A century has passed since Bank Street Theater first opened, but one thing remains the same: people’s interest in the big screen.

The New Milford theater, then known as the Star Theatre, opened its doors to the public May 9, 1920 and was considered a state-of-the-art theater at the time.

More than 1,500 people flocked to the venue featuring one giant auditorium to watch the first movie screened there, “Shores Acres,” now a lost film, and “The Garage,” starring Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton.

Today, thousands of patrons continue to be drawn to the theater to catch the latest blockbuster hits and other films.

Tara Ewers, director of the theater, said the theater planned a 100th anniversary celebration but due to the coronavirus pandemic, plans were put on hold.

“I think it’s an amazing accomplishment for any small business to last this long,” said Ewers, who has worked at the theater for 21 years. “Granted, it’s been different owners, but it’s a testament to the town and community that they’re still supporting us after a hundred years.”

Theater officials had hoped to screen the original film for the anniversary, but it’s now considered a lost film, Ewers said.

Instead, the theater planned to screen an Arbuckle short that was shown before the original movie for which Myke Furhman of Myke Foo Media in town recently provided color correction.

The theater shared the short on social media to celebrate the business’ milestone.

“When I was a little boy in the 1950s I would walk downtown to the theater with siblings and friends to see such Saturday afternoon matinee kids’ fare as the ‘King of the Rocketmen’ shorts and Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett movies,” lifetime New Milford resident Norm Cummings said, reminiscing of his childhood days at theater.

“I think popcorn then was a dime and candy bars and sodas were each a nickel, back when coins meant something,” he said.

Cummings described the theater as one auditorium, with the ticket booth open to customers along the street and concessions just inside the door to the right.

“For me, the theater was as cool as Radio City Music Hall’s enormous auditorium,” he said.

Cummings remained a faithful patron throughout the years, often enjoying movies “on date nights.” It eventually “took on increased prominence for me again in the early 2000s when I’d regularly see movies like ‘Stars Wars,’ ‘Ice Age,’ ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ as chaperone for youngsters of close friends,” he said.

Resident Carol McKay recalls going to the theater as a child with her mom and meeting friends there.

“My best memory is the chocolate caramel candy pompoms,” said McKay, who continued the tradition of introducing a new generation to the theater.

McKay brought her children in the 1990s to the theater. Her daughter, Katie, 26, saw her first movie “Oliver and Company” at the theater when she was 2.

“It’s a wonderful theater,” McKay said, citing its convenience when her children were young.

Theater evolution

In 1919, William Mock, who owned a silent movie house on Bank Street, decided to build a larger, more modern theater. He purchased the building then known as the New England House Hotel across the street, home of the present-day Bank Street Theater.

Renovations took several months but once complete, the theater was a popular destination for residents near and far who “had nothing to do,” Ewers said.

“When it first opened, it was spectacular,” said Ewers, who scoured microfiche last year to research the theater’s rich history.“It had cove lights in the ceiling, curtains and art deco flourishes.”

The tile floor in the present lobby is original to the theater.

Mock sold the theater to Steven Panora in 1925 for $23,000. Panora invested $11,000 into the theater so that it could show talking pictures, with the first one being “The Idle Rich” that was screened June 26, 1929.

A month later, the town voted to allow movies to be shown on Sundays.

In 1937, Panora conducted an $80,000 renovation and added the carara glass and stainless steel trim façade and the marquee, which still graces the theater today. He reopened the theater as the 20th Century Theater.

Panora’s family sold the theater to Arthur Smith, who owned Edmund Town Hall, in 1950. But the theater closed its doors in 1968 when Smith died.

Rocky Barry purchased the theater in 1973. In 1982, he reconfigured the single auditorium into two; one seating 126 and the other 260. And in 1997, the theater was again renovated, this time to three auditoriums seating approximately 120 in each. Barry operated the theater until 2005.

Garden Home Cinemas was owner for a short while before Gary Goldring purchased it in 2008.

In 2010, a fourth screen was added in the space that originally housed a theater stage. In more recent years, the theater has restored the drapery in theaters 1, 2 and 3; installed new seats in theaters 2 and 3; and added a beer and wine room.

Ewers said the theater explored luxury reclining seats but because the theater is an historical space, there was not enough room to install them. Instead, oversized, synthetic leather seats with lift-up arms were added, she said.

“We constantly have to be thinking about what our customers want and how we can differentiate ourselves from the bigger chains,” Ewers said.

“It's not easy for small, independently owned theaters like ours,” said Ewers, who referenced the recent closing of two local independent theaters, Bantam and Bethel cinemas.

“For us that's more than just making our popcorn fresh and having the right selection of snacks,” she said. “It's offering special screenings such as Mimosa Matinees, holding the annual Greater New Milford Film Festival, making sure we have the right selection of movies for our customers, giving back to the community that supports us, and most importantly, being able to offer good customer service.”

“We have so many loyal customers and regulars who we have had the pleasure of seeing every week,” she said.

“Bank Street would be incomplete without this great hometown theater,” said Wendy Clery. “BST not only supports their community through fundraising and donations, but they bring us together for movies on the Green and fun events for families.”

Cummings said he resumed his trips to BST when he retired in 2015 “to satisfy my love for movies.”

“Netflix and Disney Plus are great, but they’re not Bank Street Theater,” he said. “I hope the theater is able to bounce back from the Covid-19 pandemic and again soon become part of my life.”

Offerings

The theater offers $5 Tuesday tickets; group rates; birthdays, parties and theater rentals; and gift cards. It also offers sensory friendly movie screenings.

Given the present pandemic, it is recommended to call the theater to inquire about theater rentals, as certain restrictions are in place.

Numerous safety protocols are in place amid the pandemic.

All individuals are required to wear face masks. Face masks can be removed once in their seats. Social distancing markers are in the lobby. A limited number of show times will be offered to allow for extra time for enhanced cleaning of the auditoriums between shows. Auditoriums will be maxed out at lower than the required 50 percent to allow for even more space between patrons in their seats. It is recommended patrons reserve their tickets in advance.

Bank Street Theater is located at 46 Bank St., New Milford. For more information, visit www.bankstreettheater.com or, for movie listings, call 860-354-2122.