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Farms reaches agreement with War Memorial over use of Patriot Theater

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published May 21, 2019

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — A once-controversial plan to convert The War Memorial’s Fries Auditorium into a movie theater no longer seems to have left the Grosse Pointe community divided.

The War Memorial, at 32 Lake Shore Road in Grosse Pointe Farms, opened its renovated venue, renamed The Patriot Theater, for films and performing arts productions roughly a year ago. The War Memorial has now also signed a voluntary agreement with Grosse Pointe Farms officials that sets certain parameters for how the theater can be used. City Manager Shane Reeside said the Farms City Council unanimously approved the agreement during a May 13 City Council meeting.

“The War Memorial has been pleased to participate in a responsible and respectful agreement with Grosse Pointe Farms City Council,” War Memorial President and CEO Charles Burke said by email.

According to the agreement, films open to the public cannot exceed two showings on any calendar day or 12 screenings in a calendar week, as measured Monday through Sunday. Independent films may be shown immediately upon release, while mainstream commercial films or films produced by major studios cannot be shown within the first seven days of studio release without express written permission by the city manager or his designee. Veteran or patriotic films, film festival events and “educational, cultural or artistic private screenings that are not open to the general public” aren’t counted against the maximum daily or weekly screenings, the agreement states.

Some residents living near The War Memorial had expressed concerns that The Patriot Theater was going to become more like a commercial movie theater — they had, at one time, even announced a partnership with Emagine Entertainment — and would draw large crowds and result in increased noise and traffic, including late at night.

This agreement addresses those concerns and includes a condition that film screenings cannot start after 10 p.m. or end after 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, or end after 11 p.m. on other nights of the week. The sale of food and beverages — including alcohol — is limited to people attending Patriot Theater presentations, and such sales must end at the close of the last presentation of the evening. Theater patrons need to vacate the venue and the area within 30 minutes of the end of a presentation, the agreement mandates.

Reeside said The Patriot Theater’s use since renovations is consistent with the agreement between the city and War Memorial officials.

“Now called The Patriot Theater, the space has been home to live performances by Michigan Opera Theatre, the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, Shakespeare in Detroit, and international touring ensembles such as One for the Foxes,” Burke said via email. “Our stage has been graced by influential speakers, including perhaps most notably former first daughter Barbara Pierce Bush. We’ve also presented extraordinary film experiences, such as The Met Live in HD series, featuring entirely live broadcasts from New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. One of our proudest moments came this past spring, when the Freep Film Festival chose The War Memorial and The Patriot Theater as a venue for 10 award-winning documentaries.”

The former Fries Auditorium had 442 seats, War Memorial officials said previously. The Patriot Theater has 215 fixed seats and six luxury boxes. Seating in the boxes can be modified so that the theater can hold up to roughly 300.

“They downsized the seating capacity significantly,” Reeside said. “It’s actually resulted in less overflow parking issues.”

Especially when there was a wedding or other celebration in the ballroom and a Grosse Pointe Theatre or other production in the auditorium, it wasn’t uncommon for attendees to park on Lake Shore Road or one of the nearby residential streets after parking lots filled. Reeside said they haven’t been seeing that since the theater’s seating capacity shrunk to less than half.

In part because of the dramatic reduction in the number of seats, GPT had to seek other homes for its shows; it is using auditoriums at schools in the Pointes until a permanent facility can be built.

One of the reasons the city waited until now to finalize the agreement was because, Reeside said, city officials “wanted to see how it’s being operated and the impact on the community” first.

“It’s been an asset to the community,” he said. “We’ve had zero issues. … I think there was some concern raised (in the past) that it was going to be operated like a typical commercial movie theater. That’s obviously not the case.”

Reeside said the agreement was aimed at addressing concerns raised by neighbors, council members and the community at large. He praised War Memorial officials for being “cooperative and accommodating” during this process.

“About a year ago, we completed renovation work on The War Memorial’s auditorium space, bringing a new level of accessibility and safety for people of all abilities, modularity for a diverse array of cultural events and community programming, and a beautifully refreshed aesthetic. … (Since then) we’ve experienced strong attendance rates, and it’s been a pleasure to hear a great number of positive comments from our audiences,” Burke said by email. “We continue to seek out improvements in our programming and operations based on guest feedback and look forward to consistently exceeding our patrons’ expectations.”