The Marquis Theater and Cafe in Middlebury exudes a small town theater feel and has provided locals, students and visiting tourists with a wide range of films, delicious food and a unique and enjoyable atmosphere over the years.
A theater has stood at the 65 Main Street location for about 100 years and was converted into a movie theater around the 1950s. “So it’s basically been a movie theater here for about 75 years,” said Ben Wells, owner of the Marquis. Wells, who has extensive restaurant experience, bought the theater in 2014. Previously a stay-at-home dad and rugby coach at Middlebury College, Wells felt he had done everything in the restaurant industry and, as his children grew up, he thought the next step was to work full-time from home. A lover of Mexican food and movies, he jumped at the chance to buy the Marquis.
“I’m not sure I thought about it all the way,” Wells laughed.
The cinema’s name changed from The Campus Theater to The Marquis around the 90s, and it went from a two-screen to a three-screen. When Wells bought the theatre, he renovated a theater to set up a bar and cafe, useful for evenings and parties.
The theater now has only two screens, each showing a different movie that changes every week or two. Wells and Justin Arseneau, general manager of the Marquis, are working with studios in Hollywood to decide which films to show. These studios dictate that the Marquis has clean screen contracts, which means that Wells and Arseneau are only allowed to show one film on a screen for its entire duration. Premier weekends are often the busiest weekends and most movies last two weeks. In the midst of a pandemic, Spiderman: No Coming Home ran for an unusually long term of six or seven weeks. Wells mentioned that the pandemic has limited the amount of content posted, but Spider Man also proved to be a very popular film with customers. “So we kept going,” Wells said.
In addition to film screenings, the theater contains a Mexican restaurant that has been established for the better part of a decade, a facet of the business that staff say makes the theater particularly quirky.
“Unique? It’s a restaurant inside a movie theatre,” laughs Thomas Ahern, chef and manager of the Marquis.
It’s not just the presence of a restaurant that makes the Marquis so distinct from the others. Ahern pointed to the close working relationships that have paved the way for flexibility for all staff members to ensure they have a say in theater operations. “There’s a chain of command if you want to take it that way, but I have complete creative control over everything that happens in the kitchen,” Ahern said. Confidence in the team is a product of Wells’ original focus for acting. “We have an amazing team of people who hopefully enjoy training and doing different things,” he said.
In addition to the restaurant, the theater also hosts a number of events in the cafe. The most notable of these is Thursday Trivia, an exceptionally popular event for locals and students. Wells mentioned that the theater is also trying to bring back its once prevalent comedy shows as additional events.
The theater also hosts events for the benefit of the community, which they have titled “Unique Wednesdays”. Aresenau and Wells have worked with groups such as Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) as well as Homeward Bound – the local animal shelter – and Middlebury Community Music Center. Wells explained that the theater tries to pair a relevant film with a charity organization and donate the theater space and ticket proceeds to that organization. The theater recently showed a film called “The Guide” while working with an organization called Stand With Ukraine, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Ukrainians in the midst of violence against them. “The producers are waiving all distribution license fees and … every theater in the country is jumping on it,” Wells said. A donation jar has been set up for customers to donate money to the organization before or after viewing the film.
Finally, the theater offers private rentals for birthday parties and other gatherings. With the use of digital projectors, families can rent the space and show films for young children when the films currently on offer may not be suitable for children. Wells mentioned that the theater has seen a huge increase in private rentals with the pandemic, as families or close friends often rent the entire theater, affordably, to continue enjoying the theater experience without having to worry. to be around a large group of people in a public space.
Running a theater in a small town creates a community that would be nearly impossible to replicate in a city. “I’ve always viewed this place not just as a movie theater, but as a community center,” Wells said. He hopes the theater is a space where residents can come and see each other while sharing the common space. However, a small town theater comes with its challenges. Lack of population density is often the biggest obstacle for small businesses like the Marquis. But Wells added: “That’s part of the reason those of us who choose to live here do so.” And the small town theater certainly has a community feel to it. Trivia nights allow locals to get together and catch up, and students to enjoy a night on the town. There is definitely an appreciation by the customer relations staff.
“What I love about this job is definitely the people,” said Matthew Krause, dealer, projectionist and occasional bartender at The Marquis. Working at the theater since 2019, he has built relationships with several clients who come regularly. “They are always very nice and we have a relationship with them,” he said. Another aspect of the theater that the staff highlighted was its “intimate” feel, which is certainly enhanced by the sofas and sofas at the front of the downstairs theater. Ahern added, “If it’s not too busy, I go out and start talking to people at the bar or cafe and see how they are.”
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The theatre, beloved by the people of Middlebury, did not operate without challenges. These difficulties were accentuated with the appearance of Covid-19. The theater was completely closed for a year and staff had to constantly monitor the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic. “Reinventing the wheel is the best term I can think of because there were so many different obstacles and factors that we had never had to deal with before,” Arseneau said. Wells explained that the theater constantly kept up to date with guidelines from the CDC and the Vermont Department of Health, although the lack of clear guidelines proved difficult. “Companies were often left to make the decisions,” Wells said, regarding what was and was not allowed to be done in theater. The Marquis opened in phases, with the use of masks for the community and events generally following the flow of the pandemic. Once private rentals were offered, the theater then opened its take-out restaurant and eventually started showing movies again. The theater reopened movies to the community on Memorial Day weekend of 2021, less than a year ago.
While the pandemic was hard on the Marquess, federal stimulus funds enabled a number of improvements. Wells and Arseneau were able to install a new laser projector in the café as well as new seating in the upstairs theater, new lighting and a brand new roof. The Marquis also switched to natural gas and installed a new furnace, new carpets and updated bathroom fixtures. With these constant changes over the past year, Wells and Arseneau are poised for a faster pace of forward-looking business.
“2021 felt like the ground was still moving under our feet,” Wells said. As the only theater in the county, he hopes the Marquis can serve as a space for the local and surrounding community, and the theater will give Vermonters from nearby towns a reason to make the trip to Middlebury. Arseneau added that local customers still come weekly who haven’t been to the theater in nearly a decade and aren’t even aware of the restaurant, which has been around for years. He laughed, “We’re just like, ‘I don’t know how, but okay!'”
Emily Hogan ’24 is a layout editor.
She is unregistered but plans to major in environmental studies with a minor in math. She is very passionate about sustainability and loves learning how to be more environmentally conscious.
Hogan is from Denver, Colorado and enjoys skiing, hiking and running. In addition to her campus involvement, she is a canoe guide for the Middlebury Mountain Club and enjoys running with MiddRuns. She also enjoys reading and listening to music.