Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ashland, KY: Tea Party at Historic Site

“part of our job is getting people used to seeing films here again..."

Day 1: November 9th, 2008
New York, NY --> ASHLAND, KY: Paramount Arts Center

Sleep deprived from moving to my new apartment the day before, I stumbled out into the dark abyss at 5:30 AM and rolled into the car waiting to take me from Brooklyn to Manhattan. There, I would rendezvous with director Scott Chamberlin Hoyt for our flight to West Virginia, en route to the Paramount Arts Center in Ashland, KY, the first venue on the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers.

Once safely seated in the rental car outside the Huntington, West Virginia airport, Scott (a bit of an eccentric) started choking on toxic fumes that he presumed to be coming from inside the car and asked me repeatedly not to tap the brakes because it was making him carsick. Five minutes later, already lost, we pulled into a gas station to buy soggy pre-packaged sandwiches. Scott was very surprised that there was hot water but no tea. He wanted some chips, but after a scrupulous reading of the ingredient label, decided that they were not entirely safe for consumption.

Armed with directions from the cashier, we proceeded onto Winchester Ave, the location of the Paramount Arts Center. Scott became exuberant upon seeing a McDonalds billboard advertising Sweet Tea. “That’s so Southern! We have to come back and take a picture of that for the blog,” he enthused, chuckling. “Heh! That’s great!”

Winchester Ave was characterized by an endless parade of fast-food chain restaurants against a bleak background of grey sky, power lines, and a coal refinery. So you can imagine our surprise when we rolled up to the Paramount Arts Center, a grandiose and majestic theater full of relics from its heyday in the 1930s-early 70s, and to Scott’s delight, THE MEANING OF TEA displayed prominently on the marquee.

Upon entering the venue, we were greeted by Kathy Setterman and impeccably dressed Heidi Schmalbach, who gave us a quick rundown on the history of the place. The theater, built in 1931, was part of an effort by Paramount Pictures to build a “perfect movie house” in every state of the union for showing silent films. When the Great Depression hit, Paramount abandoned this pursuit, but it was picked up by an Ashland based company and the original design was scaled back by one third. In 1971, the building was converted into a performing arts center under the leadership of Ashland Oil CEO Paul Blazer, Jr. in conjunction with the Greater Ashland Foundation, and no films were shown from 1971 until September of 2008. For this reason, Kathy explains, “part of our job is getting people used to seeing films here again”. It’s a lofty goal rallying an audience around indie film in Ashland, Heidi adds, but they are committed to the project.

The best thing about the Paramount Arts Center was the people. Geneva Pritchard, a charming local with a sharp sense of humor (appears to the right in picture below), jokes that she is going to try one of each type of complimentary tea (since after all, it is free)! She tells me how she remembers seeing Westerns in the old theater, before it was converted into a performing venue. Heidi tells us that many old-timers can remember seeing films, and it is a nice treat for them to be able to come back after so many years. On an unrelated but fascinating note, in January 1992, the theater was the site where Billy Ray Cyrus, sporting a raging mullet, filmed his music video for “Achy Breaky Heart”.

The Paramount Arts Center team really knows how to throw a party. The woman of the hour was Donna Yacoe (left in above picture), a volunteer and fellow tea aficionado who pulled together a delightful tea party to accompany the film screening. The tea party featured an impressive array of finger foods (almost single-handedly prepared by Donna), including traditional cucumber sandwiches, with complimentary tea provided by Roger from Starbucks. Upon seeing the spread, Scott and I immediately regretted having eaten Wendy’s in a moment of weakness before entering the theater.

Donna also brought her own personal collection of tea pots (shown below), from a Japanese tea set, to what looked to be a British tea set purchased at a garage sale, to a Russian samovar. Finally, she was the ultimate host, convivial and accommodating. No sooner had I lifted the last curry chicken salad mini-sandwich (displayed above) from the platter when Donna came rushing in with another plate. According to husband Peter, who worked with her at the event “She’s the volunteer and I’m the slave.”

The screening was a hit, drawing a crowd of fifty, their largest yet for a documentary film screening. The audience, a surprisingly eclectic crowd of people, were polite and receptive, and almost all of them stayed for the question and answer session following the film. A lovely Indian couple stayed afterwards to chat about Scott’s travels to India. We had to catch a plane to New Orleans and so we jetted away, both extremely pleased with our soirée in Ashland.