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The Next Picture Show

Jennifer Christman, photo by Dorothy HongThe old Art Deco-style movie theater in downtown Pelham, New York, could easily have met the same fate as countless other classic movie houses across the United States. That was the plan anyway a decade ago when the financially ailing theater in southern Westchester County was slated to be demolished to make way for a new bank.

But a local citizens’ group in Pelham banded together to raise the necessary funds to buy the historically significant building. Thanks to that effort, along with the hard work of Jennifer Christman ’84, Pelham’s Picture House is newly restored. The 91-year-old theater has been reborn as a nonprofit community film center featuring high-quality independent, international, documentary, and classic cinema as well as innovative film-education programming. It has become an acclaimed destination for movie lovers throughout Westchester County and Northern New York City.

As the Picture House’s executive director for the past five years, Christman played a leading role in bringing about that transformation. Along the way, there have been major challenges, including the 2008 financial crisis, which took a heavy toll on fund-raising efforts and forced the theater to scale back some of its more ambitious plans. Under Christman’s leadership, it managed to weather those challenges. After a painstaking renovation effort, in April 2011 the Picture House celebrated its reopening in a ribbon-cutting ceremony that coincided with the theater’s 90th anniversary. It has also had its programming and course offerings bolstered to further its mission of providing a rich array of cultural fare to the local community.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve done so far. It’s been a fun journey,” says Christman, who recalls that during the restoration workers uncovered the old silent-movie screen as well as the theater’s original organ pit.

The path Christman took to the Picture House has been a whole other journey. Growing up in Port Washington on Long Island, Christman says she was always a big fan of the movies. Her father made sure she was exposed to more than just the standard commercial blockbusters by bringing her and her siblings to the Quad Cinema and other independent movie houses in Manhattan, many of them now defunct.

As much as Christman, a linguistics major, loved movies she hadn’t entertained the idea of a career related to film or the visual arts until she took a pair of art-history courses. “I realized how interested I was in visual media and different ways of seeing,” she recalls.

After graduation, she tested a legal career. But after a brief stint at a law firm Christman concluded that it wasn’t for her. She found work assisting with the production of two independent films, then enrolled at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she obtained a master’s degree in cinema studies. From there she landed a job with Cinecom Entertainment Group, a small producer, distributor, and marketer of independent films. When the company went bankrupt a few years later, Christman began a freelance writing career and spent nearly a decade writing theatrical scripts and had two plays produced off off-Broadway. During that time she and her husband—Jay Cohen, an attorney—started a family, and now have three daughters; their middle, Charlotte Christman-Cohen, is a first-year at Barnard.

Christman returned to school—this time for an MBA at Columbia Business School—and wound up being hired as an internal consultant for IBM. Though she enjoyed the work, she missed working in the arts. In 2006, she was invited to attend an early fund-raising event for Pelham’s Picture House. “I was really excited about what they were trying to do,” she recalls, and wanted to be part of the effort. Christman soon accepted an offer to be the Picture House’s deputy director. About a year later, she became the executive director.

In that role, she has worked hard to hone and refine the theater’s mission, helping establish it as a cultural and educational center for the community. The Picture House now offers a diverse mix of films, hosts an annual Italian film festival, and frequent events with leading filmmakers and actors. Guests have included directors Stephen Frears and Ron Howard, and actors Susan Sarandon, Frank Langella, and George Clooney.

Earlier this year the Picture House hosted its first concert, with performances by jazz-guitar legends Howard Alden and Bucky Pizzarelli that followed a screening of Sweet and Lowdown, Woody Allen’s 1999 film. (Both Alden and Pizzarelli were featured on the movie’s soundtrack.)

Educational programming is equally robust. In addition to acting and screenwriting classes for adults, there is a wide range of programs for children of various age groups. These include classes in film acting, film editing, and animation; a spring break movie-making vacation camp for younger students; and courses in screenwriting and directing as well as an evening film club aimed at high schoolers.

Christman is especially enthusiastic about a new Picture House program called The Power of Cinema, which will screen films for students on a variety of social issues and provide them with ideas about how to get engaged. “We’re trying to get people impassioned about issues,” she says, “and really show that cinema has a unique power to effect social change.” As part of the effort, Christman says her goal is to bring in students from Scarsdale, the Bronx, and other neighborhoods in order to promote dialogue among kids with different socioeconomic backgrounds. “We’re kind of uniquely positioned to do that,” says Christman, who notes that Pelham is just a 30-minute train ride from Grand Central and just north of the Bronx. “We’re a gateway to the suburbs and a gateway to the city.”

Christman is also active in the Barnard community. She is a member of the Leadership Council for Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies, and for the past two years played a key role in fund-raising and planning for its annual film festival, which focuses on films made by women or featuring strong women. 

“I think the film festival is an inspired idea,” says Christman, who served as a cochair of this year’s Athena Film Festival. As a big believer in the need for more films that showcase women’s stories, she says she was more than happy to lend her credentials.  —by Susan Hansen

Photograph by Dorothy Hong