The black leather couches at the renovated Cable Car Cinema offer the coziness of a living room back at home. But the murals on the right-hand wall — in one a red brick Providence building sinks deep into dreamy underwater blue — provide a touch of surrealism for a journey into the cinematic world.
The Cable Car Cinema and Cafe will reopen Sept. 11 after three months of renovation, screening "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child," a documentary about the late graffiti artist, said Daniel Kamil, the Cable Car's owner. The Cafe was back in business Sept. 1, temporarily serving a pared-down menu, Kamil said.
The renovation that began June 4 was "necessary on many levels," Kamil said. The Cable Car was founded in 1976 and had not gone through a major change until recently, apart from renewal of the seats in 2008. Constructed under an old-fashioned building code, the theater had many "quirky, unusual" designs that needed to be updated, Kamil said.
The renovation has been comprehensive, boosting the electrical system, the audio, the picture quality and what Kamil called "the cosmetic," including the new murals on the walls of the theater.
One goal of the renovation was to bring in Providence artists, Kamil said. The concrete countertop, the lighting and the murals, among other improvements, were all created by local artists. "We thought it's important to give local people work" and let them "showcase their talents," Kamil said.
The Cable Car has survived even as a small theater. Since the VHS format became available in the 1980s, "the idea of a single-screen theater kind of went away," Kamil said. What has enabled the Cable Car to last in the face of multiplexes, downloading and other ways to watch movies is "the strength of its programming and the comfort of the theatre," Kamil said.
As one of the few 100-seat theatres still operating in the country, the Cable Car is "embedded in the community," Kamil said.
The cinema has also had a long relationship with Brown's Department of Modern Culture and Media.
"The Cable Car makes an invaluable contribution to the arts and culture scene in Providence," said Richard Manning, the MCM department's film archivist.
The department's partnership with the Cable Car came out of several MCM courses in 1988, when some class materials were only available on 35mm film. Because the University did not have the equipment to screen this format, the department arranged with Eric Bilodeau, then owner of the Cable Car, to have the films screened there, Manning said.
In the 1990s, films increasingly became available on DVD, the need to screen course material at the Cable Car became less pressing, Manning said. Moreover, the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, scheduled to open next year, will include space for the MCM department to screen 35mm films, he said.
Nevertheless, the Cable Car — which hosts events such as the Providence French Film Festival, the Providence Africana Film Festival and the Magic Lantern Cinema film series — has remained connected to the University. Cafe-goers may notice an uncommon-looking screen made of 14 16mm reels welded together. All the reels were donated by the MCM department — a stamp of the partnership, Kamil said.
In addition to the fixed seats in the theatre, the Cinema also provides 15 love seats that "people love," Kamil said. As one of the first theatres in the country to have couches, the Cable Car has always counted these seats as part of its identity, he said.
The traditional poster-giveaway raffles and the Cable Car's popcorn policy — $4, all you can eat — will continue after the reopening, Kamil said.
The Cable Car will be the venue for the upcoming Providence Women's Film Festival, scheduled for Oct. 12–17 and sponsored by the MCM department. Since the renovation there has also been increased interest in hosting events other than film screenings at the Cable Car, Kamil said. For example, a fashion show will take place at the Cable Car at the end of October.