairs, both Oklahomans, have a connection to film," LaFevers said.
"Our goal the last two or three years has been to prove our worth to the city" Wiens said. "We think we're impacting our community for the better. We think the Circle hasn't begun to make the impact that it will in the cultural change of Tulsa."
On Tues., July 8, the Circle sponsored One Week, a Buster Keaton silent film, as part of the Starlight Concert series on the west bank of the Arkansas River. Later this week on the Fri., July 11, you can catch To Tulsa and Back: On Tour with J.J. Cale, which is being shown in conjunction with Cain's Ballroom. Pretty much all of J.J. Cale's band is going to be on hand, with the notable exception of Cale himself (because he's afraid of flying).
On the Sat., July 12, the Circle is hosting Roy Clark's new film, Palo Pinto Gold, and Clark himself will be on hand to discuss the film and be honored with his own stone on the Circle's Walk of Fame.
On the Sun., July 13, there's the dedication of Ben Johnson's circle on the Walk of Fame as well as the documentary Cowboys in Tall Grass. Tues., July 15 is the birthday party. Wed., July 16 is the opening of the Tulsa Girls Art School Project gallery show, and July 17-20, the Circle hosts the Oklahoma Center for Community Justice's 50th anniversary film festival.
On Fri., July 18, the feature film Flight of the Red Balloon opens, followed by July's Midnight Movie, Pee Wee's Big Adventure (might be that bicycle giveaway I mentioned before).
The month wraps up with the Chet Baker documentary Let's Get Lost on the Sun., July 20 (featuring several special guests including Baker's son, Paul), and then the feature film Jellyfish (in Hebrew), and the documentary Bigger, Faster, Stronger on the Fri., July 25.
Happy birthday, indeed.
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