Tivoli Cinemas reborn at the Nelson-Atkins

Portrait of Jerry Harrington inside the Atkins Auditorium, home to Tivoli at the Nelson-Atkins. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Where Jerry Harrington’s Vision Continues

At a time when cities are overrun with franchise coffeehouses and froyo joints, cultural landmarks are to be cherished. But Kansas City almost lost one when Tivoli Cinemas closed last April.

A refuge from superhero flicks, the Westport multiplex remained dedicated for decades to presenting indie and international films and had attracted a devoted following of discriminating moviegoers — who were alarmed at what seemed to be its demise.

Fortunately, the Tivoli hadn’t reached its last reel. Like the cavalry arriving to save the day in a classic Western, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has not only rescued the arthouse haven but has joined forces with its longtime proprietor, Jerry Harrington. The Tivoli was relaunched in October as Tivoli at the Nelson-Atkins with a screening of Buster Keaton’s 1926 silent classic, “The General.”

“I sold my name and my brand,” Harrington said. “People call me the film curator, but I am not an actual employee of the Nelson. I would say I’m more like the film programmer. That feels less grandiose.”

Transitioning from the commercial world of multiplexes to the nonprofit realm of museums required a significant adjustment, Harrington said.

“It’s a learning experience. They’ve never done this kind of thing, and I’ve certainly never done this kind of thing.”

Julián Zugazagoitia, director and CEO of the Nelson-Atkins, said that as a film fan, he felt it was imperative that the Tivoli survive.

“Creating that kind of camaraderie and that kind of community around film is what we’ve set out to do,” he said. The museum’s Atkins Auditorium was slated as the Tivoli’s new home, complete with state-of-the-art technology, including a larger screen.

“We’ve shown films in the past, but not at the scale of the Tivoli, with a built-in audience,” Zugazagoitia said.

Recent offerings have included “Downtown 81” (1981), a semi-documentary snapshot of post-punk Manhattan starring legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; “Smoke Signals” (1998), a drama scripted by prominent Native American writer Sherman Alexie, on a program that also included short films focusing on indigenous culture; and the documentary “Van Gogh and Japan” (2019).

“We’ve found some small, first-run movies,” Harrington said. “But it’s mostly other things — like older movies, or oddball things.” Matinees are on Monday, Wednesday and Sunday, with evening screenings on Friday.

The programming, he said, largely depends on what’s available.

“We showed ‘Honeyland,’ the documentary from (North) Macedonia about a beekeeper,” Harrington said. “It’s a very good film, and I had the opportunity to show it because nobody else in town wanted to.” The film won three awards at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and has a 99 percent approval rating on the online review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

There’s also an element of advocacy involved in Harrington’s choices.

“I showed ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’” — a British film from 1945 written and directed by Michael Powell and Eric Pressburger and starring Wendy Hiller — “because I like the movie,” he said.

Tivoli at the Nelson-Atkins may also serve as a showcase for retrospectives of works by important filmmakers and restorations of classic films.

“I feel it’s very important to show movies that have been saved from the ravages of time,” Harrington said. “Some of the major distributors don’t really want to deal with museums, because we can’t dedicate the entire week to that movie, so that’s sort of an issue.”

The auditorium has 500 seats, and so far, turnout for screenings has been encouraging, Harrington said.

“I’m absolutely astonished,” he said. “When we showed the indigenous shorts, I couldn’t believe how many people were there! Maybe it’s the psychological thrill of having something called the Tivoli back.”

Harrington said a combination of factors led to his decision to close the three-screen Tivoli Cinemas at Manor Square (which expanded in 1992 from a one-screen operation on Westport Road).

“It was getting a little run down, and I couldn’t afford to pay for the upgrade,” he said. Changes in the film industry didn’t help: “Movies that I got exclusively, even five years ago, were now going to 10 different theaters at the same time. And I couldn’t compete with that.” Or with the increasing tendency of moviegoers to just stream films at home.

“The movie business is peaks and valleys, but the peaks weren’t as high, and the valleys were lower,” Harrington said. “Plus, the landlord needed more money, and I didn’t have it.”

So the opportunity to continue exploring cinematic horizons at the Nelson-Atkins was a win-win.

“There are a number of art museums that have programs that are somewhat similar — such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Cleveland Institute of Art,” he said. “And I am very vocal that this is about an art form — about film as art. There are great movies everywhere, and I want to go everywhere.”

For films and show times, visit www.nelson-atkins.org/tivoli.

To learn more, check out Flatland’s new Art House program, featuring Jerry Harrington. Art House debuted on Flatland in December, and aired for the first time on KCPT in January. Watch for more content collaboration between KC Studio and Flatland.

Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson is an arts writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also host and creator of the jazz program, “Somethin’ Else,” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis.

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