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Why Tivoli Cinemas Was A Filmmakers’ Movie House

The Tivoli Cinemas The Tivoli Cinemas will hold its last screening on Thursday, April 11. (Photo illustration | Brad Austin)
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Tivoli Cinemas understood the value of anticipation. Movies don’t start when the opening credits roll. Movies start with the trailer, a tease of what’s to come. And for thousands of Kansas Citians, the Tivoli starts at the bottom of that steep staircase.

It starts with a conversation about what’s playing, one hand on the long red rail. At the top of the stairs, one catches the first glimpse of the lobby under the slight hum of neon lights. The concession stand to the left beckons with the smell of popcorn.

“I love that flight of stairs. No other theater makes you work for it in the same way,” said Emily Woodring, a contract producer with Kansas City PBS. “There’s nothing flashy about the Tivoli, it’s just this relaxed, classic atmosphere.”

After 36 years in Westport, Tivoli Cinemas will screen its last film on Thursday. Owner Jerry Harrington announced his decision on Facebook, explaining that the Tivoli “can no longer survive on ticket sales alone.”

But Kansas City isn’t just losing a movie house. We’re losing a home for filmmakers.

Multimedia producer John G. McGrath (left) on the set of “Filming Michael Bay.” (Contributed | John G. McGrath)

Before John G. McGrath was a multimedia producer at Kansas City PBS, he was a local filmmaker hoping that “Killing Michael Bay,” might one day show on a movie screen. His comedic short send-up of explosive action films was shown at the Tivoli 17 years ago during the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee.

“It was a dream come true to have a movie shown in a real theater on a big screen,” McGrath said. “You never get that opportunity.”

McGrath believes that he got that opportunity — to hear the crowd laugh and stand in the lobby after the show — because Harrington, the Tivoli’s owner, has famously put the spotlight on others.

“He understood the struggles of low-budget filmmaking,” McGrath said. “That was a night for us local guys.”

Tivoli Cinemas is where filmmakers learned about themselves and got to appreciate the work of others. McGrath remembers discovering during a question-and-answer session at the Tivoli, that a then-unknown Jason Sudeikis had a bit part in “Where’s Phil?” a short film McGrath made two decades ago.

Woodring still fondly thinks about the University of Missouri-Kansas City film classes that she attended in the movie theater. For three years, she sat on the left side of the auditorium, immersed in classic foreign films.

“The chairs were really broken in and comfy,” Woodring said. “And then you got to talk about the movie with everyone in the theater, which is what you always want to do.”

The Tivoli was a true community movie house. Kansas City PBS held screenings there — then called Community Cinema (the precursor to today’s Indie Lens Pop-Up). For many, the screenings of Oscar-nominated short films was a yearly rite of passage.

The theater is where you took dates that ended in spectacular cinematic failures. The place where you forgot how to have conversation after three hours of “Boyhood,” or dug your fingernails into your date’s arm as crickets played in lieu of the previews before “The Blair Witch Project.”

“The Tivoli was about the experience,” McGrath said. “We’re losing a real mainstay for us local filmmakers.”

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