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Avon fills niche as East Side independent film mecca

The family-owned cinema this year celebrated its 75th anniversary as a cultural gathering place

On a quiet Friday afternoon, the Avon Theater often bustles with middle-aged local intellectuals. The thick smell of warm buttered popcorn hangs in the air, while old-time swing music plays softly.

“Welcome to the world’s most uncomfortable seats in the most beautiful theater,” one elderly patron says to his wife as they walk in.

“Make sure we get our usual seat,” she replies.

Before the film begins, a short cartoon of Dracula and Frankenstein buying concessions at a movie theater and throwing away trash plays on the big screen. Richard Dulgarian, owner of the Avon, stands in the back, laughing during the short.

Dulgarian represents the third generation of the Avon’s leadership, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. This year marks the one-screen cinema’s 75th anniversary.

“It’s a labor of love,” Dulgarian said. “We will absolutely have 75 more years. It’s the only one of its kind.”

After emigrating from Armenia in 1938, Dulgarian’s grandfather started the business to show “the finest films (from) Europe,” Dulgarian said.

“Maybe that’s because he missed the old country,” he added. The theater has since remained committed to showing independent and foreign films.

Dulgarian said the theater has never succeeded with Hollywood hits. “We once had a blockbuster with Burt Reynolds, but we were dead,” he said. “That audience doesn’t know where the Avon even is.”

The Avon does not have many student patrons, said Jordan Archey, an Avon employee.

“We don’t show Iron Man or anything like that,” she said. “I would say the average demographic is 45 and older.”

Dulgarian said he is proud of the Avon’s distinct movie selections. “When you leave the Avon, you have to go to a coffee shop and discuss.”

Archey said she thinks it is particularly important that the Avon show independent movies, as locals could not otherwise see such titles on the big screen.

“It’s important we give them that exposure,” she said.

“We still have our niche,” Dulgarian said, adding that the Avon’s friendly staff and attention to details set the theater apart from others.

“A couple years ago — I paid in cash — my change was 50 cents, and they gave me a half dollar,” Natalia Maymi ‘14 said, adding that such quirks make her prefer the Avon to the other movie theatres.

“People get really excited about the old money,” Archey said.

Jeanette Rompa, a Roger Williams University student originally from Rhode Island, said she always tries to get non-locals to go to the Avon. Rompa and some classmates decided to visit the historic theater to see a film related to their course of study.

“Now that they are here, they love it,” she said.

Before home televisions and computers were common, Dulgarian said patrons used to line up on Thayer Street to attend evening shows. Dulgarian said the theater had to station ushers at each block to make sure patrons did not obstruct the entrances to other stores.

“Seeing a movie at the Avon was cultural and social,” he said.

Though it is easier than ever to watch movies at home, Dulgarian said he does not think other technologies will ever drive the Avon into obsolescence. “There’s a big difference between a sofa and an audience,” he said. “When people are all watching on their iPhone, that’s not a community.”

People will always want to see films, he said, because “they want communal experiences.”

“The fact that the Avon feels like such an old movie theater affects the mood you’re in,” Maymi said.

“The seats aren’t super comfortable,” she said. “But if they were to get normal movie theater seats, it would ruin the feel.”

Maymi is the co-director of the Ivy Film Festival, which rents the theater every year to show its bigger pictures. Maymi said IFF has always maintained a strong relationship with the Avon.

“It’s kind of understood we’ll use it,” she said.

Dulgarian said he hopes the theater will remain a family business. Though he does not have children, he said he hopes one of his brother’s children will express interest in inheriting the business.

“I keep saying, come visit Uncle Richy,” Dulgarian said. “Some day, this could all be yours.”


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