Downtown Hartford Finally Gets a Movie Theater, and Front Street Starts to Take Shape
By Gregory B. Hladky
November 07, 2012
Hartford’s downtown hasn’t had a movie theater in something like three decades, but that’s finally about to change.
The Spotlight Theatre that will open Nov. 16th will also be the very first operational tenant for the embarrassingly vacant Front Street section of the billion-dollar-plus Adriaen’s Landing redevelopment project.
Major construction on the 725-seat theater and restaurant is now complete, according to Spotlight’s managing director, Steve Menschell. “There are some final details and training that will take place before we open,” he says, adding that everything will be ready to rock and roll by opening night.
The Front Street entertainment district has been empty ever since the buildings were completed more than two years ago. Planners originally wanted the $30 million project to be up and running back in 2005 when the convention center across the street opened. Repeated changes in developers resulted in repeated delays.
Spotlight’s opening is only the start of what state and city officials are hoping will become that long-awaited “critical mass” of attractions and people that will really signal the revival of downtown Hartford.
The next Front Street tenant is already lined up: Infinity Music Hall and Bistro, which has long operated a very successful venue in Norfolk, will be creating a 500-seat performance theater and restaurant operation right around the corner from the new Spotlight Theatre. Infinity officials expect to open their operation in 2013.
State officials have been negotiating with several other restaurants interested in locating along Front Street. Menschell says they are “very close to signing a couple of upscale restaurants,” including some very familiar national brands. But he says he can’t talk about which of those may be coming to Hartford at this stage.
“It’s going to become a focal point for people from all over greater Hartford,” Menschell says of the Front Street district. He says he’s already gotten a “tremendous amount of interest” from potential customers from Hartford and surrounding communities.
Spotlight is a “national boutique” theater chain headquartered in Georgia. Its new Hartford location includes 19,000 square feet, four auditoriums with stadium seating, a 100-seat full-service restaurant and bar.
Menschell says the new theater will be showing “independent films, art films and crossover commercial films” such as the latest James Bond flick.
Menschell says he expects to draw patrons from existing movie venues in the region and folks who don’t normally go out to traditional theaters. “We’re going to be a theater that shows all sorts of films,” he says, and different types of films draw different types of moviegoers.
Spotlight has recently hired chef Chantal Roy (most recently at Burtons Grill at Evergreen Walk in South Windsor) to head up the staff at the theater’s Front Street restaurant operation.
According to Menschell, the restaurant will serve “American contemporary cuisine” and patrons will be able to take their drinks and meals into the theaters to watch films. “But we won’t be serving in the auditoriums during the shows,” he adds, saying having servers bringing food and drink around would be too distracting. Entrées at the restaurant will mostly be in the $14-$17 range.
The Spotlight is also planning to be the host for Hartford Flick Fest in December, and the opening night venue for the Jewish Film Fest. Menschell says a documentary film about hockey great Gordie Howe (who played with the Hartford Whalers NHL team) will also premiere at the new theater.
And there will be special film events, according to Menschell, with moviemakers and professors from Trinity College and other area colleges and universities invited to talk with audiences after the showing of important films.
Menschell says two of the theater’s auditoriums are also equipped with stages that can be used for those talks and for business presentations and meetings. He says several local companies have already contacted him about renting the auditoriums for such events.
One of the big potential hurdles any downtown movie theater has to get past is attracting suburbanites used to free parking when they go to see a flick.
But Menschell insists that won’t be a problem on Front Street. Parking costs at the next door garage will be just $2 for the evening as long as the motorist shows his or her ticket stub from that night’s theater showing.
“And Hartford has free parking on the streets after 6 p.m. and free parking on Saturdays and Sundays,” he adds. “I think once they come to our venue, [parking] won’t be a problem.”
“It’s not just a theater,” Menschell insists, arguing that the Spotlight experience will be something new and exciting for the people who come. “It’s going to be an event.”