Woog's World: Remarkable Theater a remarkable addition to Westport

It’s remarkable.

A year ago, our town was locked down. Movie theaters closed. The Westport Country Playhouse went dark. The Levitt Pavilion stage was empty.

Realizing there was a limit to Netflix bingeing — and that we’d reached it already — a group of Westporters swung into action. They’d worked for years to bring a movie theater downtown. (There once were four, but that’s a different column.) It had been slow going. Suddenly, the pace picked up.

We could not have an enclosed space, sitting next to strangers and breathing their air. But who said a theater had to be indoors? Back in the day, drive-ins were a thing. They’re big, wide open, and there’s distance between cars. There was even one on Connecticut Avenue in Norwalk, from 1951 to the late ‘70s.

Doug Tirola, Marina Derman and their crew went to work. Within weeks they’d secured a site: the Imperial Avenue parking lot. They found a screen, and the first movies: “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Caddyshack.” They named themselves the Remarkable Theater, an homage to both a beloved Main Street book store, and the wonderful, crazy idea they were pursuing.

Most importantly, they got permission from town officials. Sure, they said, let’s see how four films go.

Fifty-one movies — and other events, like a Playhouse fundraiser, “Supper & Soul” concerts, and a screening of the Staples-Norwalk High boys soccer game — later, the Remarkable Theater closed for the season.

In four short months, the asphalt lot had turned into Westport’s favorite spot. Tickets sold out the moment they went online. Cars — limited in number, and with no more than five people in each — pulled into socially distanced spots. Families and small groups of friends hauled out beach chairs, or sat on roofs. They ate takeout food from local restaurants (an added benefit for another hard-hit sector.) For a couple of hours, they forgot they were in the midst of a pandemic.

But that’s not the only remarkable thing about the Remarkable Theater. Following a model pioneered by Ridgefield’s Prospector Theater, the drive-in hired people with disabilities. They earned paychecks and gained self-confidence. It was a win for everyone, including the town.

A year later, COVID is still here. We’re at a weird point: infections are rising, but life is loosening up. Schools are back to full in-person learning. Restaurants are returning to normal. The Levitt plans a summer season.

Not far away, the Remarkable Theater will be back too.

This Thursday (April 8), “sneak previews” begin with “Vacation.” “Ratatouille” and “When Harry Met Sally” follow on Friday and Saturday.

Next Tuesday (April 13), the Remarkable Theater shows off their arthouse side. They’ll screen “Minari,” a new film about a Korean-American family that moves to an Arkansas farm in search of its own American dream. The showing is a partnership with organizers of Westport’s recent rally in support of victims of Asian-American violence. “Minari” will be preceded by a short film, produced by the Remarkable, featuring interviews with Westport Asian-Americans.

That’s not unusual. Most films at the Remarkable are preceded by special programs. This year, the theater invites interns to help produce some of those short program reels.

In its second year, the Remarkable Theater is stepping up its game. They’re planning a great variety of films (details announced soon). They’re reaching out to more non-profits to host fundraisers and concert-style events.

They’re also diversifying their board. They’ve already got great film folks; now they want people with fundraising experience. As great as this project is, it does not subsist on ticket sales alone. (There’s no concession stand, the real bread and better for most theaters.)

That’s why the Remarkable Theater is soliciting donations (www.remarkabletheater.org; via Venmo @BeRemarkable). Donations of $5,000 or more are rewarded with a shout-out on the screen before each feature, all season long.

You can help without giving a penny, too. Volunteers are needed to help with greeting and parking. It’s a great project for civic and friend groups and sports teams. The reward: watching that night’s film, free.

It takes a village to entertain a village. The Remarkable Theater did a remarkable job of providing a first-class, creative venue, at a time we sorely needed one. They’re back now for an encore performance. It’s our responsibility, and privilege, to support them.

Ultimately, the theater hopes to open an actual movie house. You know, one with a permanent screen, real seats, and an actual concession stand.

It will be one more crown jewel in town; another way to entertain us, and employ people with disabilities. Knowing the organizers, I am sure the sodas, popcorn and Jujubes will not be overpriced.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.