It took quite a while, and north of $10 million, but last month the long-closed Park Cinema in Cranston opened as the ambitiously named Rhode Island Center for Performing Arts. And in the coming weeks, the first real happening at the center: the premier of an indie movie shot in the city where it will screen.
The center's first-floor 848 Lounge and Park Internet Café have been open for a couple of months. The second-floor, 200-seat restaurant space is being used as a weekend comedy club and for banquets and weddings until completion. A 1200-seat theater will present single-night performances, films, and televised sports events, among other activities. There are plans with a Greater Boston-based theater to do five or six weekly and multi-night theatrical presentations.
Filling a city block at the junction of Park and Pontiac Avenues, the building was born in 1924 as a splendid Art Deco movie palace. It was almost demolished in 1963 when its owners wanted to tear it down to put up a gas station. Its savior is Piyush "Pi" Patel, an India-born entrepreneur who had plans for reopening it as a first-run cinema when he bought it in 1999 for $300,000. But the opening of the Showcase Cinema at the nearby Warwick Mall killed that idea, so Patel put the building back on the market two years after buying it. By the time his plans for its resurrection were announced in 2003, Park Cinema was a derelict building, littered with debris, the seats of its three theaters torn out and sold long before.
Amidst celebration and back-slapping at the time, the relieved included then-mayor Stephen P. Laffey, who announced that "This is a great day!" (Even more relieved was the economic development director, who had been bluntly told by the mayor that keeping his job depended on saving the cinema.) Bringing the building back to life has been key to revitalizing the adjoining Rolfe Square business district; economic optimism is hardly enhanced by empty buildings, especially one as prominently located as this — across the street from Cranston City Hall, where parking for 400 cars has been made available.
Despite the eager cooperation of the city, one sticking point for the project was a state law prohibiting alcohol being sold within 200 feet of a school, in this case Cranston High School East. However, a special exemption was granted by the General Assembly, although with the restriction that liquor not be sold on the premises before 5 pm.
If Patel had known initially that the project would be so time-consuming and difficult, would he have continued with his ambitious plans?
"No, I would not have done that," he said. "The original budget was only $4 million — now it's going over $10 million. None of the Rhode Island banks did any of the financing. None of the Rhode Island banks wanted to help. That was a big obstacle."
"But I'm happy," Patel said. "It's going to be a magnet for promoters, and the old downtown can be revived economically. That gives me a tremendous satisfaction."
And that first event? A screening, on November 28, of the film Lumberjacking, directed by Rich Camp and starring Frank Iacobucci, both Cranston boys, and acted by other Cranston residents.