Johnny Calderin and Cesar Hernandez-Canton wanted to put the glamour back in going to the movies. So they did what any self-respecting cineastes would do: They bought their own theater, the Alcazar Cinematheque in Coral Gables, which they rechristened the Absinthe House Cinematheque.
Calderin, age 23, and Hernandez-Canton, age 25, grew up together in the Gables. Their fondest moviegoing memories are of sitting in the balcony as kids watching films at the spectacular Art Deco Miracle Theatre. These days they attend plays rather than movies at the Miracle, now home to the Actors' Playhouse. And the boom in impersonal movie megaplex construction bringing close to 260 new screens to South Florida (tomorrow the Aventura AMC 24 opens) has left them yearning for a movie house with personality.
When Hernandez-Canton's uncle, Mario Ernesto Sanchez, whose International Hispanic Theater Festival has taken over the Alcazar for an entire month every year for the past ten years, gave the duo the inside tip that the theater was for sale, the old friends quickly became partners. They gathered funds to tender a serious offer for the business; after a bit of haggling, they owned the place.
A few weeks of renovations later, the Absinthe House Cinematheque was born, in the first week of July. "We wanted to create a unique place where people could come and hang out and see a movie, and maybe stick around afterward," says Hernandez-Canton. And they did. They moved the box office toward the back of the main lobby and transformed a smaller room off the lobby into a cozy loungelike space furnished with comfy velvet couches and small round cafe tables and chairs they had found at thrift stores. They painted the walls in primary colors. And turned off the fluorescent lights for good. Low light now comes from lamps sitting on corner tables, a few squat candles strewn here and there, a rotating globe-size orb resting on top of the oak and metal bar, and a popcorn machine left over from the former owners. Jazz plays softly on the stereo.
Wednesday through Sunday (they take Monday and Tuesday off), Hernandez-Canton mans the bar, selling sodas, snacks, and brewing espresso, while Calderin manages the box office and takes care of film bookings. The partners opened the movie house with the film The Long Way Home, and they hope to program a mix of first-run independent films, sub-runs (movies that have already been shown in wide release), and revivals. Tomorrow Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita and John Sayles's Men with Guns screen; the duo will throw a wine, cheese, and flan fete at 6:00 p.m.
Although they bought the theater on a whim without doing a bit of market research, the Absinthe owners are unafraid of being squashed by the heavy competition. "We're offering something totally different than what Aventura or Sunset Place will offer," Calderin explains. "There you have J. Crew, the Gap, Banana Republic, and so many restaurants. You're so busy wondering where you're going to go after the movie that you're not interested in the movie." Adds Hernandez-Canton: "What we are offering is something that those people are now trying to create. But we didn't open this place to compete with the CocoWalks or the others."
The partners pride themselves on having already developed a loyal clientele, which so far has ranged in age from twentysomethings to 90-year-olds. "We want this place to be comfortable and unpretentious," says Hernandez-Canton. "We want people to come here after work to listen to some jazz, see a movie, and meet other people who are interested in the same things. We really appreciate the fact that we stand apart from the multiplexes. We're not better or worse -- just different."