Garden Cinema: The Sequel

Alert “06880” reader/concerned moviegoer Bill Kutik was one of many Westporters at last night’s meeting in Norwalk. The subject: the fate of Garden Cinemas, the indie/foreign film theater threatened by demolition. Bill writes:

Responding to an enormous public outcry, the Norwalk Common Council postponed voting on the controversial development plan that would have torn down the Garden Cinemas art movie house for a parking garage.

Mayor Harry Rilling opened the SRO meeting by announcing tabling the matter until September 10 after receiving a petition with nearly 3,000 signatures gathered online by the Wall Street Neighborhood Association.

Until the petition, the destruction vote had seemed like a done deal. “Pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” as Joni Mitchell used to sing.

The 22 people signed up to speak against the plan addressed the SRO crowd of Norwalk and Westport residents anyway – to cheers and applause.

I helped the opposition – – and spoke because I moved to Westport 20 years ago after decades in Manhattan precisely because the Garden and Gold’s (substituting for Zabar’s) offered just enough of home to make me feel comfortable.

Some speakers criticized the modern design of the 101-unit rental apartment building on Wall Street in a federally designated Historic District. Others criticized the trickle of taxes it would produce for Norwalk after the city and state granted large tax credits for it being “affordable housing.”

But most expressed their love for the independent theater: the only one showing non-Hollywood and foreign films on four screens between Westport and Manhattan! The Avon shows some in Stamford.

And alluded to the absurdity of tearing down this amazing suburban cultural gem – housed in a 1918 building originally built as a vaudeville house – for parking!

Mayor Rilling said that the city would work with board members of the Wall Street Association on their proposal to develop an arts and cultural center in the area – using the Garden Cinemas or in the new building.

“There are at least 4 options,” he noted.

In my public statement, I pointed out a fifth: Simply buying the existing parking lot 100 feet away at 27 Isaacs Street, instead of tearing down the Garden at 13 Isaacs Street.

The lot’s owner, Jason Milligan of New Canaan, later said publicly he would sell it at a “reasonable” price to save the Garden. As bargaining tactic, he had once asked $10 million for it.

In my own conversations with Milligan, he seemed ready to be truly reasonable. He even publicly apologized to 3 Council members by name for his previous actions.

At the 11th hour, it seems that Norwalk is starting all over for the Garden.

18 responses to “Garden Cinema: The Sequel

  1. Morley Boyd

    Fantastic news! The Garden Cinema is truly a cultural asset and warrants the attention it has received. I sure wish Westport could break its addiction to paving everything in sight.

  2. M. Thompson

    For those that enjoy the Garden Theatre, it sounds potentially promising.
    If things work out, maybe the guy who has worked the ticket booth forever can maybe smile occasionally?

  3. Sue Brenner

    Yay!! I am so relieved to hear we could save the theater. A ray of hope for us all!!!

  4. Holly Wheeler


  5. Rozanne Gates

    Encouraging news. Losing the Garden Cinema would be a tremendous loss to so many people.

  6. David Sampson

    Clarification. This was not an old vaudeville theater but was rather a single screen theater opened in the 1960s by the Nutmeg Theater Corp, which also ran the Norwalk Theater on Main and the Rialto and palace in South Norwalk. Those had been old movie and vaudeville houses. The same company owned all the Fine Arts theaters in Westport until sold in 1969.

  7. Roseann Spengler

    Thanks Dan for putting it out there.

    Sent from my iPhone


  8. Sources, David Simpson! Can’t live with them, definitely can’t live without them. Sounds like you were there then so I believe your eyes. Anyone who walks into the Garden can tell it was once a single theater with a balcony, not four.

    I was told the new live performance space called The Wall Street Theater on Wall Street (once called The Globe) was built in 1915, and The Garden in 1918.

    The source had details on the different kind of vaudeville acts produced in each, evidenced by their different kind of stages. Both are in what is still called “downtown Norwalk,” though unrecognizable as an urban hub today after the devastating flood of1955.

    Are you sure the Nutmeg chain, whose name I remember, wasn’t just happening to be running a single movie theater there in your day and wasn’t camping out in a much older building?

  9. Luke Garvey

    Thank you for helping to try to preserve this gem.

  10. Dick Seclow

    Why doesn’t anyone mention The Bethel Cinema? They play the same films as the Garden does/did, Theater houses Taproot, an excellent restaurant. Good gelato, too.
    The Theater publishes a printed listing of future films as well as an excellent online weekly version. It may take less time to reach than the heroic trip to Stamford. P.T. Barnum’s birthplace, Bethel is beautiful New England town.

  11. Celeste Champagne

    Echoing thanks for your presence and perseverance in preserving our local and favorite art house. The public has spoken and apparently has been heard, at least to some degree.

  12. Dick Seclow, agree about Bethel, but it’s a schlep! A really beautiful one if you take 53 hugging the reservoir between Devil’s Den and Trout Brook Valley. But still a hike. I live right on the Norwalk line, and it takes me eight minutes to the Garden. Six to downtown, where we used to have movie theaters, remember?

  13. I appreciate all the sentimental memories of this cinema BUT it’s a VERY rundown and poor viewing theater for movies. Have gone a few times, increasingly reluctantly, and only because it was the only place within 50 miles showing a particular movie I had interest in seeing. If this place is spared from the wrecking ball, then hopefully Norwalk and all its enthusiastic fans will put their $ where their mouth is an rehab the place. Otherwise, remember it fondly and let progress run its course. Can’t keep blocking change for emotional reasons.

    • Agree, Mark, about it being rundown. Haven’t seen a seat replaced or reupholstered in 20 years. But not about poor viewing. I think the tiny upstairs theaters with the steeply-raked seats are terrific. No one’s head ever blocks your view.

      Marc Alan of the Wall Street Association has just gotten his non-profit film organization approved. He is part of the negotiations with the developer and Norwalk. The hope is that if the parking lot gets sold to the developer, his non-profit can get the theater, using it during the day for educational and cultural projects, and show the same Garden programming at night.

      Funny, I just wrote him a note saying he’ll need to replace all the aisle seats in the two downstairs theaters, which are completely broken. I always sit one or two in.

      But you wouldn’t really rather have a parking lot than a broken-down old movie theater? That’s progress? When you say it’s the only place to see a particular movie within 50 miles? Despite what some contend, those first-run indie and foreign films are not on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime. Which is why we all go.

  14. Robin Massa

    I grew up in Westport..near the 3 Bears was easy access for us to scoot to this theater..after school or evenings..and less costly than westport theaters at the time..True it needs re-hauling but so does that part of Norwalk which really could be a’s got some great restaurants..Ford dealership..bars=nightlife..damn its even got river views if someone got serious about it!! It will probably be some big highfalutin out of towner to see the possibilities to be had here….thinks locals!! It’s YOUR gold coast!

    • I couldn’t agree more. But my wife ran a business at The Norwalk Boat Club, down an unmarked alley off Wall Street. All power boaters because the river is so shallow. But the river view from the new apartment houses on the east bank is of an asphalt plant on the west! The same kind of industrial remnant that every Fairfield County town had in their harbors but most have replaced.

  15. Susan Iseman

    The Garden Cinema has a great lineup of films but is in dire need of upkeep/upgrading. The last time we were there, we could hear the film going on next door and the film we were there to see. Annoying to say the least. The kids’ playroom, with its bright lighting, added further distraction to viewing. What’s the plan for a movie theater in Westport? Seems we can do much better here in town, people!

  16. Yes!! Thrilled!!