Farmington's Civic Theater marries old with new

Marrying the old with the new has long been part of the Farmington Civic Theater’s DNA.


So the fact that this classic, beautifully restored 1940 movie house will be the sole venue for the 6th annual Greater Farmington Film Festival (March 7-9) – which showcases some of the latest and greatest “good films for a better world” – makes a perfect kind of sense.




“The idea for the festival came out of wanting to do something at the Civic, and use the theater in a different way than just the usual second run films it usually shows,” says GFFF co-founder Dwayne Hayes, who noted that a group of volunteers entirely runs the festival.


“Originally the idea grew out of my love for foreign films, so at first, it was going to be a foreign film festival – which would have been great for me. I would have loved it. But in thinking more about what the community was about, having lived here a while, it just seemed like the community was built on giving and supporting one another. So the idea of showing films about contemporary issues that people could get behind, and that would ultimately strengthen our community and the world, seemed like a great fit for us.”


In the past, the festival showed films at the Civic as well as OCC and the Holocaust Memorial Center, but this year, all seven selections will be screened at the Civic throughout three days.


“It always has much more of an impact when you see something on the big screen, and when you see it with others in your community,” says Hayes. “It’s almost like attending a religious service. … That communal aspect changes the experience. And from the beginning of the film fest, when we’d identified what we wanted to do with it, we felt it was important to give people ways of getting involved with the issues raised by the films immediately. That’s taken form in various ways. In the past, we paired each film with nonprofits and given them a chance to talk about what they do. We don’t have that freedom at the Civic because of time and space. … But we will have materials available, with information about the ways people can get involved. It’s important to us that people just come to films and say, ‘Oh, that was nice.’”

Dwayne Hayes. Photo by David Lewinski.


Michigan native Zachary Fink, co-director of one of this year’s selections (“The Rescue List”), will attend the film’s screening on Thursday, March 7th at 9 p.m. The documentary chronicles the rehabilitation, in a Ghanaian safe house, of two young boys who were trafficked into slavery to fishermen on Lake Volta.


Preceding that will be the opening film, “The World Before Your Feet,” focused on a man who spent six years walking every part of New York City. “It’s a beautiful portrait of how you get to know a place by actually being on the street and walking and greeting the people you meet, eye-to-eye,” says Hayes. “And what that does not only for yourself but how that strengthens the community.”

On Friday night, at 7 p.m., “Intelligent Lives” tackles the issue of intelligence testing, by way the stories of three pioneering young adults with intellectual disabilities (alongside actor Chris Cooper’s personal tale of his son, Jesse); and at 9 p.m., “Emanuel” unpacks the 2015 tragedy in South Carolina, wherein a white supremacist gunned down nine African American churchgoers at a prayer service.


“It’s dealing with a heavy subject, and yet there are so much grace and love in that film that people will definitely come away feeling healed and hopeful, I think,” says Hayes.


On Saturday at 10:30 a.m., the always-free kids’ offering is The Best of the 2018 New York International Children’s Film Festival, while the last evening screenings kick off at 7 p.m. with “Midnight Traveler,” wherein an Afghan man – whom the Taliban has targeted, putting a bounty on his head – leaves his homeland with his wife and two daughters and chronicles their refugee journey on cell phones.


“It’s really moving, and gives you a view of what it’s like to have to flee your country and find a new place,” says Hayes.


The closing film, “The Devil We Know” (Saturday at 9 p.m.), examines the toxic legacy of DuPont’s Teflon chemical, which polluted the air and public water supply of more than 70,000 people in West Virginia, and has become an issue for millions of Americans in other parts of the country, as well as other parts of the world.


Admission for each movie (except the kids’ screening, which is free) costs $6, or you can purchase a wristband to gain access to all the movies for $30 (which means you get one free).




Standard admission for the second-run films that now play at the Civic Theater is $5 (cash only), but when the Civic Theater originally opened on September 20, 1940 – showing the Rosalind Russell film, “Hired Wife” – admission was probably more like a quarter, and it only had one big screening room (instead of two separate auditoria) with more than 600 seats.


“Which was great if you had a blockbuster, but if you had a dud, that was it,” says Civic Theater manager Scott Freeman, who’s been at the helm since 2010.


It was designed in the Art Moderne style by legendary architect C. Howard Crane, who also designed Detroit’s Fox Theatre and the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Civic Theater was built on the site of what had once, before its demolition, been an A&P Supermarket. In the early days, air conditioning was among the theater’s most notable amenities; and on Wednesday nights, the theater had promotional giveaways of things like dishes, or Constance Bennett makeup. But it’s the Civic’s blade marquee that has since come to define downtown Farmington’s look and spirit.

Scott Freeman. Photo by David Lewinski.


Edward Hohler had been the Civic’s manager from the start, and Farmington’s iconic downtown theater remained in the hands of the Hohler family throughout the rest of the twentieth century. Hohler bought the business in 1951 and worked as the manager until 1973 when Edward’s son Greg took over. After Edward Hohler died in 1989, Greg Hohler bought the building and closed the theater for renovations for five weeks.


When the venue reopened in 1990 (as the Farmington Civic Theater 2), the balcony had been transformed into its theater, directly above the bigger, street-level main auditorium. But by 1999, “it became financially impossible to continue,” says Freeman, who moved to Farmington in 1989 and previously worked in television production at two local stations (channels 50 and 62).


“The city seemed like a good entity to take over so that the theater didn’t just become offices, or a drugstore, or a dollar store. So the city purchased the theater, refurbished it, and it re-opened in 2000.”


This physical transformation included new seating (132 seats upstairs, 275 in the main auditorium), a new roof, and a makeover of the lobby, concession stand, and restrooms. Plus, in 2013, the Civic got rid of its 35 mm projectors and converted to digital, with Dolby Surround 7.1.

“Converting to digital was key,” says Freeman. “Not everyone can - you sometimes see people having fundraisers to cover that - and it’s what’s caused many small theaters to fold.”


Freeman had been an involved community leader for many years – including overseeing outdoor concerts in Riley Park – before taking the job at the Civic. “It’s more work than I thought it was going to be, which is why I finally quit the TV station,” says Freeman. (He worked full time at both jobs for two years before focusing solely on the Civic.)


And while second-run movies sometimes arrive at the Civic at the same time they’re released on DVD; there’s also an up-side. “In a way, we have the edge over first-run theaters that have 10 or 20 screens to fill, so they have to take everything that’s thrown at them,” says Freeman. “We can have a more refined decision-making process” that’s based on box office success and what the community seems to respond to most.


This includes kid-friendly movies, and only occasional R-rated films since they would necessarily restrict the number of people who could see them. “The toughest (customers) to catch are probably in the age range of 16-30, because there are so many other entertainment opportunities for them, and if there’s something they really want to see, they’ll see it right when it comes out, rather than waiting for it to be here for $5,” says Freeman.


With these and other challenges in mind, the Civic has diversified its profile by way of some other special programs, like Friday Night Live, featuring live music performances; the Farmington Film Festival, and the Trails in Motion Film Festival (focused on films of interest to runners); and the Miss Farmington pageant. “I thought it would be good to have something in our back pocket,” says Freeman. “But people primarily come to the theater for movies, not concerts, … so I always have movies available on another screen, and we don’t have these events every week or anything.”


So Farmington can rest easy that Freeman and his dedicated staff are working hard to keep the 158 bulbs beneath the Civic’s half-moon canopy lit.


“It’s a Farmington icon – not just because of the big neon sign out front, but also because it’s the only real entertainment place in downtown,” says Freeman. “ … It’s worth preserving the look and feel of old downtown, instead of just having another place that sells shampoo for 99 cents. … And we’re always thinking about ways that we can benefit not just the theater, but the town as well. We encourage our customers to not just see a movie, but have dinner or lunch here in downtown, and just spend more time here generally. We try to connect the dots, … so people see more of our town while they’re here.”