When the Broward Cultural Affairs Council dubbed the former First Methodist Church in downtown Fort Lauderdale the Vinnette Carroll Theater in 1986, the ornate stained-glass windows of the two-story limestone building were left intact. But inside, tiered seating was installed, and the walls were painted black. Since the makeover, Vinnette Carroll -- the successful New York playwright and director and part-time Fort Lauderdale resident -- has produced an average of three plays a year in her namesake venue.
While the mix of religious iconography and gothic decor provided the building with a funky vibe, the limited production schedule left it vacant much of the year. A couple of years ago, Gregory von Hausch, president of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, commented casually to a friend in the arts community that the space would make a great art-film cinema. The remark turned into a grapevine buzz that reached the cultural council, which last year named the film festival as a co-lessee of the building. "The county wanted us to put the theater to good use," says festival spokesperson Lily Majjul.
They plan to. With the addition of a 16 mm film projector, a Dolby Surround sound system, and a 24-by-12-foot screen, the theater has been transformed into the Festival Art Cinema, which officially opens with a screening of The Love of Peach Blossoms, a Japanese romantic comedy, on Friday, July 2. For Ever Mozart, a French film about a director attempting to stage a play in embattled Sarajevo, and The T.A.M.I. Show, a 1964 concert documentary featuring the Rolling Stones and James Brown, will be shown July 10 and 11.
Vinnette Carroll's company will continue to stage productions, and daily screenings of foreign and independent films are set to begin in late summer or early fall. At that point, part of the lobby will have been converted into both box office and cafe, and a 35 mm projector will be in place.
In mid-July the film festival will move its offices into the renovated second floor of the once sleepy building, which will also bustle with daytime activities such as free senior films and student backstage tours. Comcast Cable will tape shows like What's Happening in South Florida before a live audience, and an open-mic night will feature musicians, vaudeville acts, even gymnasts, according to Majjul. "We want to tie in all types of arts, not just film or theater," she says.
The Festival Art Cinema will screen The Love of Peach Blossoms at 8 p.m., Friday, July 2. The cinema is located at 503 SE Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale. A 7 p.m. reception will feature a performance by vibraphonist Tom Toyama. Admission is $6 ($4 for film festival members). Call 954-760-9898.