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The Lens: Turning Hi-Pointe

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 12, 2008 - St. Louis moviegoers have long loved the Hi-Pointe Theatre, which under the James family's careful stewardship was an essential art-house destination for decades. Anglophiles jonesing for the latest Merchant Ivory could always depend on a costume-drama fix at the Hi-Pointe, but during its heyday the theater's offerings also included such films as "The Draughtsman's Contract," "Diva," and "My Beautiful Laundrette," so the blue-haired regulars received occasional shocks that no doubt quickened their pacemakers.

For much of its life as an art house, the Hi-Pointe was a family affair, with always congenial George and Georgia James running the show and pressing their kids into service behind the concession stand and in the ticket booth. The Jameses eventually leased the theater to Landmark, which also operates the Tivoli and Plaza Frontenac, and when the chain decided to not renew its commitment this April, many Hi-Pointe fans worried that the grand old neighborhood house would shutter permanently.

Stepping in to fill the void was Brian Ross, a longtime Landmark employee who had previously managed the Tivoli and most recently wrangled the chain's Chicago operations. Perhaps tired of those Windy City winters, Ross was happy to have the opportunity to return to St. Louis, and he and the Jameses are now readying the Hi-Pointe for its reopening. There's still no timetable for a permanent return to business, but this weekend the theater will temporarily unlock the doors for a three-day benefit run of the timely "GasHole,"  a provocatively titled documentary about oil and alternative energy that features narration by Peter Gallagher.

When Ross again lights the marquee, returning filmgoers will find the theater much as they left it: the familiar blue seats in the auditorium, the snug lobby, the long stairwell up to the restrooms. Some modest touchup work has occurred - new curtains, fresh paint - but Ross plans no major renovations in the immediate future. "We're just cleaning things up, tweaking the projection booth, and painting the lobby," he says. "It's going to look a little better - and it'll feel a little better because it's an independent theater." Eventually, Ross hopes to expand the concession stand and serve beer and wine, but the latter requires a potentially lengthy permitting process, so don't count on imbibing there in the near future.

Because Landmark has such a strong presence locally, with nine screens devoted to art films, the Hi-Pointe will need to offer more commercial fare. However, Ross ideally wants "to do a mix of things. I don't want to limit ourselves to commercial product - that's not why I got into the business." Ross is currently negotiating with distributors but has received no firm commitments yet. Although he confesses that "I didn't know it was going to be this tough," he remains optimistic that the curtain on the theater's big screen will part soon.

"I look forward to it," Ross says. "I think it's going to be a fun proposition. It'll be good to have the theater up and running." This weekend's screenings of "GasHole" provide a welcome opportunity to remind Hi-Pointe devotees that the theater is still a going concern. "It'll be nice to have people in the seats again," he says. And because Ross has yet to hire a staff, don't be surprised if you encounter the familiar faces of George and Georgia James, who will likely pitch in until the theater is once more fully operational.

"GasHole" will show eight times: 6 and 8:15 p.m. Friday; 12:30, 2:45, 5, and 7:15 p.m. Saturday; and 3 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday. The Friday screenings are $17.50 but include a party after the 8:15 screening at the neighboring Par Lounge ; cost includes appetizers, Schlafly's beer, and Redwood Creek wines. The Saturday-Sunday screenings are $8.75 general admission, $6.75 for students and seniors. Tickets are available for all shows at the box office or stlouisgreen.com .

The weekend event benefits both stlouisgreen.com and the St. Louis Regional Clean Cities Program .

The documentary's co-directors, Scott D. Roberts and Jeremy Wagener, will hold post-film Q&As at every screening this weekend, and they'll be joined on Friday by representatives from the groups sponsoring "GasHole's" St. Louis exhibition.

The filmmakers are in the midst of a barnstorming tour - this is their 16th stop thus far - and Roberts says audiences "have been fired up and passionate" about the documentary's message. The spiraling costs at the pump have especially ignited interest, says Roberts: "The higher the price goes, the more people pay attention, so it gives the film a wider platform."

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