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Row House Cinema ready for action in Lawrenceville

| Friday, June 13, 2014, 7:11 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
The exterior of the new Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville is prepared Thursday, June 12, 2014.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
From a couch in the front row, Brian Mendelssohn points out features in the new Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville Thursday, June 12, 2014.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
The entry to the new Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville Thursday, June 12, 2014.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Atlas Bottle Works, specializing in local, specialty, and micro brews, is attached to the new Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville Thursday, June 12, 2014.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Atlas Bottle Works, specializing in local, specialty, and micro brews, is attached to the new Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville Thursday, June 12, 2014.

Less than two years ago, Brian Mendelssohn stood in the middle of a nearly empty storefront with little but a few tables and chairs and a big idea in his head.

Today, Mendelssohn is preparing to show the public his dream come to fruition. Row House Cinema, an 83-seat theater dedicated to playing well-loved older movies, is up and running at 4115 Butler St. in Lawrenceville. A June 21 showing of “Pulp Fiction” marks the grand opening.

“As this has evolved, it's been amazing to see how excited everybody is to have a movie theater back in Lawrence– ville,” says Mendelssohn, principal of Botero Development, a firm dedicated to rejuvenation of the Lawrenceville community. “Everyone's as giddy as I am. It's been fantastic to see the community's reaction.”

The building, formerly home to Starr Discount, has been completely transformed. Construction on the $2 million project began in late 2012. White walls and empty shelves are now replaced with wooden floors and floating-orb light fixtures in the lobby, where moviegoers can stop at the snack bar to load up on sweets and popcorn.

The theater is a soothing slate blue with matching seats. The upper tier features wider seats with more leg room. The viewing area has standard theater seating. But the real treat awaits anyone OK with sitting down front. Comfy couches make up the first row.

“I'm always thinking about the biggest problem and here, it was how to get people to sit in the front row,” Mendelssohn says.

Mendelssohn plans to show three to six films a day, all of which will fit into a predetermined theme. For example, a Dream World Week could include titles such as “Big Fish” and “Being John Malkovich.”

A trial-run soft opening included shows just for friends and family while the staff learned the ins and outs of running the theater. General manager Geoff Sanderson says early reactions to Row House have been positive.

“People are loving it.” Sanderson says. “They're calling every day or stopping by to take a look at the place. They're always pretty happy once they see the inside.”

Row House seemed to already have community backing before even opening. Mendelssohn launched a successful Indiegogo campaign, an online crowd-funding option, to raise $17,000 in funding last year. Those who donated a certain amount are able to choose which movies they'd like to see — some gave enough to dictate a theme for a series of shows. Submitted ideas so far include Mel Brooks and Terry Gilliam marathons and widely acclaimed hits, like “Brokeback Mountain” and “Muriel's Wedding.”

Others are more of the cult-classic variety, like one request for “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” Regardless of their critical reception, Mendelssohn won't be shying away from quirky titles.

“Time has weeded out all the movies, and we know which ones are worth seeing,” Mendelssohn says. “At this point, some funny movies do stand the test of time. We're just as excited about showing ‘The Goonies' as we are about showing ‘Gangs of New York.' ”

He says the goal was the make Row House “feel like a real theater, but also be intimate and comfortable.”

Watching a preview there certainly creates that effect. Once the lights are down and the sound kicks in, it's easy to escape into the 15½-foot-wide screen.

Mendelssohn and his crew even create their own previews for the movies — some from actual film footage and at least one with the staff subbing as the stars for “Spaceballs.”

Adjoining the theater is Atlas Bottle Works, a craft beer store with wooden shelves lined with a wide array of brands. Theo Ackerson, the store's manager, wants Atlas to serve anyone from thirsty moviegoers to someone seeking a unique six-pack to a craft-beer connoisseur. He encourages anyone with an interest in craft beer to stop in, even if it's just to learn.

“We want to be accessible to the novice and to the person who brews their own beer,” Ackerson says. “We want to have a selection that suits everybody's needs.”

Atlas will host an array of events, including cheese pairings, comedy events and more. Mendelssohn plans to expand the business to the basement level, where a cooler and more beer selections will be available to patrons.

The launch of both new businesses has Mendelssohn excited about the future of the town he calls home.

“Thirty years ago, we'd be closing a movie theater,” he says. “People are getting back to quality, local businesses.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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