Metro

THOMAS FARRAGHER

Saving the Garden movie house in Greenfield

The Garden Cinema in Greenfield.
Matthew Cavanaugh for the Boston Globe
The Garden Cinema in Greenfield.

GREENFIELD — Across the majestic old theater’s big silver screen, a young Judy Garland once danced in dazzling ruby slippers down a yellow brick road.

A small-town banker played by Jimmy Stewart discovered — with a kindly old angel’s help — that money isn’t what makes life wonderful.

And, in 1982, a beloved extraterrestrial, the product of Steven Spielberg’s whimsical mind, desperately wanted to phone home.

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For 90 years, magic like that has been conjured here on Main Street.

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That’s what has been playing at the old Garden movie house — amid the scent of hot-buttered popcorn — where part of the attraction was a first date, a tender kiss in the balcony, and Saturday matinees for generations of movie lovers, who, until recently, fretted that the old place might fade away as the credits rolled for the last time, an economic victim of shifting entertainment tastes.

But it’s not The End.

That’s not how this movie story will conclude.

And that applause you hear is coming from film fans and long-time residents who want to see the Garden’s marquee restored and burning brightly for years to come — a colorful beacon that announces there’s life in the old place yet.

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It’s a small-town story in which a small independent movie house defies all odds and notches a victory in the land where the megaplex can be king.

A 1929 panoramic photograph of the interior of the Garden in downtown Greenfield.
Greenfield Historical Society
A 1929 panoramic photograph of the interior of the Garden in downtown Greenfield.

“I think the movie theater is a hub for a downtown,’’ Dan Devine, 56, told me the other morning from behind the counter next door to the theater at Brad’s Place, where a Salisbury steak dinner still goes for $6.50.

“I mean young, old, and in-between, people like to go to the movies. It’s fun. It’s popcorn.’’

One of his early customers nodded in agreement.

“This movie theater is the only movie theater left in Franklin County,’’ said Amy Proietti, a financial aid coordinator at Greenfield Community College, who was celebrating her day-old election to the local school committee.

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“To be able to walk downtown and see a movie or take the bus downtown to see a movie is huge. It’s a symbol of our vitality.’’

That’s the symbol that owners George Gohl and Bill Gobeille have worked to keep alive now for 20 years. They rebuilt the roof. The conversion to digital projection cost nearly $500,000, a step needed to help spare the Garden the fate of the town’s two other movie theaters that have long since shuttered.

“The first 15 years were great,’’ Gohl said during an interview from the seats of one of the seven theaters that the grand old place has been sectioned into these days.

“In the last five years it sort of went from being a love to trying to pull off financial gymnastics to make everything work. Digital conversion was such a drain on the finances. But now it’s done. It’s over. It’s time to move on and try something new. That’s what people do.’’

That’s exactly what Isaac Mass and his wife, Angela, are doing.

He’s a local lawyer. She’s a math teacher and an adviser to the student council at Greenfield High School. They have three children.

And on Friday, they became owners of a movie house in their hometown where the cheering has already begun. They’re getting congratulations — hugs and high-fives — in the supermarket and on downtown sidewalks.

“It’s overwhelming,’’ Angela Mass told me. “My youngest daughter told me, ‘Mom, I know we’re buying the movies, but why does everyone care so much?’

“And I said, ‘This is huge, honey. This is something that affects the entire town. This is historical.’ She has known that we are doing this, but she couldn’t appreciate the gravity of what we are doing. And now the entire town is invested in our success.’’

Isaac Mass (right), the new owner of the Garden in Greenfield, spoke with patron John Passiglia.
Matthew Cavanaugh for the Boston Globe
Isaac Mass (right), the new owner of the Garden in Greenfield, spoke with patron John Passiglia.

The theater is part of what is known locally as the Garden Block, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s part of the fabric of downtown Greenfield,’’ said Peter Miller, vice chairman of the Greenfield Historical Commission. “It was a classy theater. You’d go inside and it was like you were sitting outside of a garden. It would be tragic if that theater closed. You see the marquee of the Garden every day when you go downtown and it’s been there since 1929.’’

The new owners know there’s hard work ahead. There’s hope, too.

Phil Contrino, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners which represents movie houses in all 50 states, said theater attendance is steady even as entertainment options have multiplied.

“These smaller theaters in towns outside big cities really create a sense of community,’’ Contrino said. “That’s important to people. The smaller theaters that aren’t part of a major chain find a way to stand out. People panic when there’s a bad month at the box office. But you can’t rush to judge this industry.’’

Isaac Mass, an elected member of the Greenfield City Council whose term expires next month, worked as a projectionist at the Garden while attending law school. He also sold cellphones and real estate and insurance.

Now he’ll be selling movie tickets at the old place originally designed to seat nearly 1,900 — a movie palace that once made a name for itself for the sound effects on its organ, 180 stars on its ceiling, and two cloud machines for special effects.

“Everyone from across the spectrum has come out and been very supportive because everyone loves this theater,’’ said Mass, settled in a movie seat one row behind George Gohl, who’s ready for his exit.

“Everyone has come forward with their thoughts and their ideas and aspirations for it,’’ Mass said. “They’re reaching out to me because they’re invested in the theater. I get e-mails like, ‘Are you going to keep Five-Dollar Tuesday?’ Of course we are. ‘Are you going to keep the Jewish Film
Festival?’ ’’

Yes. The festival will live on.

An old pipe organ adorns the lobby of the Garden Cinema in Greenfield.
Matthew Cavanaugh for the Boston Globe
An old pipe organ adorns the lobby of the Garden Cinema in Greenfield.

Gohl knows about the economic cycles that comes when you manage your own silver screen.

Last year, he said business was booming. This year? The industry trade papers, he said, are not as hopeful. “But the industry has recovered,’’ Gohl said. “And this quarter looks like it’s going to take off.’’

Gohl and Gobeille are going to stick around for a while as a sort of movie-house passing of the baton happens at the Garden.

Isaac Mass is preparing to re-arrange his professional life.

“My law practice is going to scale back dramatically as a result of taking over the theater because I’m going to be running it,’’ he told me the other day. “So I’m not doing court on Mondays at all. It’s all theater time. And scaling back? Some of it’s a relief. I only have two months left on the City Council. That was like an extra 40-hour-a-week job. So we have extra time available.’’

He’s going to need it.

The place is going to get a good thorough cleaning: The bathrooms. The carpets. The windows

The marquee is getting a fresh coat of paint. New neon soon will glow brightly. The formal ribbon-cutting is scheduled for Nov. 30.

On that date, Jimmy Stewart will be back in town, reprising his black-and-white role as George Bailey.

It’s that wonderful holiday tale about the small-town guy. He and his wife devote themselves to their family and the neighbors they love. They are stakeholders in their town. They believe in it and do their part to make it a special place to live.

Isaac and Angela Mass know a place just like that.

The next reel of that movie is about to unspool again on Main Street in a tight-knit little place they call home.

Matthew Cavanaugh for the Boston Globe

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.