It’s late afternoon, almost exactly a week before Madison Cinemas reopens after its pandemic shutdown in March 2020, and there’s still a lot of work to do. It’s a situation where everyone is on deck with new owners Harold Blank and William Dougherty, along with employees Lizzy O’Gara and Ryan Fiorentino, doing whatever needs to be done, from snagging huge TV screens on the walls to cleaning the trash. Former owner Arnold Gorlick also pulled over.
O’Gara, the cinema’s general manager, and Fiorentino, O’Gara calls him “the other manager”, are standing in the lobby deciding what to do next when they see two people standing outside. ‘outside. Bundled up against the chill in the fading afternoon light, their faces pressed against the glass doors, the two people outside look like children staring longingly at their favorite candy.
O’Gara looks at Fiorentino and says: “They want to see what we’ve done.” Fioretino looks at O’Gara and says, “Let them in and show them.”
Putting their duties aside for now, they open the doors and invite Joe and Sarah Anderson from Branford for a visit. Boasting the entire theater from top to bottom, they explain how it was gutted, remodeled and renovated in preparation for its grand opening scheduled for Friday, January 28.
O’Gara, 22, of Groton, has worked for Blank and Dougherty for five years, most recently at their Mystic Luxury Cinemas in Mystic, and she says working for them means being part of a family. Fiorentino, 33, is a Madison native who, as a kid, felt that Madison Art Cinemas and the Madison Arts Barn were his safe places. He made a career as an educator in Guilford Schools until he walked past the cinema and saw the marquee announcing the reopening. He turned his car around, walked in, asked how he could help, and was then hired.
As we speak, as they take a break from work that afternoon, it’s clear that O’Gara, Fiorentino, Gorlick, Blank and Dougherty are eager to share their passion for sharing great movies on big screen with everyone in the community.
“We own the seats, the screen, the projectors, the popcorn machines,” says Dougherty. “The landlord owns the building. The theater belongs to the community. Next week we will return it to the community.
“Our paths have crossed”
Gorlick and Blank have known each other for decades, since Gorlick was the general manager of York Square Cinemas in New Haven and Blank worked for a major movie theater chain. Gorlick opened Madison Art Cinemas in 1999 and began its transformation into a community mainstay and premier destination for moviegoers from across the state. Blank’s passion for cinemas took him further, as he ran independent theaters in Vermont and then movie theaters in Argentina.
Meanwhile, Dougherty, whose love affair with film began when he was three and entered the Palace Theater in Waterbury with his parents, owned and ran Mystic Theaters from around 2006 to 2015. Blank stopped by to see Dougherty one day, “when I was looking for a new theater, instead of retiring, which would have been smarter,” Blank recounts, to laughter from Dougherty and Gorlick.
In 2015, Dougherty and Blank became partners.
In the meantime, “our paths have crossed,” says Gorlick. During film festivals. During screenings. During the dinners after.
“Everyone knows everyone in this business,” says Blank.
“You’re always like, ‘What did you think of that? What did you think of that?'” Gorlick said.
“And then COVID comes along and messed it all up,” says Blank.
As mandated, due to the growing number of people falling ill, needing to be hospitalized and dying, Gorlick reluctantly closed Madison Art Cinemas on March 16, 2020. Blank and Dougherty fought mightily to keep their cinema business above water.
“We were all in pain,” Blank said.
“Our income has dropped to zero,” says Dougherty.
“We didn’t know if we were going to survive,” Blank said.
“It was pretty dark there for a while,” says Dougherty.
Blank and Dougherty held raffles. They created a Go Fund Me page. Local businesses, including a brewery, held fundraisers for them. They rented the theater for private screenings. They sold bags of popcorn.
“Right on the sidewalk,” Dougherty says.
“Hundreds of them,” says Blank.
“People would call and we would send them back to the parking lot,” says Dougherty.
“Fifteen dollars a bag,” Blank said.
“And the drive-in, Harold?” said Dougherty.
“Yes, at Olde Mistick Village, we did a drive-in. I have to congratulate us for being creative. We had to stay relevant,” says Blank.
What he didn’t like
In the meantime, Gorlick wondered how to make it safe for patrons if he were to reopen his theater doors. But every time it looked like the pandemic might be receding, another wave would rise and hit with full force again. He tried watching movies at home, which usually left him unsatisfied. His job at Madison Art Cinemas had been his life, a 24/7/365 commitment that left him little time to even think about what might come next for him.
When everything was swept away by the pandemic, he realized something. For all his passion for film and his love for his work and his patrons, there were aspects of his job that he definitely didn’t like.
“I just wanted a job,” he says when he started in the business. “I didn’t expect him to become what he has become. And, when it happened, I was never happier than when I was there. I was so flattered when everyone came in.
With his success over the years, responsibilities came knocking on his door day and night, even when he was on a cruise, when he had to worry about adjusting his work schedules. On vacation in a Tuscan villa, he would rise at 3 a.m., scrambling to fill a sudden opening in the schedule.
Then one day during the pandemic, about to visit friends for an outdoor dinner with his wife Thuy Pham, he was stunned by a sudden revelation. His life had changed.
“I realized I could turn off my phone and leave it in the car,” he says.
He could be having dinner with his wife and friends. Totally. Completely. One hundred percent.
“I said to my wife: ‘I don’t think I can go back,'” he says.
Blank, perhaps sensing his friend’s transformation, took the initiative, but Gorlick was initially a little distant about the possibility of selling.
“I wanted an exit strategy, but I was still attached,” he says.
He also didn’t know how to make the numbers work. And then his company got a federal grant that helped the numbers come together, and they made a deal.
As we speak, O’Gara and Fiorentino wrap up their tour with the Andersons and bid them farewell.
“We’ll see you soon!” Sarah Anderson shouts. Or maybe it was her husband. It’s hard to tell with these masks.
“We will be ready!” Fiorentino said.
different and the same
We talk a bit about what will be the same and what will be different.
With permission from the relevant authorities, there will be beer and wine, and maybe even prosecco and mimosas on Sunday morning. There will be mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers, fries and hot pretzels for the kids – and for any adult who walks in and, struck by the smell of their childhood, decides to order the same. There will be independent films and art films, as well as children’s films and blockbusters. Blank and Gorlick agree that the film industry has changed in ways that make kids’ movies and blockbusters essential for a small theater like Madison Art Cinemas.
“I hope it stays the same,” says Blank, “that it will be a theater operated with passion, to show films with great sound and projection and with a staff that cares about their guests. We hope and we anticipate, that’s what it’s going to be.
Gorlick is convinced that it will be so.
“These two guys are exactly the right guys to buy this theatre,” he says. “They will run the theater exactly as I would have run it.”
Dougherty is convinced that people will choose a small personal theater over a large commercial theater that fails to make that personal connection. He can’t wait to stand in the back of the theater as people come out, thank them, and hear their reaction to the film, though truth be told, he knows what their reaction will be before they even enter.
“Here’s what Harold and Bill understand,” Gorlick said, sitting next to a large mug of soda and an open bag of Twizzlers. “People lament the depersonalization in their lives. They want to have a very personal experience with real human beings.
Gorlick, munching on his Twizzlers, looks at Blank, who also has an open bag of Twizzlers in front of him and is typing on his laptop as we talk.
“He has the energy of a teenager,” says Gorlick de Blank.
“He never turns it off,” says Dougherty.
Blank smiles and shrugs – “It’s a 24/7 business, I guess.”
They have to get back to work, and as we prepare to leave, photographer Wes Bunnell asks Gorlick what he’s going to do next. Gorlick talks a bit about local politics and national politics, and the importance of working on behalf of the immigrants who are such an important part of our community.
But, in the end, what he’s going to do next comes down to this: “Anything I want,” he says.
More information is available at and tickets will be on sale soon at https://www.madisoncinemas2.com/.