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The Big Picture: Mad River Valley theater owner has grand plans

big picture theater

By Rob Williams | Special to the Vermont Guardian
Photo by Rob Williams

posted June 9, 2006

For months, the marquee on Route 100’s old Eclipse Theater in downtown Waitsfield has read:

Closed for Renovation
Big Picture Theater and Café
Will Re-Open in May

Despite the sign, a casual observer might not notice that big changes have been afoot at the new Big Picture Theater and Café. But look more closely. Recently poured concrete now supports a stronger building foundation, and new owner Claudia Becker might liken this change to her own ambitious hopes for the space.

A long-time educator and filmmaker, Becker projects an attractive combination of vivacity and intensity, perhaps related to her ability to balance a wide variety of interests and responsibilities. Many Vermonters may know her as the organizer of Mad River’s Mountain Top Human Rights Film Festival, a several-day event that has brought a wide variety of cutting-edge documentary and feature films (as well as movie personalities like actor Mario van Peebles) to the central Vermont community every January for a number of years now.

Running a full-time multimedia performing space, though, is a bit more of a challenge than organizing an annual film festival. Becker seems more than up for the task. A mother of two young children and wife of documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), she radiates enthusiasm as she describes her vision for the space.

“I was first attracted to film as a way of educating, of informing people,” she explains. “There is a huge need for a gathering space here in the Valley, and this is an opportunity to create something fun and meaningful, a space that allows for thinking, dialogue, and a sense of community.”

But the Mad River Valley is a relatively small community, and there are movie theaters within a thirty-minute drive of the Valley. How might Big Picture succeed where other owners of the space have failed? The only way to make it work, Becker believes, is by actively partnering with a number of community stakeholders to offer a diverse array of multimedia activities for all age groups and interests.

Brian Degen, president of the Valley’s Open Hearth Community Center initiative and one of Becker’s primary partners, agrees. Degen, a Fayston resident and long-time businessman and consultant, has helped spearhead a several- year valley-wide Open Hearth initiative exploring viable options for creating a family and community center space within the valley.

When the Eclipse Theater came up for sale last year, the Open Hearth committee talked with Becker about initiating a creative partnership to buy and maintain the theater. “We’ve dedicated our efforts toward helping Claudia plan for and manage the financial success of her business,” explains Degen. “Previous owners have also had passion and purpose, but they lacked business experience, while Claudia combines vision with the ability to execute, allowing her to launch her new business with passion, responsibility, and fiscal responsibility.”

Sounds good on paper. But how will it actually work?

“We’ll start slowly, and gradually expand our programming,” Becker says while taking me on a tour of the Big Picture space. “Ultimately, we want weekly events that will draw different audiences.”

The spacious multi-room venue at the Big Picture suggests a variety of possibilities. The Blue Theater, located toward the back of the building, will serve as a traditional movie space, and Becker plans on showing a diverse array of appealing films.

During her re-opening during Memorial Day weekend, she showed the Oscar-winning film Crash, a riveting film that explores modern race relations in the United States, as well as Disney’s more family-friendly PG-13 film Hoot.

“The kids and teen audience is hugely important to us,” Becker observes. “I’ve got kids, many in our community have expressed interest in a place where kids can go to hang out, and we want the space to be kid-friendly.”

Working with Brothers Builders construction company, Becker has renovated the second theater space — dubbed the Red Theater — adding three big windows, flattening the floor, and re-designing the sound and lighting systems. “Red” can show movies, but will also serve as a community space, hosting an array of groups and activities, from “hip hop dance classes, to art for kids, to circus arts,” Becker explains.

Then there is the adjoining lounge and café. The lounge will be a multi-purpose space, with wireless Internet, a play space for children, a player piano, and a traditional soda fountain/bar. Becker plans, meanwhile, to open the café on July 4th weekend, serving a wide variety of light international fare.

But wait, there’s more. Much more.

“Wednesday nights will be family nights, where locals can drop in, “eat pizza, drink lemonade, and just play,” Becker says. “Once a month, we’ll use Friday nights as dance party nights, doing reggae, eighties, variety, anything and everything.” And Saturday nights will be devoted to music. “Vermont has an unbelievable number of talented musicians,” Becker observes. “We want to showcase Vermont and New England bands as much as we can.”

And, of course, Becker plans to continue using the space for the Mountain Top Film Festival and other special educational events. In June, it will be Swing Dance. July will bring the Vermont Opera Festival to the Big Picture, while August showcases an “End of Summer” kids’ fair linked to the Vermont Festival for the Arts. And Becker is already booking toward the fall.

Becker is also open to being a resource for other groups in the community.

“We’ll rent the space on a sliding scale for nonprofits, community groups, and businesses, based on need and availability,” explains Becker. “We are more than willing to work with other groups to make their events successful.”

While the magnitude of her vision is expansive, talking to Becker about her plans to breathe new life into the old space makes me feel like, if anyone can pull this off, it will be her and her community-minded team, “I’m taking the three-year approach. By our third year, we hope to actually be making a little money,” she explains with a sigh and a smile.

“I’ve learned an unbelievable amount, and it’s a huge task — but we can make it work.”