Community bloomed around Rose Theatre, now for sale in Port Townsend

May 30, 2022, 9:44 AM

A circa 1920 image of Taylor Street and the Rose Theatre in downtown Port Townsend. (NWMLS)
The exterior of the Rose Theatre in Port Townsend, which houses a total of three screens. (NWMLS) The interior of the Rose Theatre in Port Townsend; the theatre is for sale, but potential buyers must "audition." (Rose Theatre)

News broke late last week in Port Townsend that the community’s beloved historic movie palace – the Rose Theatre – is up for sale. Since then, potential buyers have been lining up to “audition” for their chance to buy the one-of-a-kind cinema.

The original Rose Theatre dates to 1907. It closed down in 1958 and the building on Taylor Street in the downtown section of the Jefferson County seat became home to a series of retail establishments.

Fast-forward about 25 years, and a Sammamish High grad named Rocky Friedman moved to Port Townsend in the 80s after going to film school in California. In the 1970s, he had always loved the feel of the Harvard Exit on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and so Friedman wanted to open something similar in Port Townsend – intimate, comfortably furnished, with foreign and indie films, real butter on the popcorn, and what can only be described as a “high touch” approach to presenting movies that was the opposite of what multiplexes had made standard by the 1980s.

“I want to give credit to the two gentlemen who used to own the Harvard Exit, Jim Osteen, and Art Bernstein,” Friedman told KIRO Newsradio on Sunday. “They were the proprietors when I used to go there, and one of them would always greet you at the door, and the other one always introduced the movie. That’s where I first saw that movie introduction. It was just great. And when I decided that I was going to open [my own] theater, it was like, ‘We’re going to introduce movies.’”

“I credit the Harvard Exit for inspiring that,” Friedman said.

It took several years, but Friedman’s determination ultimately paid off. Like a scene from one of those foreign or indie films at the Harvard Exit, the cinema magic came together in Port Townsend almost exactly 30 years ago in that old 1907 theatre space. And to hear Rocky Friedman tell the story three decades later, the blooming of the Rose has always been truly a community effort.

“In the week we were to open in 1992, I could see that we weren’t going to make it . . . it was questionable if we were going to be done in time for our Saturday opening, which was July 11, 1992,” Friedman said. “I think on a Monday or Tuesday night, I came home and got on the phone. And the next day, we had 22 volunteers down there painting and grouting tile in the bathroom, you name it. If something needed to be done, it came together.”

“It’s been an incredible voyage, it really has,” Friedman continued, clearly grateful for and humbled by what he and the community have accomplished around the simple act of projecting movies into a darkened room filled with friends and neighbors.

“It’s been the highlight of my adult life having this job that I’ve been passionate about,” he said.

From that original 158-seat auditorium, Friedman and his community of supporters added a smaller second theatre called The Rosebud, and then an event space and theatre called The Starlight Room.

Rocky Friedman is indeed passionate about his job, but he says the love between a small-town theatre and its community goes two ways – which is something the pandemic, and especially the public’s financial support during the theatre’s nearly 500 days of being closed – clearly demonstrates.

A small-town theatre’s “customers have a sense of ownership or pride, appreciation for the theatre and certainly support that I think maybe does not exist in larger and larger cities,” Friedman said. “The Rose certainly survived the pandemic in a very significant way from all the support that came from our patrons in Port Townsend and beyond. We did not get a PPP loan, and so we had to pivot very quickly, and we launched a GoFundMe campaign and it was just phenomenal – 1,600 people contributed to it and helped us survive the pandemic.”

It was a few years ago – before the pandemic, actually – when Rocky Friedman, who’s 69, decided it was time to move on professionally in order to get to some other delayed artistic projects he still wants to pursue. So the Rose Theatre, the Rosebud and the Starlight Room are all for sale – including the business and all the equipment. The real estate – comprising two separate spaces (The Rose and Rosebud in one, The Starlight in another) is leased separately.

But the business is not for sale simply to the first or even to the highest bidder.

“I will take as long as need be to find the right next owner. I am not going to sell to the first person who wants it,” Friedman said. “I have to find a good fit. Someone who wants to live in Port Townsend, wants to maintain what we have created, to continue to give customers the same level of programming.”

However, Friedman says, The Rose isn’t a museum, and the idea isn’t that the new owner must do exactly what Friedman has done over the past 30 years.

“The new owner has to make it their own. They have to put their own imprint on it,” Friedman said. “So I’m really excited about finding that person and letting go, letting them make it their own. Change is inevitable.”

Finding potential buyers for the Rose Theatre appears to be a fairly traditional process, with a local real estate agent offering a detailed listing online, handling inquiries, and arranging tours. Since last Wednesday when the Port Townsend Leader – the newspaper in town – first

published a story, at least a dozen serious inquiries have come in, including from the experienced executive director of a successful non-profit theatre in another part of the country.

“This person listed their qualifications, their business, film background,” Friedman said. “And all of a sudden I realized, ‘Oh, it’s like a courtship. You find a new friend or you find a potential partner, and you ask countless questions and you just see where that goes.”

The actual vetting of the buyer does feel a bit more organic and free-form. There’s no questionnaire to complete or essay prompt to respond to, no movie trivia quiz or another concrete way of demonstrating knowledge of or love for cinema. It’s up to Rocky to ask all those questions and to then make a choice.

“I’m just going to trust in the process,” Friedman said.

Perhaps the most important question to ask Rocky Friedman in 2022 is why anyone in their right mind would want to buy a movie theatre. Even before the pandemic, streaming services and giant in-home screens were already chipping away at traditional cinema revenue.

But, Friedman says, the Rose is a going concern – people still love to gather with others to watch movies, and the demographics of Jefferson County are older and educated. The community that’s grown around the Rose loves movies, and loves the in-person experience of movies on those specific communal screens.

“Port Townsend and Jefferson County have the oldest demographic in the state of Washington and one of the oldest in the nation,” Friedman said. “The vaccination rate here is very high and people are very conscientious and careful and thoughtful.”

“Business is getting better and better,” Friedman continued. “Right now this weekend, I have ‘Downton Abbey and ‘Top Gun.’ ‘Everything, Everywhere, All At Once’ is in its seventh week, and this weekend is probably the busiest weekend I will have had since our closure in March of 2020.”

While the demographics and financial data are encouraging, there’s also some intangible aspect to the whole notion of owning and operating a movie theatre in a small town that puts it in the top tier of dream jobs – for a certain kind of person. The combination of fine art-quality films from around the world, screened for a local appreciative audience – who’ve demonstrated their love with their presence and with their financial support – is pretty heady stuff for someone with the resources, and who’s willing to take the leap.

This “dream job” aspect has never been lost on Rocky Friedman.

“What has never been lost for me is when I discover a new movie and the pleasure of knowing that I get to share it with my customers,” Friedman said. “I never lost that sense of discovery. It’s so exciting.”

If that’s not enough, Friedman offers at least one more enticement to potential buyers.

“It comes with all the popcorn you can eat,” he said. With real butter, of course.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Community bloomed around Rose Theatre, now for sale in Port Townsend