Six years ago, the old beaux-arts movie theater on Bryn Mawr's main avenue was a leaky mess.
"It rained plaster, and it actually rained into the theater, too," said Juliet J. Goodfriend. "The roofs all had to be restored."
But time, an infusion of money, and a single-minded woman have made all the difference.
The 84-year-old former Seville theater, which morphed into a multiplex in the 1990s, was resurrected by Goodfriend in 2005 as the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. It has just logged another milestone: The state has given the nonprofit a $2.5 million boost toward the final stage of its restoration.
The grant from the state's Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program will drive a $5.5 million campaign to carve out three smaller auditoriums from two 300-seat theaters, build a state-of-the-art projection booth, and improve restrooms and climate control.
Goodfriend, president of the institute at 824 W. Lancaster Ave., sees the added viewing space as a huge bonanza, allowing the institute to expand viewing opportunities from 250 to 400 films a year, she said.
"Right now, we have 2,500 people here a week on average," Goodfriend said. "We'll have 50 percent more things to show them, and they're going to be distributed better throughout the year."
Under her guidance, the institute has emerged as a center for film appreciation and education, with 6,100 paid subscribers, who come from the Main Line and beyond to see independent, foreign, and first-run cinema. Subscribers can stay for post-film discussions or return for film-education courses.
"Juliet is a visionary who imagined reinventing a movie palace as a center for independent film and film education, serving film lovers of every age and taste," said Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office. "Undoubtedly, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute is the envy of film disciples nationwide."
Offerings have run the gamut from a Mary Poppins sing-along to Forks Over Knives, a documentary about the dangers of eating animal-based foods, and Mic Macs, a new French release about a brain-damaged video clerk who takes on two Parisian arms dealers.
"We get some dinner and come here. My wife loves it," said Greg Matusky, an institute board member and head of an Ardmore public relations firm. "It's a very nice evening."
What sets viewing a film at the rejuvenated theater apart from home screening is the presence of other people, Goodfriend believes. Audience reaction is important, and afterward, viewers can sit in the adjacent MilkBoy Cafe and dissect the movie.
"Watching a film is an incredibly collaborative act," Goodfriend said. "There is something about sitting together that is as ancient as the earliest human beings sitting around a campfire and telling stories, or sitting around in a cave seeing images reflected against the wall."
Of the $5.5 million project total, $2.9 million will go toward construction. The rest will help expand education programs, maintain the restored facility, and strengthen the nonprofit's balance sheet, she said.
"We will be quite sustainable," Goodfriend predicted. "We'll be able to make our debt payments, pay staff, and maintain the building."
Goodfriend knows more than a little about being an entrepreneur. She created and ran a pharmaceutical marketing research company before retiring in 2001. She has also served as a member of the Bryn Mawr College board of trustees.
As a retiree, she looked for a project. After auditing a film course and touring the decrepit Bryn Mawr movie building, "the scales lifted from my eyes," Goodfriend says.
She saw a chance to use the "architectural gem" not only as a cinematic venue, but also as a way to boost the economic health of downtown Bryn Mawr, which she said has eroded since the 1960s, when patrons forsook it for shopping malls.
"The passion became to restore the building to be the cultural and economic center of the community," Goodfriend said.
Al Paschall, general manager of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said that having the film institute there has helped Bryn Mawr.
He said there was "no question" that any venue drawing foot traffic to the commercial district at night and on weekends stimulates the local economy.
"They have some first-rate stuff that you really can't get anywhere else," Paschall said of the institute. "Someone will travel 45 minutes to an hour, buy something to eat at one of the restaurants, and buy gas to get there."
For Goodfriend, a remaining goal is wooing young viewers away from their electrical gadgets with tiny screens long enough for them to catch a flick, a bite, and a discussion.
"They can watch a movie the way it's supposed to be seen," she said, "on the big screen with people around them."