Row House: Far more than just a cinema, this place is a community

Situated on Lawrenceville’s Main Street, Row House Cinema is a one-screen theater that has been screening a delightfully quirky range of films since it opened in June 2014.

“Who wouldn’t want to own a theater?” said Brian Mendelssohn, owner and curator of Row House Cinema. Mendelssohn has been showing movies now for almost two years, but has been a film-lover his entire life. Recalling conversations about film with his brother and friends, Mendelssohn says his goal with Row House is to continue the conversation with a larger audience.

The theater, while hidden away, is unexpectedly inviting. One of Mendelssohn’s goals is to educate and introduce people to films and film movements that they never would have considered by packaging diverse pictures into week-long themed events. For example, “French vs Hong Kong New Wave” week featured Made in the U.S.A. and Le Cercle Rouge, as well as Fallen Angels and The Killer.

This lesson in how film movements happen differently across cultures and countries was something that many casual moviegoers would have never known without Row House making it accessible. These themed weeks can also take a lighter tone. For instance, “Tight Pants Week” is coming up. While many people enjoy tight pants, not a whole lot of them have seen David Bowie grace the silver screen in Labyrinth. What a shame, right?

The first thing to know about Row House is that anything goes when it comes to showing films. Expect the old classics, foreign films, and highly acclaimed — but also be ready for some newer titles, ironic callbacks, and cult classics. The owner and staff curate based on their own gamut of experience with film and hope to soon incorporate the community in curation as part of a membership program.

In addition to film itself, community involvement is a huge part of Row House’s mission. At one point, an enthusiastic couple went to see The Princess Bride and walked into the theater wearing full costumes. Mendelssohn’s response? Free tickets! The discount for costumes is now a fixture of their ticketing. By listening and responding to their audiences, Row House is becoming a familiar and friendly face in the Lawrenceville community. With this community backing, the small cinema is beginning to establish their own rules for what a theater can be.

One of Mendelssohn’s crusades draws inspiration from The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s intense cult-following. He mentions that he always wished there were a similar tradition among fans of a better quality film. So, he began “Coconut Night” by offering patrons a reduced price to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail so long as they bring a pair of coconuts. The Row House crew was amazed by the response (and amused by the theater full of coconuts) and decided to make the night a quarterly tradition.

Patrons are also encouraged to engage with cinema, and the community, at a variety of events including a costume contest for the aforementioned Labyrinth. They enjoy partnering with small business and cultural organizations to bring interesting food, music, or speakers relevant to the theme of the week. Sprinkled throughout each week are specialty screenings for children/families, beer tastings with their neighbors, Atlas Brew Works, Q&A’s with the directors or producers, karaoke nights, and RiffTrax commentary. This last idea is one that Mendelssohn is a huge fan of. The idea came from wanting to host a “Vampire Week” featuring What We Do In The Shadows and The Lost Boys. At the same time, the crew didn’t want to snub one of the more publicized vampire movies of late, Twilight. Due to Mendelssohn’s inability to screen this film straight “on principle,” RiffTrax’s snarky commentary, created by the comedians of Mystery Science Theater 3000, was added to Row House’s diverse offerings. They plan to use this commentary again on the upcoming Row House screenings.

As the popularity of streaming services has grown, the way we view movies is evolving. The classic linear timeline of film releases from post-production to home entertainment no longer has to include going to the theater. There are new films and series made exclusively for streaming providers where TV networks and theaters are not involved at all. It raises the questions: Why go to the movies? What’s the point? Lawrenceville’s answer is Row House Cinema.

In short, Row House is more than just a theater. It’s a place that fulfills the social aspect of film that everyone seeks, whether they be film buffs or casual moviegoers.