Action! A new era for the Rosebud Cinema
2012 has been a year of change at Wauwatosa's Rosebud Cinema. After being closed for six long months, it's a proud and exciting time to reopen the doors.
In an industry dominated by multi-screen movie theater chains, it’s not easy being the little guy. So when Wauwatosa’s Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse closed its doors in late February, it seemed like another sad casualty in a battle that many independent businesses are losing across the country.
It’s a proud and exciting time for the staff at the Rosebud.
“Anyone can run a movie theater,” said Larry Widen, the cinema’s film buyer. “But the question is: ‘Can you make it so cool that people don’t want to go anywhere else?’ That’s the goal.”
The Rosebud, 6823 West North Avenue, has a storied history in Wauwatosa that spans 81 years. It opened in 1931 as the Tosa Theater before being purchased and operated by Marcus Cinemas from 1940-1999. Since then, it has changed ownership twice before closing earlier this year when the property, along with the Times Cinema, 5906 West Vliet Street, went into foreclosure.
Widen said while he was initially sad at its closing, he is now ecstatic that the Rosebud and Times will stay the movie theaters that the neighborhood, and surrounding areas, have grown to love and depend upon. The Times Cinema is projected to reopen in early October.
Local investor Lee Barczak, who also owns the Avalon Theater in Bay View, won his bid for the Rosebud and Times Cinema at a sheriff’s auction in May. Called the Neighborhood Theater Group, Barczak said the three theaters are integral to each neighborhood’s identity, and he has high hopes of garnering new customers not only from their respective neighborhoods, but with the help of his new support staff, surrounding neighborhoods as well.
After finalizing the acquisitions, Barczak hired David Gigl as general manager and retained Larry Widen, who has authored a book on Milwaukee movie theaters, in a new position as the theater’s film buyer.
Widen is excited at the new ownership and direction of the theater, saying the new management brings expertise that will further support the effort of bringing the best customer service and movie theater experience possible. Prior to the change, Widen was handling tasks outside of his comfort zone like running the kitchen. Now, he said, he’s looking forward to what the new structure of the theater will bring to the customer experience and neighborhood as a whole.
“Lee [Barczak] is a local investor and restaurant owner, so he’s well versed in the hospitality business,” he said. “David [Gigl] is the food and beverage guy, and I know the movie business. I don’t know the restaurant business so I’m thinking this is great, and now we can take it to the next level.”
The Rosebud is not your average movie theater, and Widen said its uniqueness and neighborhood ties are all part of the experience of seeing a film there. Where most theaters have single chairs, the Rosebud offers loveseat-style sofas for seating. Beyond the concession stand fare of soda, popcorn and candy, the Rosebud has expanded the restaurant side of the business to include new menu items like made-from-scratch pizzas, and paninis made with fresh ingredients. The menu, which will change quarterly, includes a selection of tap beer including local favorites like Lakefront Brewery’s Riverwest Stein and Fixed Gear.
It’s not just what is served, however, but how it’s served that Gigl said separates the Rosebud from its competition. Rather than waiting at the concession stand for food to be prepared, patrons are served while enjoying the movie. Since moviegoers will be eating in the dark, Gigl said, there has been a lot of thought put into the menu items for this reason.
“My vision is to create something you can eat with your eyes closed, something you can enjoy while actually enjoying the movie instead of worrying about what you’re eating,” he said.
And where special concern is taken when considering the food, the films on screen are also crafted specifically for the Rosebud’s guests. Unlike a multi-screen cinema that can show nearly every film release available, the Rosebud must be more selective with what it shows. That’s where Widen’s expertise comes into play.
Through the years, Widen said, he’s been able to see which films work and which don’t. He said the Rosebud started out playing indies in ’99, and it just wasn’t working.
“What we’ve found, over trial and error, is that our audiences prefer high-quality action films, good thrillers and good dramas,” he said, adding that films starring actors like Denzel Washington and Clint Eastwood are must-haves for the Rosebud, a first-run licensed theater.
It’s this special, hand-crafted experience that the guests have come to expect and enjoy. Coming to the Rosebud the day of its reopening to see the spy-thriller The Bourne Legacy was 28-year-old Brian Balfany, who was joined by his girlfriend. He could have gone to any number of movie theater’s to see the fourth installment in the popular Bourne series, but Balfany said that he chose the Rosebud for the aesthetics and unique movie-going experience.
“Pizza, beer, couches…it’s like the movie premiere is in your living room,” he said.
Wauwatosa resident Kathy Lake, 57, was also in attendance for Friday’s reopening. Lake and her husband have been coming to the Rosebud for years, and she said they were eager to come back to her favorite neighborhood movie theater.
“I love the convenience, the couches and it’s good for the neighborhood,” Lake said. “When [her and her husband] want to see a movie, and we know it’s coming to the Rosebud, we wait.”
The Rosebud was open last weekend, but Friday, Sept. 7 is the official grand opening—or reopening—featuring indie-film WaterWalk. The film centers around the true story of a father and son’s journey retracing the 1,000 mile Marquette/Joliet discovery route of the Mississippi. Shot by a Michigan filmmaker, the film includes footage shot in Wauwatosa and other locations around Wisconsin.
The night will begin with a short ceremony at 6:30 p.m. with Wauwatosa Mayor Kathleen Ehley, Lee Barczak and WaterWalk cast-member Mary Kerr greeting the audience. Friday’s screening is $15 admission with the proceeds benefiting Children’s Variety Club. All subsequent screenings of WaterWalk are $5.
The first step of reopening is done, and now it’s time for the newly formed team to keep creating that special neighborhood movie theater experience that is the shared vision of Barczak, Gigl and Widen.
“Our job is to knock ourselves out for [our guests] when they get here and to make sure they go out and tell their neighbor that ‘Next time come in with me, because you’ve never been to a place like this before.’”