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SHOWTIME AT THE SHOWROOM

By Linda Fowler (May, 2012)

An artist's rendering of the new ShowRoom.

For years, business partners Michael Sodano and Nancy Sabino made their living turning “vanilla” spaces into rooms that pulsed with color, light and sound. Give them a box and they think inside it. Their clients were mostly corporate types who needed staging and tech support for meetings or conventions. As the economy began to rattle and wheeze, they were asked to do more for less and travel became a burden. It was time to look for a new palette.

The couple, who are also life partners — both turn 60 this year — started spending weekends in Asbury Park, the hardscrabble city by the sea where fortunes large and small have risen and fallen with the constancy of the tides. Intrigued by the struggling Cookman Avenue, historically the main artery of the city’s retail trade, they entered a long-neglected storefront at number 708 and exited knowing a new way to exploit their audiovisual skills.

The ShowRoom, whose April 2009 debut marked the first time in 30 years that a movie house had appeared on the streets of Asbury Park, is their free-form cinema, prized by patrons as much for its ruminative indie films as it is for added attractions. Part community center, part performance space, mostly screening room, it thrives on diverse but “themed” events combined into a single multimedia experience.

During last summer’s AP Indiefest, for example, “Louder Than a Bomb” — a documentary about poetry slams — was accompanied by a Q&A and a poetry competition judged by the audience. The following afternoon, “Forks Over Knives” — a study of disease control through whole-food and plant-based diets — was screened for a sold-out crowd that interacted with a panel of medical and nutritional experts.

Amateur filmmakers hit the streets in a ShowRoom contest to produce shorts about “Asbury Park on the Move.” With three nearby art gallery openings and an outdoor yoga festival also happening that weekend, “it was the best Saturday” on what’s known as the Art Bloc, Sabino recalls.

“The irony of this is that in its heyday, Asbury Park had seven grand, palace movie theaters,” says Sodano. “It just seemed there was a missing link and we’re conservative in our business dealings. We’ve been around for over 30 years in production and just said, ‘Let’s give it a go. What’s the worst that could happen?’ We found this little space and said, ‘Well, we could start off small.’”

But from their display windows, where in 1888 shoe salesman Jacob Grossman proudly arranged his fine footwear, the co-owners can see an expanding future. Directly across Cookman, at 707, stands the ShowRoom’s new digs, scheduled to open next month. Able to accommodate two arthouses (75 and 25 seats), plus a dozen-seat reception area/screening room on the upper level, the nearly $1 million rehab of the former upholstery store is close to completion. The new space has a 22-foot screen in the main theater (compared to the original ShowRoom’s 54-head capacity and 14-foot screen) and employs a mix of digital projection technologies, such as streaming.

“What does a movie theater need?” Sodano says he asked himself. “Besides comfortable seating and the ability to be dark, it needs great projection and great sound. That’s where we put our investment.”

He laughs. “Most people go get dogs, we go get buildings.”

Walter Reade Sr. (né Rosenberg), the cinema impresario whose family ran a 50-theater chain in New Jersey by the mid-’60s, chose Asbury Park for his first property — the rejection of the purchase by city officials smacked of anti-Semitism. Undaunted, he later acquired the Rialto and Savoy, among others, and built the St. James in 1917 at Cookman and St. James Place. When the Reades waved their marketing wand, celebrities such as the Marx Brothers and Ginger Rogers would materialize for a screening of “Wings,” or a pedestrian overpass would be built across Cookman Avenue to promote “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

Asbury Park historian Helen-Chantal Pike, author of “Asbury Park’s Glory Days: The Story of an American Resort,” compares the ShowRoom’s programming formula to the variety shows that Reade booked under one roof.

“It was a multipurpose theater experience at the St. James,” she says. “He could show films there, but this is also where he did live shows and broadcasts from the stage.
“Walter Reade Jr., the son, was dabbling in television in much the same way that people are trying to dabble in YouTube channels today. I’m curious to think where Mike and Nancy might be going in the future.”

Pike’s flair for connecting the dots between Asbury Park’s past and present led her to organize a ShowRoom event recounting the 1956 Boardwalk riot outside Convention Hall, where Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were inside crooning “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.”

Three concert-goers were stabbed and 25 injured, a statistic that shocked the city council into an attempt to ban rock ’n’ roll shows. (Had it not failed, conceivably Asbury Park would never find its Sound nor Bruce Springsteen his “Sandy.”)

For the talk segment, Pike tracked down a witness to the melee and an expert on girl groups; for the performance, she found area teenage musicians on the cusp of careers; for the film, Sodano compiled relevant music videos. The ShowRoom’s typical 40- to 70-year-old demographic turned out that evening, as well as a strong presence of those younger than 18.

Civic engagement is essential to the ShowRoom’s ability to pull in an audience, especially during the off-season or dreary weekday evenings. After moving four years ago to a sycamore-lined avenue on the west side of town, Sodano and Sabino made it their business to meet the locals. He’s on the board of ArtsCAP (the Arts Coalition of Asbury Park) and she serves on the Environmental and Shade Tree Commission. “It’s like a college campus or a small city,” Sabino explains. “You walk down the street and you know just about everybody. And the work ethic is storefront. Everybody who owns a place here works their place, so there’s nobody who slacks off.”

The ShowRoom began aligning its events and production services with other happenings. The $30 dinner-and-show packages with nearby restaurants, while hardly an original idea, took off. (Restaurant Plan B, an early partner, is the new ShowRoom’s next-door neighbor.)

An artist exhibiting at a local gallery lacked space for all of her photographs, so the ShowRoom invited her to narrate a slide show of her work. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz appeared in proximity to a screening of a film set in his birthplace, the Dominican Republic. Frequently connected to concerts, the art house participated in the Light of Day rockathon in January by unreeling “Just Around the Corner,” about the Light of Day Foundation’s battle against Parkinson’s disease. Sodano also expects the venue to be visible in this month’s Bamboozle festival.

While the ShowRoom has a laid-back look and even lacks a marquee, its sequel at 707 is an attention-getter, with a sleek facade that hints of art deco. Viewers will settle into cushioned theater seats instead of the faux-wicker patio chairs and psychedelic floral pillows that gave the ShowRoom its bohemian vibe.

It’s likely other things won’t change: Sabino’s warm conversations with arrivals — she’s been known to hand-deliver popcorn and napkins to late-comers in the auditorium — and the owners’ instincts for checkering the timetable with a balance of buzzy art films (“Melancholia,” “Drive,” “Margin Call,” “Albert Nobbs”) and quieter works. (Oscar-nominated animated and live-action shorts can be seen in one sitting here prior to the Academy Awards.)

For a film, admission is $9, and a buck or two more for a double feature, say a movie and book-signing. The audience is greeted with some pre-show banter, trailers of coming attractions and the occasional “newsreel” of goings-on in Asbury Park.

Jon Caspi of Holmdel, frontman for the indie punk band the First Gun and a professor of family and child studies at Montclair State University, is a father of three and a fixture on the Jersey club scene. At Sodano’s urging, his concept album, “Eddie Knows!,” was reimagined live at the ShowRoom with singers, actors and videographers, who created the projections. “We stuffed the band in where the people were so you could be sitting right next to the drummer,” Caspi recalls. “It really turned out to be a phenomenal evening. We sold out the two shows.”

On an afternoon just after Christmas, Caspi returned to the ShowRoom accompanied by drummer Michael McDermott of the Bouncing Souls, a punk band in town for its annual Home for the Holidays tour. The two led a Q&A following “The Other ‘F’ Word,” Andrea Blaugrund Nevins’ profile of punk rock dads that includes a blink-and-you-miss-it bit by McDermott during the closing credits. The house was nearly full, presumably with many fans of the Bouncing Souls.

Barely a whisper was heard during the movie. Afterward, the talk was newsy and high-spirited. “This is the kind of place that exudes participation,” is how Sodano describes it.

Caspi agrees. “You go to a big multiplex theater and all these people are sort of watching a film individually. But (here) you feel like you’re more of a part of the community.”

 




Asbury Park’s The ShowRoom Voted New Jersey’s Best Independent Movie House

Asbury Park, NJ – (April 2011) – As it approaches its second anniversary, The ShowRoom has been voted Best Independent Movie House by New Jersey Monthly readers. In two short years, the art-house movie theater has brought film back to Asbury Park after a 30-year hiatus. The independently operated and programmed movie theater’s staple screenings and events have included:

· New Jersey Premieres of “Outrage” and “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child”
· Sold-out BookFLX Event with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz
· Co-Founding the Asbury Park IndieFest, as well as the APin3 short-film contest
· Saturday night Improv Comedy Jams
· Live, multi-media productions with local musicians and community members

Partners Michael Sodano and Nancy Sabino look forward to their third year of programming provocative and relevant entertainment for New Jersey and tri-state area audiences. They are available to comment on the ever-growing art-house movie movement, programming for the independent-minded moviegoer, and the importance of entertainment venues to the economic fabric of a city on the rebound.

For addition information, please contact Shannon Furey at shannon@mdidit.com or 732-995-1638


From New Jersey Monthly Magazine: Independent Movie House

The ShowRoom in Asbury Park has only one screen and 50 seats, but thanks to owners Mike Sodano and Nancy Sabino, it has become in just two years the favorite of NJM readers. A big part of that is the programming, all of it selected by the owners—improv comedy, author signings, a variety of events and, of course, lots of cool indie flicks. (708 Cookman Ave; 732-502-0472; theshowroomap.com) [ed. note: Now we're at 707 Cookman Ave. Don't get lost!]

About The ShowRoom
Since opening in April 2009, The ShowRoom has continued to present relevant and provocative movies and events that engage audiences for a memorable experience. It is a versatile entertainment space on Cookman Avenue’s Art Bloc that is renowned for its roster of critically acclaimed, independent, classic, foreign, family and festival-winning films. In addition, The ShowRoom endeavors to provide the community with a welcoming and acoustically ideal environment for live performances, workshops, seminars and mixed-media presentations. Owners Michael Sodano and Nancy Sabino are film-industry veterans with more than 25 years of experience in creative communications for corporate productions. With The ShowRoom, first-rate cinema and a dedicated entertainment venue has returned to Asbury Park’s growing downtown arts community. For more information, please visit www.theshowroomap.com or call 732-502-0472.

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