By Peter Boody
Key West is a lot like Sag Harbor with palm trees, at least that part of it called Old Town with its charming 19th-century sea captain’s houses and Conch cottages.
Like Sag Harbor, Key West has a unique downtown movie theater that shows independent films and some first-and second-run titles. Well, Sag Harbor did, anyway, until the terrible fire four months ago left the lobby ready for the wrecking ball.
Key West’s indie movie house is called the Tropic Cinema and, unlike the Sag Harbor Cinema — a business whose owner ran it as a gift to Sag Harbor for decades — it’s a non-profit run by a small staff and a lot of volunteers.
The Tropic can show four films at once: It has a total of 300 seats, divided into four mostly tiny auditoriums (one with 150 seats, three with 50). The Sag Harbor Cinema’s surviving auditorium has room for 480 seats in its single auditorium, which its prospective owner, the Sag Harbor Partnership, wisely plans to split.
Both the Tropic and Sag Harbor Cinema compete with nearby Regal theaters. In Key West, the six-screen Regal is out in “New Town” (think Riverhead with palm trees) at a shopping mall. It draws a bigger, more varied crowd from points up the Keys because it has ample parking. (People head to the Tropic on foot or by bike.) And unlike the Regal crowd, they do not leave the concession area buried in litter after the show.
Besides fantastically comfortable seats, the Tropic has a very cool concession stand in its spacious art deco lobby. You can browse it for wine or beer, crackers and Brie, fresh-made cookies as well as the usual movie sweets: ice cream, sodas and popcorn, which is offered with a crazy array of toppings.
Like the ticket booth, the concession is staffed entirely by volunteers, who look like a certain gang of Sag Harbor retirees in shorts, flip-flops and Tommy Bahama shirts. Picture a very tan Jason Epstein or Robert Sam Anson taking your $24 and cranking out your two tickets.
“Our mission is to support, educate and engage people with independent cinema,” the Tropic’s executive director, Paul Melroy told me last week when my wife Barbara and I were in Key West and he agreed to let me stop by.
“That’s what we want to support; we’re here for independent cinema,” he added. “We have turned into a hybrid,” however — showing some first-run commercial films — “because just showing art house films is not viable by itself.”
The Tropic saves perhaps $1,200 in labor costs a day in the high season thanks to its volunteers, which Mr. Melroy called a “huge” factor in its financial stability.
Just as vital are its members, people who pay $35 a year for individuals, $60 for couples and $90 for families (or more for “Indie Director” or “Director” status). They get a tax deduction and a savings on every ticket, which eventually covers their membership.
Amazingly, some 3,000 memberships are sold each year, which represents close to a quarter of the city’s 25,000 population (some memberships are for couples and families).
That level of participation is “stunning,” said Mr. Melroy, who has spent decades running non-profit arts organizations in Atlanta and Austin. “I don’t completely have my head wrapped around all the dynamics there [but] that is certainly part of” the reason the Tropic has thrived.
There’s something club-like about the Tropic crowd, both its volunteers and its patrons. Everybody seems to know each other.
“We were formed by a small group of folks,” Mr. Melroy explained, “who were really interested in independent cinema, people who were showing movies all around town wherever they could,” including warehouses, “somebody’s house, or wherever.”
“There were some well-heeled folks in the bunch,” he added. “They put together some money and got a favorable lease on a portion of this space and the Tropic was born” in 2004, he said.
After an extensive donor-supported renovation, there were two screens with room for a third, which was added within a few years. When an adjacent commercial space became available for lease, a fourth auditorium was added.
“Having that number of spaces gives us a chance to really have some variety in the program,” Mr. Melroy said. “We have this hybrid model of some first run, some second run, some art house, plus cultural events: you know, we screen opera and rock concerts and things like that.”
But “at the end of the day what we really want to show are smart films, whether indie or mainstream,” he said.
The site, a former McCory five-and-ten, reportedly last served as a rug warehouse. It sold for $18 million some years after the Tropic had moved in, Mr. Melroy recalled.
He said it’s better for a non-profit cinema to own its real estate, but the Tropic has “no pressure” yet on that front with16 years left on what was originally “a very favorable” 30-year lease, which he said costs the cinema about $15,000 a month.
The theatre has a budget of about $1.5 million, most of which is supported by ticket and concession sales; about 15 to 20 percent is supported by fund-raising. It draws about 75,000 patrons a year, mostly close-by Key West residents and tourists.
“We have defied anybody’s reasonable expectations by surviving more than a decade,” Mr. Melroy said.
Key West is a city; Sag Harbor is a little village. But the surrounding South Fork, from Montauk to Shinnecock Hills, probably has a similar if not larger year-round and seasonal population. Could it support a non-profit theater like the Tropic?
Mr. Melroy said he welcomed inquiries from the good people of the Sag Harbor Partnership as they plan the future of the Sag Harbor Cinema — or from anyone else.
“At the end of the day, what I want to see happen is another great place to show films,” he said.