The Naro’s Tench Phillips

For Tench Phillips, the winds of change have shifted to the Naro theater, where digital is an existential threat. (With her own priorities Sophia is, perhaps, a counterweight in the storm.)

by Bill Burke
photography by Rich-Joseph Facun
Tench Phillips strolls on the beach a few blocks from his house, the early morning sun shimmering on the ocean as he and friend Ron Greenspan – their dogs in tow – talk philosophy and politics.

It’s the start of a day that will take him, as most days do, 20 miles to the west, where he will partake of another round of animated discourse in a darkened urban movie theater with like-minded film enthusiasts.

This is the yin and the yang of Phillips – a man who in his youth turned to Eastern philosophies, hoping to find meaning and purpose. In a sense, he is still searching.

As Phillips and Greenspan walk the beach, there’s a hint of fall in the air. Phillips’ dogs, Lily and Sophia, rescue animals from the Norfolk SPCA, seem to sense something.

“Dogs don’t just read our emotions of the
moment,” Phillips says. “They read the whole history of our emotions. They feel it, they act it out.”

If Lily and Sophia can indeed divine their master’s emotions, they know that he is conflicted, a man confronted by a dilemma that will profoundly affect his life’s work.

For 35 years he and Thom Vourlas, his friend since childhood, have breathed life into the Naro Expanded Cinema in Norfolk, one of only about 250 single-screen art-film theaters still operating nationwide.

Phillips and Vourlas must soon make a decision that will determine if the Naro will continue to operate. As early as next year, the movie industry will stop using 35mm film, the standard for more than a century and the only format the Naro uses. It will be replaced with movies in a digital format.

For the Naro, that will mean an expenditure of about $75,000, money that is not in their budget. Phillips and Vourlas have not decided what they will do.  Phillips recently turned 62 and became eligible for Social Security. Vourlas is also 62, and a grandfather.

“This is happening at a very bad time,” said
Phillips’ wife, Angela. “If it had happened 15 or 20 years ago it wouldn’t have been as difficult.”

Legions of Naro fans are dismayed that the screen in the 76-year-old theater could soon go dark. They view it as the soul of Ghent. Several dozen pledged on Facebook in September that they would be willing to fund an ad-hoc campaign to save it.

Without the Naro, Ghent “would slowly begin to wither,” Angela says. The Naro “attracts street musicians. It brings life to Ghent.”

Tench H. Phillips III sits at a desk in his large, cluttered office above Chipotle restaurant next door to the Naro on Colley Avenue. He’s a lean, intense man with a head of unruly graying hair, dressed down in shorts and plaid shirt. Among the items scattered about the room is a dog dish. Phillips has just finished ordering supplies for the Naro’s concession stand. Now he’s talking about the forces that have shaped his life.

His father and uncle both owned local auto dealerships, and Phillips worked summers starting at age 13 washing cars at his dad’s businesses on Military Highway and Little Creek Road – “long enough to discover I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.” His uncle, G. Conoly Phillips, was a longtime Norfolk city councilman and often a vocal champion of religious causes in the community.

Even as a young man Phillips was something of a lovable apostate in a family that hewed to conservative Christian values.

“They would say, ‘He’s the smart one, the arty one.’ But I was just the curious one,” he says.

His days of social consciousness date to the Vietnam War, a conflict he felt was based on “lies and insanity.” It was an era during which college students were granted deferment from the draft. He studied engineering at Georgia Tech, then returned to Norfolk to pursue a pre-med curriculum at Old Dominion University.

But his quest to become a doctor ended in disillusionment. While working during the summer at a hospital psychiatric ward, he was repulsed by the treatment of patients there.

“The doctors would give them meds and spend five minutes with them and leave. They used electric shock therapy. I got the idea of becoming a doctor out of my system.”

He set out on a spiritual quest that took him to Europe and South America. He dabbled in Buddhism and shamanism, intrigued by concepts of alternative consciousness, including plant medicines that Native Americans “used for psychic and spiritual healing.”

In 1975 he moved to Boulder, Colorado, and enrolled in Naropa University to study Buddhist philosophy. He became energized while sitting in on a six-week course taught by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

“He was always authentic, impassioned and caring – and never put on an air of superiority over his students,” Phillips wrote in a 2010 essay. “His class teachings were at times like enigmatic prose and he broached wildly eclectic subjects in a running stream of consciousness. … I was an attentive student, much more than I had been as an undergrad studying systems engineering.”

He returned to Ghent within a year, “having been inspired by the free-wheeling energy of an  expanded human potential movement.”

 In 1977, intellectual and cultural crosscurrents were stirring in a newly revitalized Ghent. Phillips and Vourlas saw potential in the old theater. They decided to rent it and open an art-film house. Frankie Blue, a longtime local movie-house impresario who was then turning a buck showing porn films at the Wells Theatre in downtown Norfolk, warned them that the city would not support an art movie house.

Thom Vorlous and Aaron Burgess

“He said, ‘This town will break your heart,’ ” Vourlas recalls.

But they have proved him wrong; 35 years later, restaurants and shops have come and gone along Colley Avenue, but the only things that have changed at the Naro have been the ticket prices and the titles on the marquee. The theater’s halcyon days were the 1980s, before cable TV, home theaters that featured high-definition images, and the Internet, Netflix and Hulu.

When the theater needed major repairs in 2001, the city of Norfolk and Naro supporters stepped up to help. The city provided $70,000 and the public raised $150,000. Each donor was given an engraved placard on one of the theater’s 500 seats. Today, even as attendance has fallen off, the two men continue their labor of love at the Naro, which seems to have found its voice – Phillips’ – possibly channeling Allen Ginsberg.

Every Wednesday night at 7:15, the theater shows documentaries that tackle social issues or
examine human aspirations and frailties. Afterward, Phillips or experts on the evening’s subjects host debates. Vourlas calls the events “talk movies.” The subjects have included an art project created at the world’s largest garbage dump in Brazil; a behind-the-scenes look at the Madoff Ponzi scheme; Phil Ochs’ quest to balance his musical fame with his passion for social justice; the controversy surrounding proposed coal-fired power plants like the one in Surry County; how The New York Times is coping in a radically changing media environment; and an examination of a phenomenon that is killing off honeybees at an alarming rate.

Phillips lends support to many social causes, including animal rights (it is not a coincidence that the company he and Vourlas operate is called Art Repertory Films, or ARF). He supports the Occupy movements.

But he disavows any definition as an activist except “media activist.”

“I view the theater as a small press,” he says.

The long-running relationship between Phillips and Vourlas has prospered perhaps because each has a clearly defined role. Vourlas, with an accounting background, is the “nuts-and-bolts guy” who pays the bills, deals with film distributors and produces the theater’s bi-monthly calendar.

Phillips provides the karmic vision.

“What Tench does,” says Vourlas, “helps define us as the force we are in the community.”

The $75,000 question now, however, is how long that force will endure. A Wednesday night “talk movie” that played in September had an ominous title: “Side by Side: Can Film Survive Our Digital Future?”

 Aaron Burgess is busy in the Naro’s projection booth, preparing for a midweek matinee showing off the Jack Black comedy Bernie. This is the way it’s always been done by Burgess and other projectionists: They thread a reel of 35mm film stock onto the projector’s take-up reel, then start the show.

The image that flickers to life on the screen below emanates from one of two Simplex projectors sitting side by side in the booth high above. As the film in projector No. 1 begins to run out, projector No. 2 whirs into action in a seamless maneuver the audience never notices, and the second half of the movie begins.

Just outside the projection room, Hysteria, a comedy about the birth of the vibrator in Victorian England, still sits in its shipping crate in eight reels. That film, like the one now showing, will eventually be loaded onto the theater’s two 22-inch reels for screening.

Burgess is one of three projectionists at the Naro. A lifelong cinephile, he’s wearing jeans and an
orange T-shirt with the likeness of a cobra flicking its tongue.

In the digital future, he says, his job of 11 years may become obsolete. “You’ll just need somebody to load the thumb drive or the hard drive” onto a computer that will produce the image on the screen.

He rues the coming change. “There’s nothing like watching 2001 in 70mm,” he says. “And did you know the Library of Congress archives movies on 35mm film?”

The changeover from film to digital is happening rapidly, driven primarily by finances: Digital is simply cheaper than film. The cost of silver, a key component in the processing of film, has soared in the past few years, for instance.

Norway, Luxembourg and Hong Kong have already gone all-digital, according to Film Journal
International.
Most large theaters in the U.S. have made the conversion. The National Association of Theatre Owners estimates that one in five art-film houses like the Naro will go dark rather than convert.

And as for the Naro, “We’re fighting it. We’re not investing,” says a defiant Phillips. “We don’t want to pay a penalty fee just to stay in business.”

But he admits that he and Vourlas ultimately may have to yield to industry pressures or shutter the old theater.

“There is a chance the Naro will close. We don’t want anyone to take us for granted.”

Phillips says he and his fellow Boomers may be the last generation that reveres the time-worn
verities of genuine filmmaking – storytelling, dialogue, character development. The market for feature films today is 14- to 24-year-old males who create a demand mostly for action films and broad comedies, he says.

But there’s more at stake than just the movies themselves. In Veer magazine, he wrote, “Ghent’s multi-culturalism and progressive values didn’t just happen in a vacuum, but were cultivated through large doses of the liberal arts provided by ODU, the area’s arts and performance groups, the Naro Cinema, Naro Video, and Prince Books.”

For Angela Phillips – and, slowly, Tench – home moved from Ghent to the Oceanfront.

By the end of the day, Tench Phillips is far from the bustle of Ghent, in the solitude of a refuge near the sea he shares with Angela and their dogs.

The way his wife tells it, Phillips was dragged kicking and screaming out of Ghent in the late ’90s. At the time they lived there, close enough to the Naro that he walked to work.

Someone had told her of the house on 62nd Street in Virginia Beach, but he refused to go with her to see it, “so I had to come by myself,” she says.

But now he has no regrets about the decision to embrace the suburban lifestyle he once reviled. The house is bright and airy with hardwood floors, skylights and a well-furnished kitchen where Angela perfects her gourmet recipes (she has published a cookbook and teaches cooking and yoga).

The backyard is awash in English ivy beneath a canopy of towering trees. “This is my sanctuary,” he says.

Every morning he and the dogs enjoy their sojourn at the Oceanfront, a five-minute walk away.

But as noon approaches, Phillips gets an itch to head into town. So he gets into one of the couple’s two matching white Mercedes purchased from the family dealership and drives to the Naro.

And that’s the way it should be, Angela Phillips says.

“He can’t just stay home.

“I don’t know what Ghent would do without the Naro. And I don’t know what Tench would do without the Naro.”

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