Campaigning to bring a community movie theater back to town, the Westport Cinema Initiative kicked off its season Saturday at the Westport Country Playhouse by screening four films that attracted enthusiastic audiences.

In an informal poll taken by the Westport News, patrons expressed broad support for opening a movie theater in downtown Westport, nearby to restaurants and bars. Moreover, the majority said they'd be willing to reach deeper into their pockets for tickets at a local movie house as opposed to traveling to another town.

Jenny Lukens, whose family lives in a neighborhood near downtown, said she and her husband don't go to the movies often. "If it was more convenient, we would definitely go," Lukens said. "And we would love to go out for dinner and drinks first."

Lukens frequently travels out of town to take her four young children to afternoon screenings. "I would love to have a movie theater located nearby that I could take them to," she said.

A Westport native, Andrea Moore recalls when the town had four movie theaters in the business district. She and her husband, Lawrence, who also grew up in town, would enjoy sharing that experience with their three daughters, ages 6, 5 and 3.

"It's definitely something that's missing in Westport," Moore said. "This town has many great things but there is definitely a need for a movie theater."

Several people mentioned that it's surprising that a town, like Westport, with a reputation as an artist colony doesn't have its own movie house.

Moore applauded the organizers of Saturday's event for working to bring movies back to town.

Beginning with a screening of the children's classic musical, the original "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," featuring Connecticut resident Gene Wilder, films appealing to different demographic audiences were shown throughout the day. The other films were: "Wasteland," a 2011 Academy-Award winning documentary; "Big Night," a comedy written and starring Stanley Tucci, and the cult-classic "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."

Robert Frank, who attended "Wasteland" with his wife, Robin Jaffee Frank, said that they were "very disappointed" by Westport's lack of movie theaters. A family rooted in the arts, Frank said that he hosted a fundraiser last weekend for his son, a professional filmmaker based in California. "We absolutely support the arts," he said. "There is so much creativity in this town. It's pathetic and sad that we don't have our own movie theater."

His wife agreed. "It adds such vitality to the community to have a theater in town," she said.

The couple indicated they would readily pay a higher ticket price if that is required to support a Westport movie theater. "Given the opportunity, I would always go here in Westport to see a movie," Frank said.

Niles Lathrop, 17, a volunteer for the program, said that he likes going to the movies "once or twice a month." Although he is now old enough to drive, Lathrop would prefer to have a movie theater downtown because it's difficult for teens to get rides to theaters in other towns. "I think it would bring a lot of youth to downtown Westport," he said. "It would be better than going to Norwalk or Fairfield for the movies."

He added, however, that he feels the tickets should be affordable. "I don't think they should be more than $10.50," he said. "That's already pretty expensive. There's a cinema in Fairfield that's really cheap. Something like that would be great here."

Carey Weber, a resident of Westport for 16 years, agreed the tickets should be reasonably priced for teens. "If you make it too expensive, then the kids can't go," Weber said. "With a theater in Westport, the parents could easily just drop them off."

Weber and her friend, Diana Weller, came to see "Wasteland" because they heard it was favorably reviewed. They reminisced about bringing infants to the Westport movie theaters when they existed years ago. The two women agreed that Westport's young people are "missing out" by not having a movie theater downtown.

Ruth Kalla Ungerer explained that before moving to Westport eight years ago, she lived five minutes away from a movie theater in New Jersey.

"I know the value of having a movie theater in town. Right now I don't go to the movies as often as I would like, but if there was one located downtown, I would go more," she said.

Lynn Minsky feels that not only would the theaters be well patronized, but the audiences would benefit local restaurants and bars. She recalled how vibrant Westport's nightlife was when four movie theaters operated downtown. "They brought a great sense of community," Minsky said. "It's a shame that they're gone."

Only a few people cited parking as a potential problem.

Elizabeth Donofrio mentioned that she would like to see a "theater center" built that would have ample parking and an on-site café.

Tammy Jersey, a Westport resident with fond memories of the local theaters, would rather deal with parking issues than travel twice a month to see movies in Fairfield and Norwalk.

Jersey brought her son, Daniel, 12, to see "Willy Wonka" Saturday morning because he has a featured role in its stage version, called "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," at Bedford Middle School.

During introductory comments, Karen McCormick, director of the Bedford show, was joined onstage by cast members Fleur Byrne, 12, and Natalie Lieberson, 11, dressed in costumes.

In welcoming remarks, WCI board member Jonathan Steinberg said the organization was "just getting started." He pointed out that "angels" will be needed to provide financial support for this year's programming expenses.

"We can't turn back the clock, but we are working really hard to bring a movie theater back to Westport," he said.

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