Published on March 16th, 2015 |10
Buckhead’s iconic Gardens Hills Cinema bids a final adieu
For most long-time Buckhead residents, the Garden Hills Cinema was a place where memories were made. This week, the theater itself will become nothing more than a memory, as Brand Properties prepares to tear down the shell that remains after a December 2013 fire rendered the strip shopping center where it was located a total loss.
In the years since 2007 when the theater closed its doors, the marquee has been blank and the theater entrance had found a new use as a sometime home for the homeless.
It is a sad ending for a theater that had played an important role in the cultural history of the community for nearly 6o years. It was originally opened around 1950 by John and Ruth Carter, who also owned what is now the Buckhead Theatre at the time.
Under the loving management of its most recent owner/operator George Lefont, the theater was a shining star among neighborhood art theaters in Atlanta, showing such important movies as “Like Water for Chocolate.”
BuckheadView reached out to a few local residents recently and asked them to share their memories of the theater.
Atlanta native Eleanor Ringel Cater, former movie critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and present Time Out columnist for Atlanta Business Chronicle and movie critic for The Saporta Report, told BuckheadView that Garden Hills Cinema was a great avatar for what a neighborhood theater could be.
“There was a time when having a neighborhood movie theater…made where you live a part of who you are,” Cater said.
“I remember seeing some wonderful movies there. Just the experience of it being one of the last single-screen theaters around, with that huge screen
and shallow little concession area (oh for the days when those were the priorities),” Cater told BuckheadView. “Like so much about Atlanta, I took it for granted,” she added.
Cater said memories were made at the Garden Hills Cinema, and that neighborhood movie theaters are a barometer of how a city grows.
“Back in the ‘90s when I was one of the critics for Entertainment Weekly, they asked several critics from around the country to be in a photo in front of our favorite theater in Atlanta, and there were still a lot of theaters to choose from then,” explained Cater.
“But immediately it was just, ‘Oh, please take my picture in front of the marquee at Garden Hills,’ because it’s just so Atlanta,” she recounted what she told the editors.
The theater provided the neighborhood with unique films not typically picked up by larger multiplexes and, for many years, hosted the Cinema Club. Cinema Club members are given a first-access pass to many independent and foreign films followed by a moderated discussion on select Sundays throughout the year. (For more information, visit http://www.thecinemaclub.com/city/atl/)
“I love movies, and especially foreign films,” said Judy Bozarth, Garden Hills resident and a Cinema Club member. “Garden Hills Cinema was one of the few places where you could see the
less mass-appeal-type films.”
Like many theaters, big movies drew big audiences, but the more eclectic movies had a smaller following. Because of its size, the cinema would frequently change the featured movie from one week to the next, but not always.
“Typically, the Garden Hills, because it was a single-screen theater, would play a movie for one week, maybe two, maybe three weeks if it was doing really well. But ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ ended up playing for four or five months,” Bozarth said. “I think it was the only theater that played it. I don’t think it went anywhere else.”
“It was a great theater. It was a terrific theater,” she added. “It just had such character.”
Development plans after the center’s demolition are still unknown, but one thing is certain: Those plans will not include an art theater such as the Garden Hills Cinema.
George Lefont essentially saved the theater and made it thrive, Cater told BuckheadView. But several years ago Lefont told BuckheadView, “No one can make a go of it with a single-screen theater anymore.” Lefont now owns the multi-screen Sandy Springs Cinema.
Lefont started in the theater business in 1976 with Buckhead’s Silver Screen cinema, which showed movies from Hollywood’s golden era. The theater was later razed in the early 1980s during a shopping center expansion. Other cinemas that Lefont has operated through the years have included the Screening Room, and the Tara and Ansley cinemas.
Lefont says his decision to bring art house films to Atlanta was “a business opportunity and personal taste.”
A few years before the fire, BuckheadView editor John Schaffner and Eleanor Cater walked through the empty, abandoned theater with Brand Properties President Michael Hoath, trying to figure out how the theater could be saved and made vibrant again as both a movie house and for
That never happened and now never will.
“I can only remember one specific film which I saw there,” said Buff Quillian, Peachtree Heights West resident. “It was the ‘Winged Migration’ film where you feel like you are flying right along with the various flocks of birds in all corners of the world.”
Quillian added, “It was a most unusual film and that was the usual fare there at Garden Hills Cinema. The layout sticks with you—the long hallways after buying tickets outside and the front hall lined with old famous film ads. We were always glad it was so close by,” She added.
“Along the long entrance hall from the ticket office to the theater, George Lefont used to put his displays” for movies and items he was promoting, recalled Jason Kendall.
“The very first movie I went to in Buckhead when I moved here 23 years ago” was at the Garden Hills Cinema, said Buckhead resident Nancy Bliwise.
“When I lived in Peachtree Park, I used to walk there to see movies,” added Buckhead resident and real estate professional Jim Cosgrove.
“We used to walk over to the theater from Park Place to take in movies up until the time the theater closed. Before that, we drove up from Midtown for the movies,” remembered Doug Shore, who is a resident of the Park Place condominiums just two blocks south of the theater.
But one of the fondest memories shared with BuckheadView was that of Bill Murray, vice president of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Georgia Properties and its Buckhead office managing broker.
“When I was 13 years old I saw Brigitte Bardot and I have had a fondness for that theater ever since,” Murray said.
“The more I think about the Garden Hills Cinema, the more I remember,” Murray added. “I was a young teen and my buddy and I had to sneak
in the back door because you had to be 18 to purchase a ticket… You do what you have to do to see Brigitte Bardot.”
(Editor’s Note: Share your memories in the comment box below. You can see others at http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/11485)