It’s 8 o’clock on a cold Wednesday night, one hour before showtime, and David Allen flips the switch on the popcorn maker. The warm hum of the machine accentuates a sugary aroma already in the air — a combination that triggers movie-house nostalgia.
Allen, 23, is one of the four young proprietors of the Burton Theatre, an art-house cinema inside the former Burton International School in Midtown Detroit’s one-time Chinatown district. A few paces from the concession stand is evidence of the building’s recent past. When the theater officially opened last October, the Cass Avenue building had been abandoned for a year.
The frayed edges lend a certain mythic aura not found at typical cinemas. That difference continues downstairs, where, through a narrow hallway lined with emerald-green school lockers, a red-felt billiards table graces the men’s room. “This is not a novelty,” Allen says, “There are actual pool games that go on here.”
The Burton is a metaphor for the greater story of the city — a vibrant outpost in an otherwise rather desolate place. It’s a story that prompted The New York Times to highlight the theater in a story about fledgling Detroit businesses such as the Good Girls Go to Paris crêperies and Leopold’s Books. The Times posted a video of the Burton on its Web site, though it made the theater look as desolate as its surroundings. “[They] came during one of our slowest weeks ever,” Allen says. “Which was kind of frustrating, because we had a sellout the next week.”
Still, the newfound media attention is a welcome addition to the Burton’s gathering momentum. “Our attendance, if you were to graph it, is steadily increasing,” says Jeff Else, 24, as he and his partners gather in the projection room, which doubles as an office. The two senior partners in the foursome — Nathan Faustyn and Matt Kelson — are 26. All agree that they couldn’t have opened a theater with $6,000 in loans in any other town.
“This was just an idea a year ago,” Else says. “The whole process has moved along pretty smoothly.” But it wouldn’t have happened without the help of the local community and building owner Joel Landy, who originally wanted to open a drive-in cinema on the roof, Kelson adds.
Today, all signs point to expansion. Possibilities include shifting from the schedule of Wednesday and weekend screenings to daily showings. They’ve also discussed a second theater for second-run films, and perhaps a liquor license.
The next concrete step, though, is managing this month’s Detroit Independent Film Festival. The event, hosted by the Burton, runs March 3-7, and will screen local and international shorts, as well as cult movies. They also plan to include a special appearance by Troma Entertainment co-founder Lloyd Kaufman.
“The biggest appeal of this place,” Allen says, “is that the films are curated; there’s a Burton type of movie.”
To find out what that means, you have to first find the theater. A proper marquee is still in the works.