Bedford Playhouse readies for its close-up

There are folks in Bedford who believe in magic.

The kind that happens when Chaplin shuffles, Eastwood squints and Bacall teaches Bogie to whistle. The kind that comes from exposure to foreign perspectives and a lens focused on a soul. Or when a village comes alive around a cultural hub and a community gathers to discuss, escape or transform. Popcorn helps.  

The Bedford Playhouse is set to conjure that magic thanks to a growing throng of contributors, volunteers and community stalwarts who have refused to let this historic gem fade to black.

After two and a half years, construction is underway and plans are brewing for dynamic programming and multiuse opportunities for the village and its surroundings. 

Bedford resident and film curator John Farr leads the charge. Farr created grassroots organization Friends of Bedford Theatre in an effort to raise funds for the renovation. The effort has the support of the theater’s landlord, Alchemy Bedford LLC, and is driven by a 15-member board.  Farr and board chair Sarah Long “helped raise the $5.2 million needed to get where they are today….The money we’ve raised has come from 1,200 donors,” Farr adds. 

In reimagining the importance of the theater, the team took into account the needs of a community that longs for social and cultural expansion.

 “There are actors, directors and writers who live in this community nearby and would love a place to show their work,” Farr says. “We can take advantage of that.”

The talent in the area is staggering. Cultural Advisory Council members for the playhouse include names like Chevy Chase, Glenn Close, Chazz Palminteri and Paul Shaffer. They’re patrons (Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones), founding donors (The Ralph and Ricky Lauren Family Foundation) and partners (the Mara family, among them, actresses Kate and Rooney).

Farr remembers when Shaffer echoed a common sentiment among fellow revivalists — that he loves living in the bucolic town but once he’s done floating in his pool, he gets out and thinks, “Now what?” 

So the vision is large — a cultural and social center that will fuel northern Westchester and neighboring Greenwich; a place where historic detail is respected but state-of-the-art equipment and amenities run throughout; where film isn’t just box office driven but curated and discussed. And where the arts, wellness, lifestyle and entertainment can thrive. 

The theater will run foreign films and documentaries as well as first-run releases. There will be lunchtime programming, author and guest speaker series and celebrity events.

Plans include a 180-seat main theater with a gigantic screen and banquettes along the back wall.  Two smaller theaters will flank the sides — a 45-seat venue for special series and educational programming as well as a flexible flat floor space that can host a changing cast of art and music programs and wine tastings or be used as a prep area or green room. Farr gets excited when he thinks of the possibilities. 

The theater will reflect the community — its passions, hobbies, celebrations and pace of life. “We want to get people to rent it during the week,” Farr says. He envisions dance classes, yoga, birthday parties, corporate events and retreats. 

An all-day café, located just inside the entrance, will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to more than theater patrons. Adds Farr, ““You have to offer more than just a seat and a bucket of popcorn to get people to actually leave their houses….Our focus is movies and more, other forms of culture. It was always going to be more.”

The Bedford Playhouse, began entertaining audiences in the spring of 1947, a time when weekly movie attendance was at its peak — before the onslaught of TV sets. Fast forward to late summer 2014 when Farr got a call from the chair of the board of the Bedford Historical Society, who informed him that Bow Tie Cinemas was set to close the theater, because it was underperforming. To move forward, supporters had to launch a major fundraising effort and address asbestos abatement and the limited parking. (The Playhouse has dedicated 50 new spots with plans for expansion.)

 Contracts were awarded to R.C. Torre Construction Corp. Inc. of Bedford Hills, Darren Mercer of Darren P. Mercer Architects PLLC in Katonah, Danielle Galland Design and John Burkhardt of Big Show Consulting & Management in Manhattan.

Farr says he and his team are more than two-thirds of the way toward raising the funds they need for designing and outfitting the space to completion. Naming opportunities remain for the main theater at $1 million, a lower lobby at $600,000 and the small theater at $400,000.

The Playhouse will follow the nonprofit model, offering memberships that will provide discounts on tickets and first-come availability for event series. 

The plan is to launch the theater next spring with a tented gala on the village green. It will be a special moment, one that will bring the community together and return beloved icons to the big screen.

For more, visit bedfordplayhouse.org.

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