Visit the Charming Screening Room in Newburyport

The Screening Room has been a beloved local theater on State Street for thirty-five years.

The road to starting this independent gem was, however, long and arduous. Nothing good ever comes easy.

In February, 1977, Nancy Langsam and Andrew Mungo met socially and realized that they shared a common goal. They wished to establish themselves in a business of their own design that would provide a reliable income, include growth potential, and hold their interest.

Both movie lovers, 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 then 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 in order. 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 in the evening.

The permit, unfortunately, was defeated due to local fears of teenage hijinks. 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. It was time for Langsam and Mungo to seek financing. They felt that they needed a stable site in order to attract funds.

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.

The series was called “Movies at the YMCA.” There were some 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. Ultimately, 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. 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 their 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.”

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.

Today the theater enjoys a strong local following and co-hosts the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival every September. Well done.

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