VILLAGE OF MANLIUS – As they ease into their newfound ownership of the Manlius Art Cinema, Dan Chapman and Joe Ori seek to build off the historic theater’s reputation as both a haven for independent film and a gathering place for people from all walks of life.
The duo’s recent purchase of the 104-year-old, single-screen theater on East Seneca Street augments their operation of A.W. Wander, the establishment on the closest corner that specializes in craft beer and wood-fired pizza.
Previously located in the Manlius Mart Plaza on Fayette Street at the time it opened six years ago, that eatery’s name was shortened from All Who Wander, a reference to the line “not all those who wander are lost” from J. R. R. Tolkien’s poem “The Riddle of Strider.”
In 2020, as A.W. Wander, the business moved to its current spot, taking over the space formerly occupied by Ironwood Pizza. After temporarily leasing their section, Chapman and Ori purchased the building, which also contains the bakery Mrs. Kelder’s Cakes, the accounting office Tax Man and what will soon be a listening venue called The Rollin’ Rust Room.
Since it started on Fayette Street, the bar has been a separate destination for the art cinema’s regular visitors either before or after they stop to see a movie, Ori said. That shared patronage wound up leading to business conversations with Nat Tobin, who ran the theater for 30 years until earlier this month, the last 17 of those with his wife, Eileen Lowell. Over time, Tobin talked with the two A.W. Wander owners about adopting digital projection, the ins and outs of the equipment, how the theater was shaped into what it is today, and the difficulties of “weathering the storm” through the COVID pandemic, Ori said.
Eventually the subject of the married couple’s retirement came up, and from there Chapman and Ori talked with Tobin and Lowell about acquiring the neighboring cinema.
“Nat really took us under his wing,” Chapman said. “It was nice that we were able to get so much background going into this because you don’t always get that when you take over a business.”
With the level of support coming from their predecessors as well as the Manlius Village Board, Chapman and Ori said they feel comfortable going into their newest endeavor and following the path plowed for them by Tobin and Lowell.
“For us, it’s about maintaining the spirit of the cinema,” Chapman said. “There’s a little bit of magic when you walk in, and there’s just a ton of history and a lot of people in this town that have memories of going to the theater over the years.”
Though their goals for the cinema are not yet set in stone, Chapman and Ori said they would like to routinely incorporate showings of vintage pictures if they can while optimizing the experience of heading out on the town to catch a movie rather than streaming one from home.
As for their favorite films, Chapman has a soft spot for the 1994 comedy “Dumb and Dumber,” while Ori gives the nod to John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi thriller “The Thing.”
Earlier this month, Tobin and Lowell were honored at a brief ceremony held outside the theater.
Village of Manlius Mayor Paul Whorrall, Manlius Town Councilor Heather Waters and a representative from Assemblyman Al Stirpe’s office all read proclamations honoring the contribution that the Manlius Art Cinema has made to the community.
“Thanks to the hard work and dedication – from selling tickets to working the concessions counter – Nat and Eileen kept the cinema alive for a new generation of arts cinema lovers,” read the proclamation from Stirpe’s office.
Waters thanked Tobin and Lowell for their dedication and for the way they kept the theater alive during the pandemic as well as how they “brokered an amazing next era for the cinema.”
“I’ve really gotten to experience [Tobin’s] passion and his love and just everything that goes into what he’s done here,” said Ori. “Hopefully I can do right by him in the future.”
“This has become a cultural focal point for all of Manlius for 30 years,” Chapman added. “As Joe and I were talking about, that’s three-quarters of our life, which is really mind-blowing for us.”
-David Tyler contributed to this story.