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All photos courtesy of Madison Art Cinemas )
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It’s 71 degrees out on a beautiful, sunny May afternoon, the first nice day on the Connecticut shoreline in quite a while, and, by any rights, anyone with any free time should be outside in their garden, taking a walk, or eating an ice cream cone.
Still, inside Madison Art Cinemas in the center of Madison, there is a steady stream of customers to see Red Joan, starring Judi Dench as a retired widow revealed as a woman who when younger worked quietly to change history, and Ask Dr. Ruth, about the Holocaust survivor who became America’s most famous sex therapist.
I’m there to talk with the cinema owner, Arnold Gorlick, about the theater’s 20th anniversary this month. I’m wondering how it is—in this era of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other factors that in 2018 drove stateside movie attendance levels to their lowest level since 1995—Gorlick has managed not only to survive but thrive.
His theater is packed on most weekends and busy during the week, drawing customers from a 35-mile radius and further, with many moviegoers also staying to shop or dine in Madison. By offering movies he thinks will resonate with his audience, both indie films and blockbusters alike, he has several times managed to significantly out-gross the larger megaplexes in the state when offering the same movie.
Gorlick is known for picking movies his patrons didn’t know they wanted to see, until they saw he was offering it.
To prepare for our talk, I read two decades worth of newspaper articles and come up with more than 20 questions. I walk in, with my pen, notebook, and recorder. Gorlick and I talk for an hour and a half. I never get to ask any of my questions. But, no matter. Gorlick not only tells me, but shows me, the secret to his success.
‘People Have No Idea’
When I walk in around 2:30 p.m. Gorlick, working alone because an employee had to take some personal time off, is selling tickets, bottles of water, and popcorn, along with making cappuccino and chatting up the customers. He asks me if I want a cappuccino. I don’t really, but Gorlick tells me how he traveled all the way to the Essse Caffè Company (“three s’s, and two f’s,” he tells me) in Bologna, Italy to determine just the right machine and just the right beans.
I wasn’t planning to have a cappuccino, but Gorlick is so excited about his new machine and the beans that my curiosity is piqued. I try a cup—he serves his customers coffee in a porcelain cup, with a saucer, of course—and it is delicious. I tell him so.
“People have no idea,” he says, adding that his goal is to make the best cappuccino and espresso his customers have ever had.
We sit for a moment, in between ticket sales, and talk briefly about the upcoming anniversary. Gorlick has barely had a chance to think about it.
“I’ve just been so busy. I won’t be able to celebrate until maybe the first week of June. There are the theater rentals. Private events. Then I have to be away, there is a screening of Rocket Man coming up,” he says, referring to an epic musical about Sir Elton John coming out later this month.
He goes to these screenings to make sure the movies he shows are the right ones for his customers. While he draws many different kinds of customers, his knows his core demographic, the kind of women who might appreciate and identify with the Judi Dench character in Red Joan, and laugh along with Dr. Ruth in Ask Dr. Ruth.
Love, Respect, Admiration
We both agree he has much to celebrate. He talks for a moment about his customers, most of whom he greets as if they are old friends. In fact, many are not only repeat customers but also friends at this point.
“And I met my wife here,” he says. “She just walked in one day and she’s the love of my life.”
He says nothing is more important to him than her love, respect, and admiration.
“What a gift, to find a spouse you get to share things with,” he says.
Another customer comes in and Gorlick jumps up to greet her, walking over behind the register.
“One senior and a Junior Mint, please,” she says.
She asks about the Sunday Cinema Club, a group that gathers at Madison Art Cinemas to watch sneak previews of films, and talk about them afterwards. The club is a national endeavor overseen by Andy Mencher of Washington, D.C., and run locally by Gorlick with Yale professors Michael Kerbel and John MacKay, who help lead the talks after the screenings.
“The Sunday Cinema Club is sold out,” he tells his customer.
In fact, it has been, with a waiting list, for about 18 years. Still, he encourages her to get on the waiting list.
“If you don’t get on in the fall, you might get on in the spring,” he says.
The latest round of customers taken care of, he tells me he met his wife, Thuy Pham, when she came to the movies with her family, many years ago. She was visiting Connecticut from her home in Portland, Oregon.
He’s in the middle of the story when his phone rings. It’s his film buyer, Rob Lawinski of Brielle Cinemas. They talk about the upcoming screening of Rocket Man at the Paramount Screening Room on Park Avenue in New York City they’ll attend later that week. They discuss some other movies they are considering. Gorlick mentions an interview he heard, one by Terry Gross on her NPR program Fresh Air. Lawinski wants to know who Terry Gross is.
“The best interviewer who ever was,” Gorlick says. “She asks questions that elicit answers like no one I’ve ever heard. I’ll send you one of her interviews.”
‘Best I Ever Had’
His conversation with Lawinski returns to movies.
“I hear that might not be such a good picture even though it’s our demographic,” Gorlick says, chatting a bit more before signing off: “Alright, that’s the story, man,” says Gorlick.
“After me, he’s the most important factor in the success of this theater,” Gorlick tells me. “I don’t believe in the idea of being a self-made man or woman.”
Rather, he believes in collaborating with people who share his values.
Gorlick says there was a point when he was resistant to the idea of booking mainstream, blockbuster films, but that he realized some were perfect for his audience and that his customers not only preferred to see them at his cinema, but that they would also sometimes return again and again to see one.
“I didn’t want to be mainstream,” he says. “But then I stopped being a snob.”
Some of the mainstream movies he truly loves, such as A Star is Born—“Blew me away,” he says. Others he books because he knows they are perfect for the people who come to his theater. His screenings of The Help and Frances Foster Jenkins easily out-grossed other theaters.
“It’s the over-40 women, well-read, heavily involved in the arts, who tend to be high income earners, and probably well traveled,” he says. “That’s my demographic.”
He knows they don’t always like to go to the big multiplexes, “where people are on their cell phones and eating hot dogs.”
“Here, we’re going to sell you the best coffee you can get, and the best popcorn, too,” he says.
He notices one of the movies is over and people are making their way out of the theater.
“Oops, let me get the door,” he says.
He encourages one of the movie goers leaving to at least try an espresso before he leaves. He does.
“Best I ever had,” he says, handing the glass back to Gorlick.
The man, Rich Robinson, travels here from Waterford at least once a month to see the movies and have an espresso.
Gorlick’s enthusiasm extends to the pastries he sells, which he sources from Andrea Corazzini’s Whole G Bakery in New Haven, which is connected with the G Café Bakery in Branford.
“You find in Andrea someone who’s qualities you would not mind seeing in yourself,” Gorlick says, jumping back up to serve another customer.
“One ticket for Red Joan, small popcorn, and Coke, no ice.”
As she takes her Pepsi, she asks if Gorlick will be showing a movie that was released earlier this year.
“I saw it. It’s a poor movie. It really is,” says Gorlick, handing her the popcorn.
The conversation moves to the advertisements some movie theaters show. This customer is not a fan.
“Well, we do that here, too,” Gorlick says. “We have to pay the bills. But we have high-quality ads that won’t insult your intelligence. Where are you from?”
“Originally from Germany,” she says.
He walks back to our table and we return to a conversation about the importance of collaboration and how he values it.
“With the kindness of others,” he says, is how he has achieved success. “Shared values. Shared vision. Integrity.”
Lonely, But Not Unhappy
His phone rings again. It’s Florent Muca, from OmniPak, the Italian food and beverage importer and distributor in Queens, New York, calling to make sure the coffee maker is working just right. Gorlick is a favorite with the folks at OmniPak ever since he called once and left a voice mail asking for help in the form of an impromptu song, sung in an Italian accent.
“Hey Florent! I was just talking about you!” he says. “I’m talking to the press!”
Gorlick laughs as Florent responds.
“I love you too, Florent.”
They start talking about Gorlick’s coffee machine, something about the frother. Something came loose.
They talk teflon tape and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Gorlick tells Muce he’s coming up to Queens for a visit and that he’ll bring lunch. Muce tells Gorlick to bring some pizza from Pepe’s in New Haven. Both men agree it’s impractical, but then talk about how to make it happen anyway.
When Gorlick gets off the phone, I ask him to return to his love story.
“You know, I talked with her a few times and I just get a kick out of her,” he says. “She gestures with a certain kind of confidence. So one day, I’m showing Station Agent. Peter Dinklage is in it. And that night there is a total lunar eclipse. She comes in with her entire extended family. She and her father-in-law share a cappuccino and a cookie. And she wanted me to call her out when the eclipse was taking place. And I called her out and looking east over Route One, you could see it like it was under a magnifying glass.”
Gorlick says he was, at the time, lonely but not unhappy.
“I used to long for things. And I used to try to orchestrate more. But, as soon as I stopped, everything changed,” he says.
‘Chance Favors the Prepared Mind’
He says he looked at this beautiful, confident, smart woman, eating her cookie and watching the eclipse and wondered to himself, “I wonder how I can find a woman like that? What sort of man gets a woman like that?”
But he says it never occurred to him at the time that this woman, one of his favorite customers, might be the one.
Another time she came in with her father-in-law and Gorlick realized he had never seen her with her husband. He asked her about that, and she told Gorlick her husband had died. Gorlick told her that he was so sorry.
“And she started to comfort me,” he says.
She continued to visit her in-laws and, when she was in town, coming to the movies with them. She and Gorlick had lunch and got to know each other better. Gorlick says he wasn’t entirely sure what direction things were headed but adds, “chance favors the prepared mind.”
He remembers once she had to go to the airport very early to return to her home in Oregon, and she was kind of stuck at the airport for hours. He drove up to stay with her, bringing with him an iced coffee. In 2008, he visited her in Portland. Then she visited him in Connecticut, “and, by and large, she stayed,” he says.
They were married in August 2012 at Union League Café in New Haven.
And he’s living his happily ever after?
“That’s so true,” he says.
As we talk, he continues to juggle our conversation with ticket sales, custom-brewed coffee, and popcorn, along with more phone calls. He asks questions, laughs often, and listens to both his customers and those he does business with.
He knows we’re living in an era marked by increasing depersonalization. To counter that, he’s the master of the personal touch, and making people feel welcome. Also, the man knows how to tell a good story.
We’re wrapping up our conversation and, perhaps thinking about the nice weather outside, he tells me it’s a good time to plant some basil. He tells me the best basil plants on the shoreline can be purchased at Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford.
Just like so much of the rest of our conversation that day, I didn’t know I wanted to know that, but I did.
The annual guide to the CT River Valley has arrived.