For nearly four decades, Jerry Harrington has shared his love of art house movies through his Tivoli theaters in Westport.
He went from a one-screen Victorian-style theater on Westport Road showing such movies as “Last Night at the Alamo” to the three-screen Tivoli Cinemas at Manor Square at 4050 Pennsylvania Ave. — the first to show “Shakespeare in Love” locally, he said.
He’s survived projectors breaking down in the middle of a movie, employees not showing up, a drunken projectionist and scratched film. When a snowstorm recently hit on a Friday night, only three customers came and none of them hit the concession stand. Harrington then stayed to drive his employees home.
“It’s always the show must go on,” he said. But no longer.
While Kansas City has been “generous beyond anything I could have imagined,” Harrington said he will have to shutter the theater after the last show Thursday.
“It kills me to do this. But business has been so bad, I can’t keep losing money like this. If I drag it out I’m in trouble,” he said. “I can’t make it on ticket sales. Maybe someone younger might be able to do something. I’m 66, that’s not me.”
He thanked his landlord for working with him to keep the theater open and his staff of 17 — who kept the theater going after he suffered from an illness over the last couple of years. He feels he is just now recovering from it.
Like many American children, Harrington grew up on the classic Disney movies. But just as he entered his teens, his high school showed Italian film director Federico Fellini’s famed “La Strada.”
“I really didn’t understand the movie but was so intrigued that I just started seeking out those kinds of movies,” Harrington said. “That’s what I went to. I didn’t go see big Hollywood movies that much.”
He got a job at Westport’s Bijou theater at 425 Westport Road before purchasing it in 1983. (It opened in 1972 showcasing classic movies from the 1930s and 1940s.) He changed the name to Tivoli, put in new seats and equipment. He also had a video store from 1988 to 1998.
Competitors soon popped up — including Manor Square Theaters just a block away. But he took over those theaters in November 1992, changing the name to Tivoli at Manor Square.
The original location — dubbed the “little theater” — then showed obscure foreign films and hosted community events before closing in 1999.
In awards season, fans came to rely on the Tivoli’s daily showing of the Oscar-nominated short films, but Cinemark theaters also started showing them in recent years.
In addition to art house movies, the Westport theater has shown opera performances and restored versions of classic films. It also hosts the annual Out Here Now every summer, an LGBT film festival.
Ben Mossman, president of the Fine Arts Theatre Co. in Overland Park, with six screens at the Rio and Glenwood Arts theaters, said Kansas City is lucky to have so many independent art houses.
“But once those businesses are gone, they are gone,” Mossman said. “Personally, I think it is just a sad day for Kansas City, for the arts. He was top-notch in his craft, so knowledgeable about film and filmmaking. He was more of a friend than a competitor.”
Harrington survived industry changes from film stock to digital, from video stores to streaming. In 2013, he turned to Kickstarter, raising $130,000 under the campaign “Go digital or go dark” to convert two of his three auditoriums to digital projection.
“It was just me and the Fine Arts that had one screen each. So either we got it or they got it,” he said. “Exclusives now open in five theaters. We aren’t the first choice now. If you live in Johnson County you aren’t going to drive in. You are going to wait until it is at your theater or wait until you can watch it on TV. The old art house theater that we grew up with is going away.”
Manor Square management said it is actively seeking another theater operator, or an entertainment tenant such a comedy club, for the 15,000-square-foot space.