The Latchis is an iconic theater, hotel and pub. In the event of a pandemic, this can be a problem.

The marquee at the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro offers words of consolation as the Covid-19 pandemic begins in March 2020. Photo by Kevin O’Connor / VTDigger

When the family of Greek immigrants turned impresario Latchis announced the official opening of their namesake Brattleboro theater and hotel in the fall of 1938, members aimed to storm the state – even after the passage of the Historic Great New England hurricane the day before.

Thwarted by downed trees and utility lines, they nevertheless quarreled over 20th Century Fox’s musical “My Lucky Star”, the Felix Ferdinando orchestra (“Direct from Million Dollar Pier, Atlantic City”, s’ the bill is exclaimed) and a packed house of 1,200 people. to stay true to the old adage: “The show must go on.” “

Eight decades later, the four-story art deco monument has survived everything from the advent of television to the $ 500,000 in flood damage from Tropical Storm Irene of 2011. Then 2020 began with the announcement of an impending global pandemic.

“I remember reading that the industries most likely to be affected would be hospitality and entertainment,” said Latchis executive director Jon Potter, who oversees not only a 30-room boutique hotel and a movie theater. with four screens, but also the lease of a pub and several windows. “You couldn’t conceive of something that concerned us more directly. “

At the opening of the film, the Latchis had paraded Judy Garland’s Emerald City car through town to announce the arrival in 1939 of “The Wizard of Oz”. And so, temporarily closing in March 2020, he wrote “There is no place like home” on his marquee and waited to see if he could withstand Cyclone Covid-19.

“At worst, we were losing $ 1,000 a day,” Potter says. “We lost 96% of our income for two or three months in a row, but we still had to run the boilers and power our projectors so they didn’t break down and fail. I was very worried that a microbial virus – rather than the epic and biblical things we stood up to – would leave us dead in the water. “

A year and a half later, the Latchis tell a surprisingly different story.

A vintage postcard for the Latchis Hotel in Brattleboro features a 1945 photo of the Main Street building. Courtesy of the Latchis

“A city within a city, all under one roof”

At the turn of the 20th century, Demetrios Latsis, 37 (more on this spelling later) bid farewell to his wife and children in Greece and sailed west in search of the American Dream.

Reaching the Statue of Liberty, the peddler aspired to start a business – starting with a cart of fruit that he would push and haul from town to town – before returning to his homeland to pick up his family. But first, Latsis faced an immigration officer who, asking for his last name, misspelled the answer to “Latchis.”

These letters and the man they labeled would light up more than a dozen marquees in New England during the Roaring Twenties, with theaters in Brattleboro, Springfield, Windsor, Woodstock and 10 other communities in neighboring Massachusetts and New Hampshire. .

(Vermont writer Gordon Hayward tells the whole story in his 2016 book “Greek Epic: The Latchis Family and the New England Theater Empire They Built.”)

After the Patriarch’s death in 1932, his children honored him by constructing the Latchis Memorial Building in downtown Brattleboro.

“City within city” read advertisements for the theater, hotel, restaurant and shops. “All under one roof.”

The Latchis provided entertainment and escapes during the Depression and World War II, only to struggle for decades to come, as the arrival of Interstate 91 and the Internet drew people elsewhere.

The family would sell their theaters one by one until 2003, when the nonprofit Latchis Arts raised $ 1.6 million to buy the Brattleboro building. Supporters raised an additional $ 550,000 a decade later to renovate the theater with help from EverGreene Architectural Arts – whose clients include the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in New York – and Carnegie supplier Irwin Seating Co. Lobby.

Artist Lajos “Louis” Jámbor painted murals from Greek mythology before the opening in 1938 of the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro. Photo by Lewis R. Brown

“What you cannot see can hurt you”

As Vermonters gathered for town hall meetings in early March 2020, the Latchis filled their Main Street window card with a movie poster for “The Invisible Man.”

“What you can’t see can hurt you,” its slogan read.

No one knew it was less of a take than a prophecy.

Potter remembers hearing about a virus in China and on cruise ships when the Latchis hosted performances at the New England Center for Circus Arts on the weekend of March 7 and 8, 2020.

“We were all focused on washing our hands,” Potter said. “We had no idea. “

Five days later, Vermont Governor Phil Scott declared a Covid-19 state of emergency. In response, the Latchis laid off their two dozen full-time and part-time employees and shut down for what all hoped would not exceed a month.

“I have a distinct memory of the theater staff wrapping up all the popcorn that was left in the machine,” Potter said. “It kind of marked that dark moment in the saddest way.”

The hotel continued to house a few essential workers. But Potter, the head of the rare nonprofit that owns and operates multiple for-profit businesses, was the only person present for most of the spring of 2020.

“I would sit down every morning and track every check I wrote,” he recalls. “We had money in the bank, but we were bleeding money.”

Potter will not reveal specific finances other than to say that pre-pandemic reserves were “in the tens of thousands of dollars” while expenses threatened to devour them in “a few months” in particular. with a restaurant and bar rented under renovation. empty.

“At worst, our thought was to try and lose as little money as possible,” he says. “But a big part of this building is non-negotiable. Our annual flood insurance is north of $ 20,000. It was certainly a deer feeling in the headlights.

The main auditorium of the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro can accommodate 750 people. Courtesy of the Latchis

“This is how we are meant to be”

Point out the federal paycheck protection program, which awarded the Latchis some $ 180,000 last year to rehire staff and reopen – starting with a screening of “The Wizard of Oz” in June 2020.

“I remember when the popcorn machine turned on and that smell filled the hall again,” Potter said. “I was like, ‘This is how we’re meant to be.'”

Others felt differently. The cinema’s four screens can accommodate 1,000 moviegoers at a time. But on each of the first weekends back, the collective crowds were no more than three dozen.

“We kind of felt like someone was expecting a date,” Potter said, “and maybe the date wasn’t going to show up.”

In August 2020, the theater decided to hire out for private screenings, with its 750-seat main auditorium priced at $ 125 for up to 75 family and friends.

Suddenly the wallflower was back on the dance floor.

“There were weekends where we had a dozen rentals,” Potter said. “I joked that we had become the birthday headquarters for the Chuck E. Cheese kids in Brattleboro, but it really got us back to people.”

These 450 events not only helped pay the bills, but also led to at least one wedding.

“There was a movie with a proposal scene, and a gentleman brought his bride-to-be on stage with the ring hidden in a bucket of popcorn,” Potter says. “These kinds of stories are good anytime, but especially during a pandemic.”

In the fall of 2020, foliage trafficking and more federal and state money helped the Latchis turn a profit by accumulating money for the cold to come.

“We’re like a farmer – we make our hay in the summer and in the fall,” Potter says, “and then in the winter we eat our preserves and look forward to when we can start over. “

A 1939 parade sponsored by the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro announces the arrival of the “Wizard of Oz”. Photo by Lewis R. Brown

“Resilience is evident in our history”

This spring brought the Covid-19 vaccine and, for business, a huge bullet in the arm. The hotel, for example, has matched or exceeded its pre-pandemic bookings since Memorial Day, with July hitting a monthly high.

“I think there is certainly pent-up travel demand,” Potter says, “and Vermont and New England have a safer track record.”

The theater found 2021 more difficult. Business increased in early summer, only to fall to about half of the seasonal average when the highly contagious Delta variant increased the number of local and state Covid-19s.

This, in turn, infected Potter’s email. One local wrote: “Why are you always open? You are going to kill people. A second replied: “As long as you keep sending messages about having to wear masks, I will not come.”

In many ways, the Latchis is learning to navigate the space in between.

“We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, but it’s also a time of transition,” Potter says. “We are in the midst of tectonic cultural changes. This is not what is going to be normal.

Faced with competition from streaming and other entertainment choices, the Latchis predicts that its future will draw more from its past – when films shared the bill with live performances – and harness technology, opera and theater. simultaneously from sites around the world.

“I see this as a time for us to determine how we are going to diversify our portfolio,” Potter said. “Even before the pandemic strikes, the value of resilience is evident in our history. We’ve been through a lot, and we’re still going through it, but I don’t have the impending existential worries that I had at the start. We got a glimpse of the fact that we’re still loved, and that keeps us going. “

The Latchis Memorial Building in Brattleboro remains an Art Deco monument eight decades after it opened in 1938. Photo by Kevin O’Connor / VTDigger

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