The Larchmont Playhouse, an 84-year-old theater in the village’s downtown, will receive a modern reboot from billionaire real estate developer and film producer Charles S. Cohen, who bought the property following more than a year of grassroots efforts to preserve it.
Cohen, CEO of Cohen Brothers Realty Corp., announced the purchase on Sept. 8 and said he hopes to begin an 18-month renovation and redesign of the playhouse in early 2018. The three-screen theater has been vacant since last September. Cohen did not disclose the purchase price or the cost of the proposed renovations.
The announcement from Cohen said the playhouse at 1975 Palmer Ave., will be transformed into “one of the finest art house/repertory theaters in the Northeast, featuring classic, foreign and independent films.”
Cohen’s real estate firm owns a number of commercial properties in midtown Manhattan, Florida and southern California. The portfolio includes the 500,000-square-foot, Class A office complex at 333 Westchester Ave. building in White Plains.
The Larchmont Playhouse, last listed at $1.1 million, is on the small end of the real estate developer’s portfolio. But the project fits with his passion for film, as the announcement from Cohen noted he owns a collection of more than 700 films. Cohen, who Forbes estimates is worth $2.8 billion, also recently revitalized and reopened the Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village.
Cohen is chairman and CEO of Cohen Media Group, which has produced and distributed several films since it was founded in 2008. His first credit as a producer was on the 2008 film “Frozen River,” which received two Oscar nominations.
“The audiences for independent and classic films are underserved here in New York and largely throughout the country due to the steady decline in the number of screens, as well as the aging infrastructure of the theaters that serve serious cinema lovers,” Cohen said in a statement. “I’m hopeful that my efforts to buy and upgrade movie houses of historical importance will have a positive impact in helping to begin to reverse that downward trend.”
Cohen also hopes to develop a series of high-end boutique cinemas around the nation.
The Larchmont Playhouse has been vacant since September 2016 when its previous operator, Bow Tie Cinemas, let its lease expire. The theater’s previous owner, United Development Co., a real estate firm based in Texas, had been trying to sell the theater even before Bow Tie left.
Barry Synnott, a broker with Coldwell Banker Commercial who represented the seller, said the property was first listed in April 2016. The theater at first appeared likely to be marketed as a redevelopment site, but he said grassroots efforts from a local group made it clear the village residents wanted the theater preserved.
That effort was led by Friends of Larchmont Playhouse, a local nonprofit community group founded by Ellen Zuckert and Elizabeth Bradley. Zuckert said it represents an important community meeting space.
“It’s central to our community because it brings people together,” Zuckert said. “And in terms of watching movies, even though we have Netflix and DVR at home, I much prefer the experience of seeing a film with others.”
The group was successful in bringing attention to the theater. Their efforts were featured in The Wall Street Journal and a number of local TV news shows. The group gathered about $600,000 in pledges toward a goal of $1.2 million to buy the theater.
Those efforts made a difference. Synnott said the group brought the theater “into the limelight. They persuaded the seller to say listen, let’s proceed and keep this as a theater, because that’s what they want.”
But before Cohen, a number of potential theater deals fell through, Synnott said, including one earlier this year from a local buyer who planned to renovate and reopen the theater.
A clause left over from the theater’s previous sale complicated potential deals for the property, according to Synnott. United Development Co. bought the theater in 2015 from Regal Cinemas, which operates the nearby Regal New Roc Stadium theater in New Rochelle. As part of that deal, Regal maintains “right of first offer” on the Larchmont Playhouse. Among other provisions, the right allows the company to place restrictions on first-run films at the Larchmont theater.
Asked about the right of first offer, Cohen said through a spokesperson that he “complied with all the requirements of the sale and successfully closed the transaction.”
The theater was built as a family-owned operation in 1933. At the time it was a single screen theater with 300 seats. In the mid-1990s, it was converted into a multiplex with three screens: two screens with between 80 and 90 seats and a larger theater with 130 seats.
Synnott said the theater is solid structurally, but shows its age and is in need of repairs. “It’s great for the village that Charles is the buyer, because he can turn it into a showpiece property,” he said.
Zuckert said Save The Larchmont Playhouse spoke with Cohen a few times over the summer and hopes to provide some insight on what the community is looking for from the theater.
“We just could not be happier,” Zuckert said. “From what I understand of Mr. Cohen’s vision of the theater, both in terms of looking at film for educational purposes, and as an art form and for community, it is very much aligned with what we are hoping the theater can be.”