Toasting five years of independent cinema
The Abbey Theatre celebrates half a decade of bringing meaning to the Durango screen

As the credits rolled up the silver screen and people began to file out of the theatre, a long-standing patron leaned over to Tom Bartels and said, “Once again, I come in to the Abbey, and I leave changed.”

Tom Bartels, owner of the Abbey Theatre, raises a glass during an impromptu screening of “Down From the Mountain.” The film ran last week as one of several encore presentations celebrating the Abbey's fifth anniversary.

As of this Friday, Nov. 22, the Abbey Theatre, Durango’s single-screen, independent cinema, and its owner, Bartels, have been changing perceptions in Durango for five years. And Bartels said he plans on screening “off-beat niche films” and serving up local microbrews for many years to come.

In the not-so-distant past, the Abbey Theatre was a venue for Irish-themed dinner theater. In fact, the College Avenue building was built to house a restaurant called Katie O’Brian’s; an Irish-themed pub named Clancy’s; and the Abbey, a name borrowed from the renowned Dublin theatre.

When Bartels bought the Abbey Theatre five years ago, dinner theatre had long been forgotten, and the theatre was being used as a pool hall with extremely high ceilings. At that time, he was fresh off several years of recording the sights and sounds of the Four Corners region. During that time, he shot 17,000 slides, recorded sounds in the field and hired local musicians to produce a digital soundtrack. The result became the multimedia presentation called “Spirit of the Southwest,” a show that still shows at the Abbey every day during summer months.

“Originally, I wanted to open the Abbey for an environmental presentation called ‘Spirit of the Southwest,’” says Bartels. “That was going to be the mainstay and the anchor that would run every day. It was entertainment with a message.”

Inspiring good conversations

This desire to present entertainment with a message quickly led the Abbey Theatre in new directions, specifically the screening of impactful, independent films. Bartels was quick to note that much of film amounts to escapism, an opportunity to forget your life with the help of a dark theatre and a bright screen. He added that purely escapist films have their place, but not at the Abbey.

“I wanted to start doing projects here that were a little different, projects that had messages,” he said. “Anything that inspires a really good conversation, that’s what we like to show at the Abbey.”

And over the years, the Abbey Theatre became more than a screen and started hosting lectures, concerts, fund-raisers and community events. “I designed it as a chameleon that would adapt to whatever need was in town,” said Bartels.

Mentioning the Abbey as a venue for the simulcast of the Snowdown Follies, the Durango Film Festival and the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown, Bartels added, “We moved into events that existed or were emerging in the Durango landscape.”

Tom Bartels mans the taps at the Abbey on Monday.

Master of the black art

In spite of these events, Bartels maintained that independent film is the theatre’s lifeblood and reason for being. During the course of past years, the Abbey has screened everything from Chinese, Indian, European and Nepalese films that you’d be lucky to catch in Greenwich Village and documentaries on Shackleton’s fantastic Antarctic survival and World War II’s Navajo code talkers to Hollywood sleepers like “Memento” and “Requiem for a Dream.” Selecting films that will get Durangoans out of the house and into the theater has been the secret and solution to the Abbey’s longevity.

“Choosing the films is a real black art because you’ve got to know what the community and the audience is feeling,” he said.

Once a film is selected, Bartels has to try to track it down and persuade companies to send their films to his small cinema in this relatively small community. “You’ve got to be creative,” he says. “I’m a tiny speck in the film market. I do a lot of juggling to get film contracts.”

Last Monday, light was shed on the selection process when an impromptu conversation ignited between Bartels and Kathleen Costello, the theatre’s manager. Bartels had mentioned an event that featured singer and river activist Katie Lee and said that Lee might be returning to Durango with a film called “Troubled Waters.” Costello replied that she’d seen the film and found it a “little flat.” Bartels then responded, “A film about decommissioning dams can’t be all bad.”

He then turned and remarked that this was a little look into some of the behind the scenes at the Abbey. “We’re constantly editing, reviewing, critiquing, asking ourselves, ‘Is it good enough, and should we have it?’” he says.

1 Giant Leap

One review and critique that recently paid off hugely was the month-long screening of the film “1 Giant Leap,” which traced the paths of two filmmakers through the music, culture and spirituality of 20 countries. The theatre was packed with people on each of the nights, some of whom had seen the picture eight times. On its final night, more than 100 people poured into the Abbey to catch a final glimpse of the long-running film. Bartels commented that during one showing a patron took him aside and said, “That’s the best $6 buzz in town.”

What was most unique about “1 Giant Leap” was that the Abbey was only the second cinema in the country to screen the film, Bartels says. “They had opened it at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and that was it.”

KSUT’s Stasia Lanier had heard about “1 Giant Leap” and passed word onto Bartels, who contacted Palm Pictures. “I made them an offer to show it here as a test market,” he said. Palm Pictures agreed and sent him a 2BD-hour unedited copy. Bartels whittled it down in the editing room and had the extremely successful month-long run. Based on the Abbey’s numbers, Palm Pictures has decided to release “1 Giant Leap” nationwide beginning in February. In addition, the company has chosen to use Bartels’ edit as a template for the national release.

“Usually, it works in the opposite direction,” said Bartels. “It plays nationwide, and we might get the leftovers. ‘1 Giant Leap’ showed that the model is bendable.”

Some of the greatest hits

Bartels said that other Abbey Theatre highlights include a close-knit concert with Martin Sexton; 25 talents on stage for the climax of this year’s Bluegrass Meltdown; screening “Endurance,” the Shackleton documentary, a week and a half after it opened in New York City; having several Navajo code talkers on hand for a documentary on their contribution to World War II; and watching and helping the Durango Film Festival develop into an effort that Movie Maker magazine recently called one of the “best of the newer fests.”

As the Durango Film Festival approaches its third year, executive director Sofia van Surksum was unabashed in her praise of and thanks to Bartels and the Abbey Theatre. Last year, the Abbey showed 56 films for the festival, and van Surksum said without the Abbey’s support, the film festival would not be possible.

“There just isn’t any place else we’d be able to show films if it weren’t for the Abbey,” she said.

Van Surksum noted that the Abbey is a “community asset” throughout the rest of the year as well. “It’s incredible to have an independent screen in Durango,” she said. “Not only that, it’s great to have popcorn, a beer and watch a film in that kind of setting. That kind of thing is becoming rarer and rarer all over the country.”

The next five

With an eye to the past and the future, van Surksum added, “Tom’s doing a great job and I’d like to congratulate him on five years and look forward to our partnership for many more years.”

Bartels said he also is looking forward to many more years, especially with a growing consciousness about independent film in Durango. “I think it will just keep growing with the town supporting independent film more and more,” he said. “The more people who show up, the better films I can bring. So far it’s been a great, mutually beneficial relationship.”

The Abbey Theatre also has made it through five years without sacrificing the original ideals of showing films with a meaning and message, according to Bartels. “In a town this size, it’s pretty rare to have a single-screen theatre that’s survived on good, quality films and not by doing ‘Rugrats No. 10,’” he said. “I think a lot of that deals with the sophistication of the Durango audience.”

Whether it’s this week for Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” or later in the month for the Inuit directed and produced film “Fast Runner” or five years from now for the eighth annual Durango Film Festival, Bartels will probably be seeing you and serving you up a pint at Durango’s independent cinema.

“People want a group of people around them, they want a beer in their hands, and they want to enjoy themselves,” he concludes. “This is why films have withstood the challenge of 600 TV channels, and it’s why they’ll be around for a long time to come.”






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