(SS) The Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, closed since the COVID shutdown 13 months ago, will soon reopen under new direction from the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, which also plans for a long-overdue renovation of the beloved 70-year-old venue.
FLIFF signed a lease on Friday with building owner Franzblau Trust Holdings to take over the day-to-day operation of Broward County’s oldest theater, located at the high-profile confluence of Sunrise Boulevard and Federal Highway.
The four-screen, 690-seat theater is scheduled to reopen on Memorial Day Weekend and will continue to feature the Gateway’s popular mix of independent and mainstream films, said Gregory von Hausch, FLIFF president and CEO.
FLIFF will give the theater a general cleaning and sprucing up in the next 30 days, but the renovation will require a longer planning and design process, he said.
“We have quite a bit of work to do on the building to bring it into the 21st century,” von Hausch said. “We want to keep that retro spirit, but we wouldn’t mind polishing the funkiness a little bit.”
The priority list includes a makeover for the theater’s famously inhospitable bathrooms, as well as the bar and concession area.
Von Hausch envisions a lobby with a sleek, full-liquor bar where people will lounge with a glass of wine or a top-shelf cocktail.
“We want to make it a more pleasurable experience,” he said.
The theater’s famed neon-gilded marquee is damaged and will be retrofitted with cost-efficient LED lighting, he said.
Heart of the city
The Gateway’s place in local history was ensured about a decade after it opened, making national news as the site of the 1960 world premiere of the filmed-in-Fort-Lauderdale Spring Break romp “Where the Boys Are.” Bathed in klieg lights, the theater hosted a star-studded screening of the film starring George Hamilton, Dolores Hart, Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux and pop star Connie Francis.
Von Hausch is sensitive to the history of the theater and its place in the literal and figurative heart of Fort Lauderdale, between the beach and a rapidly energizing downtown.
“It’s a pre-eminent landmark in the city. It’s called Gateway for a reason. It’s the gateway to the beach, the gateway to Fort Lauderdale,” he says.
For decades the Gateway has been one of South Florida’s most popular art-house cinemas, where film buffs could watch first-run releases by a vanguard of young directors who would go on to redefine mainstream movies, including Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Pedro Almodóvar.
The Gateway also has been a longtime home to the annual Fort Lauderdale Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and long-running weekly gatherings for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Von Hausch has spent more than 30 years at the helm of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, scheduled to return Nov. 5-21 with its signature haul of 200 or so features and shorts, comedies and documentaries and foreign-language releases.
He said FLIFF and the Gateway, which likely will host the 2021 festival’s opening-night red-carpet festivities, are a perfect match.
“We want to create something that re-establishes an identity for the community, something we’re proud to have as a calling card,” von Hausch said.
The theater is located among a diverse group of restaurants, bars and shops in the Gateway Shopping Center, and von Hausch said he hopes to create some economic synergy with those businesses.
‘The next step’
Leasing and rehabilitating the theater is a financial leap for a nonprofit like FLIFF, but von Hausch believes increased ticket sales, new FLIFF memberships and sponsorships will balance the ledger.
FLIFF board chair Skip Margerum called the Gateway relationship “the next step in growing our festival.”
The pivotal financial commitment that spurred the deal came from longtime FLIFF donor Scott Bennett, through the Scott L. Bennett Charitable Fund at Our Fund Foundation, which provides support to LGBT causes and culture. Board member and volunteer director Janet Schwartz also provided critical funding.
Bennett, a Wilton Manors resident who attended Gateway screenings once a week when it was open, said his investment was made in support of independent film, but also community.
“I feel so good. I’m helping Fort Lauderdale. This is an iconic theater for Fort Lauderdale. The gay community loves it. Everybody loves it,” Bennett said. “Nothing against AMC, but their movies don’t interest me. Batman and violence and all that.”
FLIFF will continue to screen films at its longtime homes at Savor Cinema in downtown Fort Lauderdale and Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood.
Von Hausch said visitors to those theaters are likely to see more diverse fare, including releases that film distributors would give the larger Gateway first-run exclusives.
As part of the Gateway renovation, von Hausch also is looking at the name, likely dropping the word “classic” that was added a few years ago.
“It sounds like a cheeseburger,” he said.