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On the brink of closing, West Newton Cinema gets a boost

Donations flood into the historic theater as coronavirus forces shut-down

David Bramante stood at the entrance to the West Newton Cinema, which remains closed.
David Bramante stood at the entrance to the West Newton Cinema, which remains closed.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

When the West Newton Cinema’s future was thrown into uncertainty by the coronavirus pandemic, owner David Bramante’s daughter, Bridget Bali, took to the Internet to ask those who know and love the theater for help.

The outpouring of support was more than the family could have imagined.

Within two days of its March 16 posting, the family’s GoFundMe page had raised more than $10,000. Three weeks later, donations had jumped to nearly $34,000 –– nearly $9,000 more than the original goal. Donations have ranged from $5 to $10,000, a testament to how much the theater means to its community.

“What’s happened with the GoFundMe and the notes that have come in, it’s eye-opening,” Bramante said. “You just go through things sometimes with your head down, and go on another day, but this has been a very special experience.”

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Bramante, who has owned the theater with his brother Jim since 1978, wasn’t initially sold on asking for help. He has experienced plenty of the industry’s ups and downs during his 40-some years on the job, including navigating the theater through the pain of digital conversion, which knocked many independent cinemas on their heels.

Like they did then, he figured that one way or another, they’d make do.

But at Bali’s persuasion, he agreed to give it a try. And from the first flood of donations, it was clear the money could help bridge the gap until the theater can reopen.

Donations will help pay the theater’s mortgage, utilities, and other bills. With nonessential businesses shuttered until at least May 4, the money will help the theater survive for a few additional weeks.

For Bali, 33, and her two siblings, the theater served as the backdrop to their childhood. It’s where they celebrated birthday parties, sold Girl Scout cookies, and held sleepovers.

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“In big ways and in small ways, it’s kind of woven into the fabric of what our family is,” she said.

The same could be said for the community as a whole.

Over the years, the theater has played host to first dates, marriage proposals, and weekly movie nights. Today, parents take their children to the theater where they watched films growing up, like their parents did before them.

It’s become such an icon since opening in 1937 that the first result when Googling “West Newton" is an image of the building.

“Being there for 40 years, you just can’t help but establish yourself as a presence in the whole West Newton Square, and we have,” said co-owner Jim Bramante. “We’ve grown it to a level that people look to the theater as one of the first places when there’s a film coming out that they want to see.”

The first movie Marypat McGrath ever saw — “The Sound of Music” — was at the West Newton Cinema. She was in the second grade and she and her brother walked to the theater for the first time. Later, while studying at Massachusetts College of Art in the 1970s, McGrath worked at the theater two or three nights a week, serving popcorn and candy.

She made a host of friends at the theater, a group of 20-somethings who would watch movies together after patrons cleared out, or sing Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does it Better” from the “The Spy Who Loved Me” soundtrack at the tops of their lungs.

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“We were young and silly and just having fun,” McGrath said. “But we all got together because of the cinema.”

After moving on from the theater, McGrath lived in Vermont for a stint, then Maine. She got married and had a daughter, who now lives in Staten Island, N.Y. After her husband died 11 years ago, she began setting up a Facebook page and searching for old friends.

“I was thinking about the people I worked with at the West Newton Cinema, and I tried to friend this one particular person –– his name is Timothy Steeves –– who was a projectionist,” she said. “He didn’t respond right away. I had even forgotten I had tried to friend him.”

But a few months later, Steeves wrote back, and they stayed in touch. They began dating, and now, nearly 10 years later –– and upwards of 40 years since they first met at the theater –– they are living together in Sterling.

“At that time, I was dating someone else, and [Tim] was a coworker. He was very shy. I can remember him walking over to the front of the candy counter, trying to talk to me, and I really didn’t know how to handle shy people, so it felt a little awkward," McGrath recalled with a laugh. “To this day, he’s still kind of a quiet guy. But obviously I know how to handle shy people now.”

For now, the Bramantes, their employees, and the community are left to wait until the theater reopens its doors.

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But thanks to the generosity of supporters, David Bramante hopes he’ll be able to pay the bills until the pandemic runs its course.

“Everybody wants it to be over,” Bali said. “Of course, it’s not in anybody’s control, but to be reminded that people are good, and people want to help one another, I think we’re seeing pieces of that in all aspects of this.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Northeastern University School of Journalism.