By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — Use of the town’s Imperial Avenue parking lot has triggered controversy the past four years between the Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts and the Remarkable Theater, a nonprofit that shows films in a drive-in format.
And this year is no different.
Representatives from both organizations crossed swords once again over which group gets to use the lot, and when, at Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Selectwomen.
The issue arose since the board was asked to approve a permit for the Remarkable Theater to use the lot for movie screenings. The request, as initially filed with the board, was for “dates to be determined” from June 26 to Oct. 31.
The days at issue, however, were Mondays and Wednesdays — at least until the Levitt children’s season ends Aug. 23.
When the property is used to show the Remarkable’s drive-in movies, however, the Levitt Pavilion must close to avoid sound intrusion and other conflicts, Mary Miller, a lawyer for the Levitt, told the selectwomen.
“If they want to have their movies, we have to go dark,” she said. “Levitt has been supporting the Remarkable for years,” with fundraising help and in other ways, Miller said. But like any business, profit or nonprofit, “We can’t be expected to close to let another business open.”
The Levitt administration would agree to let the Remarkable use the lot Wednesdays since that is the day the Levitt presents children’s programming, which ends at 8 p.m., before the drive-in films are shown. But Mondays are sometimes used as rain dates for postponed Levitt productions, she said, and the arts venue’s officials can’t promise to consistently remain dark on Mondays.
The selectwomen began discussing the Remarkable Theater’s permit request by saying that they support its mission, especially the employment of people with disabilities to help run the program.
The group eventually hopes to open an “art house movie theater” somewhere downtown to screen films and provide employment for people with disabilities.
The debate heated up when Selectwoman Andrea Moore asked for the theater’s long-term strategy, and suggested that instead of granting the theater a permit from June 26 to Oct. 31, it should be granted only from June 26 to Aug. 23. The nonprofit then would have to return to the selectwomen in a few months for a second permit to use the parking lot in the late summer and fall.
The Imperial Avenue lot is used by other area organizations — such as the weekly Westport Farmers Market — which makes planning and granting permits too far ahead more complicated, she said. “With varying different interests in that area and the downtown … there is quite a bit of coordination that has to happen,” Moore said.
“Last year when we approved your dates the plan was to do it in two phases, to approve the Mondays and Wednesdays and then to talk [later] about the fall,” Moore said, referring to last year’s arguments about the same issue.
“It’s a bit simpler … I personally would like to suggest we do that this time around as well.”
In addition to the farmers market on Thursdays, the Imperial parking lot is also used by the adjacent Westport Woman’s Club and for overflow parking by the Westport Library and Levitt Pavilion. The lot has been used to park school buses part of the year, and also is being considered to provide parking for employees of downtown businesses, with a shuttle taking employees from their jobs to their cars in the lot.
Representatives of the Remarkable Theater group told the selectwomen they are concerned that not having a definite schedule for the fall would pose problems for school groups and other nonprofits that want to host film screenings at the theater.
“The groups that are coming to us – they want to book their dates,” Stacie Curran, a member of the theater’s board of directors, told the selectwomen. Scheduled events can also be affected by bad weather she said, requiring additional dates to be used as rain dates.
Angela Wormser, workforce director for the Remarkable Theater, said she worries about its workers not knowing if they will have jobs in the fall. It is important to reassure them that they can expect to be employed the full four months the Remarkable is open, she said.
Douglas Tirola, artistic director of the Remarkable, traced the theater’s history, saying the opening of the Community Theater in downtown Fairfield had been the original inspiration for a nonprofit theater in Westport.
After several years of pop-up screenings, the plan was to find a place downtown for a bricks-and-mortar movie theater, but that has yet to be accomplished, he said, although there has been discussion with two movie chains.
“The goal is still to have one,” Tirola said.
Meanwhile, the drive-in format has been popular and the program to provide work for the disabled has been successful, he said.
The Levitt Pavilion spent $9.5 million to revamp its venue several years ago, and produced 66 shows free of charge last year, Miller told the selectwomen. The Levitt organization also finished the public Riverwalk path that winds around the back of the pavilion, and its productions have been an important part of the Westport community for years, she said.
Charles Haberstroh, chairman of the town’s Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts Committee, said that Levitt officials share the same concerns as Remarkable officials about settling event dates and their staff members’ schedules.
“The real key here is for them to all work together,” he said. “It depends on the goodwill of both.”
Despite both sides’ assurances that they support the other’s mission, and promises to negotiate in good faith, the debate lasted nearly an hour and continued later in the Town Hall parking lot after the selectwomen voted to grant a permit to the Remarkable Theater from June 26 to Aug. 23.
The movie group will be required to return to the Board of Selectwomen for a second permit for the remainder of the season.
Tirola offered a parting shot before the meeting ended: “We didn’t bring our attorney to this meeting, but if that’s what we need to do …,” he said.
Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.