In February, 1977 Nancy Langsam and Andrew Mungo met socially and realized that each shared a common goal: to establish themselves in a project of their own design that would provide a reliable income, include growth potential, and hold their interest.
Reviewing their immediate community's needs and balancing those needs with their interest was the easiest part of what now has become a seven year business partnership.
Seldom was anything else to come as easy to the pair.
They decided to open a small arts cinema. Having neither business nor theatrical experience the new company, as yet unnamed, decided on an initial investment of thirty cents, the cost of photocopying the "Theater" and "Theatrical Equipment" sections of the Boston Yellow Pages.
Writing to everyone in the phone book became the means to assemble the raw data needed to establish what was now being called "Plum Island Productions."
Langsam and Mungo, viewing their inexperience carefully and facing the reality of having no capital, decided that a test market would be more in the order of a reasonable expectation of what would be immediately possible.
The season was right for planning. The winter would be spent readying a Summer Beach Film Festival.
The nearest beach and one where realty rentals could be expected to be relatively low, was Plum Island. Also, Plum Island offered the possibility , in its Taxpayer's Hall, of renting space by the evening, thus avoiding a lease of any kind or any security funds to a conventional realtor.
The President and Board of Taxpayer's Hall were approached first by mail and later in person at a regularly scheduled board meeting. The President was enthusiastic about the idea, but other board members insisted a special license was needed to exhibit films, in spite of a children's film series having been shown at that location many years earlier.
A public hearing was scheduled for Newbury Town Hall. Notices were correctly published and letters were sent to abutters.
A minor difference of opinion arose between the partners as to whether or not to personally poll the abutters. The abutters were not personally polled.
At the public hearing a group of thirty abutters petitioned and attended the hearing to oppose the license. Fears were expressed that teenagers would hot-rod to the arts films, beer cans flailing out of windows, trash on the streets, broken windows, and even a 20-year past rape was discussed as a reason to prohibit this activity.
The entrepreneurs were unable to allay the fears of the residents even with certain assurances that only the most precocious adolescents would be likely to attend, that the nature of the films to be shown would attract a quality audience, and that beer drinking would be firmly disallowed.
The license of course was soundly defeated. The next day's edition of the Newburyport DAILY NEWS featured a one page article stating, "Bogart won't be coming to the Island this summer..."
Having already scheduled a full Summer's program and having taken a bank loan to finance equipment purchases, the partners decided to seek a temporary location in Newburyport. With the days passing Langsam and Mungo contacted the Newburyport Disabled American Veteran about hall rentals and arranged to present their film festival there.
Many errors were made in this decision. The hall was available only on Monday and Tuesday nights, the worst possible times. Having a policeman for crowd control was a policy of the DAV despite the fact that the audience for the festival would be made up of a relatively small group of people. Furthermore, Langsam and Mungo over-scheduled each show, adding a short subject and live performance - all for a two dollar ticket price. At $50.00 per night for the hall and $50.00 per night for the policeman, it took fifty patrons to meet house costs.
Also Langsam and Mungo had to assemble and dis-assemble a full cinema/theater every night. They had to buy a truck for this purpose alone.
It didn't work. After four weeks Langsam and Mungo ended their first film series with $2000.00 of debt. At a repayment rate of $50.00 per week each, they settled their debt in less than two years.
It was time for Langsam and Mungo to seek financing. They felt that they needed a site in order to attract funds. They found a huge building that had been built as a bus garage and had been used for many years by the Greyhound company. The location was reasonably good, at #1 Harris Street, only one lot in from State Street, Newburyport's main thoroughfare. Unfortunately, the zoning change from B-1 to B-2 at that time ran down the center of Harris Street. Langsam and Mungo were required to seek a zoning variance and change of use building permit.
For this public hearing they retained counsel and personally visited each of the fifty-nine abutters much more than once. Langsam and Mungo also assembled many letters of support from prominent local people, amassed a lengthy sheet of personal references, and produced a petition signed by over one hundred business and professional people of the downtown Newburyport community.
There was opposition, but they prevailed. Page one of the next day's Newburyport DAILY NEWS trumpeted, A new Cinema/Theater in Town!" It never came to pass. Not at #1 Harris Street. After two years of financial searching, including now the management by tenancy-at-will of the site, Langsam and Mungo realized that they had temporarily failed and the building was sold.
During this time they visited every bank in Newburyport, many others in the Merrimack Valley, a few in Boston, and one in New York City. Their effort was to no avail. They had also begun the process of seeking SBA funds and had traveled to Boston six time in this quest.
On their sixth visit, Langsam and Mungo were informed that movie theaters are ineligible for SBA funds on the grounds that a cinema was a potentially an opinion-molding entity, as were newspapers, book publishers, and television stations.
Undaunted, they opted to start another film series by carefully scrutinizing every church hall, civic organization, function room, small stage theater in their immediate area. In their search they happened upon another failed film series.
The YMCA Civic Center had tried to produce a film series that included one projector to guarantee interruptions, metal folding chairs to ensure discomfort, sound that only came out of the projector, and a publicity campaign of one press release, one poster, and a mimeograph that listed titles and times.
The YMCA wanted a film series though had little hope of having one and cautioned Langsam and Mungo repeatedly about the follies of such ventures.
Langsam and Mungo did it right. They bought better projectors and always used two to insure a smooth screening. Fifty canvas director's chairs were purchased that provided a great deal more comfort than any metal chair ever could. Getting a power amplifier, a pre-amplifier, and four speakers enabled them to take the sound out of the projector and cleanly disperse it throughout a room.
Langsam and Mungo published 5,000 copies of a three-folded program that featured photos, ad slicks, descriptions, and reviews on each film. They compiled a list of thirty media outlets and sent a separate press release on each film to every outlet. They hung between fifty and two-hundred posters a week from Portsmouth, NH to Gloucester, MA and then replaced them the following week with new movie posters.
In short order, the YMCA acceded to Langsam and Mungo's request to knock projection holes in the wall, separating their room from the hallway. This produced a larger screen image, provided more room for the audience, eliminated projector noise, and enabled them to work in full light and talk at normal voice levels The series was called "Movies at the YMCA," eschewing any reference to "film series" or anything sounding remotely cultural or educational - it was entertainment. (Prior to all this Langsam and Mungo worked with flashlights, in whispers).
Soon the YMCA allowed Langsam and Mungo to operate on Saturday nights when the rest of the building was closed. After one year they started a second film series at the same site, a children's matinee series.
There were drawbacks however. Langsam and Mungo were in a second-story room with a basketball court overhead, weight lifters in the next room yelling, "push, push" and a constant flow of bodies going back and forth to and from the health club.
But it worked and after two years and 517 shows, Langsam and Mungo had the credibility and "creditability" to try again to establish their own cinema/theater.
At this time Nancy Langsam was invited to join the Board of Directors at the YMCA, a position she currently retains and Andrew Mungo was given a life time membership to the health club.
Again Langsam and Mungo went looking for sites, finding their current store front on downtown State Street. Again they needed a change of use variance. Again they retained counsel and lobbied vigorously among the downtown merchants and professionals. Again they visited every abutter.
On the day of the public hearing, the Newburyport DAILY NEWS editorialized on our behalf, saying in part, "For five years Andrew Mungo and Nancy Langsam have been providing the only product of its kind - quality films in downtown Newburyport...tonight they will go before the Board of Appeals to ask for a special permit...they deserve the permit just as downtown Newburyport deserves a theater of this type."
At this public hearing there was no opposition and the Board took less than five minutes to unanimously award Langsam and Mungo their permit.
They were still far from easy street, pinching every penny and curbing all non-essential costs. But the Newburyport Screening Room opened on June 11, 1982, five years and four months after their first business meeting.