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Rick Winston Behind the Scenes at the Savoy Theater and the Green Mountain Film Festival

The cover of Rick Winston’s aptly titled new book “Save Me A Seat! A Life With Movies” shows the author comfortably seated in Montpelier’s beloved Savoy Theater, with his arm extended over the back of the adjacent seat. He is smiling; the cushioned, burgundy seats are inviting, and the brick wall behind him reminds us what a pleasure it is to watch films there. The warm, welcoming photo draws us into this engaging memoir. 

Winston co-founded the Savoy in 1981 and remained a co-owner until 2009. He was also one of the founders of the Green Mountain Film Festival, and acted as its programming director for 14 years. Those are the two things Winston is best known for, but his love of movies goes back to his childhood in Yonkers, New York, and a love of film he got from his father. 

His early interest — nourished by the old movies regularly shown on television in the 1950s and 1960s — grew into a lifelong passion that Winston brought with him to summer camp, high school, Columbia University, the University of California at Berkeley, and eventually — in 1970 — to Vermont.

Arriving in the Green Mountain State, Winston missed the availability of classic and foreign films. In Montpelier, which in the 1960s some considered a “cultural desert,” in the 1970s, Winston witnessed many creative ventures, including Bear Pond Books, Buch Spieler, and Horn of the Moon Cafe. In 1973, he founded the Lightning Ridge Film Society, and eight years later — in his “blind optimism” deciding that maybe a theater that showed the variety of movies he enjoyed would make it here — he co-founded the Savoy Theater.

“Some people have romantic notions of operating a movie theater,” Winston writes, before emphasizing that showing movies, selling popcorn, and talking with patrons are only part of the picture. A movie theater is a business that involves payroll, bills, equipment repairs, films that may not arrive on time or may arrive damaged, and working with film distributors — some of whom care little about small, independent theaters. He shares behind-the-scenes stories about what patrons don’t see.

The Green Mountain Film Festival (a nonprofit separate from the Savoy) grew from what was expected to be a one-time event to a 10-day festival that spanned two weekends, ran concurrently in two Montpelier locations, brought viewers from around the state, and became much too large to continue as a volunteer-run effort. A nonprofit with often-enthusiastic sponsors, the festival did not face the ongoing financial stresses of the theater. Winston could afford to bring in guest speakers and show films that would do well with just a couple of showings at a festival but would not be able to run for a week at the theater.

Winston’s tone is friendly, as though he’s sitting down to have a conversation over coffee. The heart of this book are his people-centered stories about incidents or events — funny, sad, frustrating, moving, inspiring, or otherwise memorable — at both the theater and the festival. He writes about dozens of movies and tells stories related to them and to the people who created them, as well as local audience reactions and how he decided which films would bring an audience in central Vermont and which wouldn’t.

In his 29 years at the Savoy, Winston screened “upward of two thousand” films. Among the more than 125 black-and-white images, the photos of lines of people waiting to get into the theater or the festival will bring back memories for many. Other images include movie posters and stills, Savoy and festival posters and ads, and old news clippings and photos.

“The story that started in the very suburban county of Westchester, New York, and led to more than 50 years as a champion of film culture in central Vermont is still unfolding,” Winston writes in the closing chapter. “It’s been a life of watching, showing, teaching, exploring — and loving — movies.”

While that modestly summarizes Winston’s book, in a chapter about teaching film, he uses a quote from New York Observer columnist Andrew Sarris about Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.

“We are reminded of what … (we) have always loved and admired about Bergman’s movies: humanity, humility, insight, intelligence and a heroic seriousness of purpose.” All of those adjectives describe Winston’s book, but “generosity” should be on the list. Although he, more than anyone else, has brought film culture to central Vermont, he acknowledges scores of people he has worked with along the way.

This memoir is a testament to following your passion and building a life around what you love. It is an excellent read, especially for fans of movies, the Savoy Theater, the Green Mountain Film Festival, or Rick Winston, who is as genial and engaging on the page as he is in person.

Published in Montpelier by Rootstock Publishing, “Save Me A Seat! A Life With Movies” is scheduled to be released on August 29. As of this writing, the Bear Pond Books store is not open; however, the book is available through both the Bear Pond Books and Rootstock Publishing websites. Next Chapter Bookstore in Barre and Bridgeside Books in Waterbury are both open and plan to stock the book.