Plaza Theatre thrives, somehow

Young owners operate movie house with love

They heard the venerably frumpy Plaza Theater was up for sale two years ago and did what a lot of diehard Atlanta moviegoers did: half-joked about buying it.

But the more they talked, the less Jonathan and Gayle Rej (pronounced Ray) laughed about owning the two-screen, art-deco art house built in a Poncey-Highland strip mall in 1939.

"It hit us: It'd be cool to try to keep that place open," Jonathan said. "So we called and said, 'How much you want for that place?' I don't know why. We just did it."

They met with a broker, looked at the books, stopped by a bank.

Jonathan: "Finally we said, 'Wow. I guess we can actually do this.'"

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The joking stopped. Asking price for eveything but the leased building: $100,000

"I totally remember sitting at the dining room table going, 'You want to do it? Are you sure we can do this? Maybe we shouldn't do this,' " Gayle recalled.

Jonathan's tie breaker: "It came down to, 'I think it's going to be a lot of fun. Let's just do it.'"

So like a hipster remake of an old MGM musical, the Rejs did it. Almost two years later, they remain unlikely saviors of Atlanta's oldest continuously operating movie house. For how much longer remains an open question.

He's 35, a former skateboarding punk rocker who runs a film production company. She's 39, a former Star Bar band booker (including the Drive-By Truckers "before they got huge") and high school drama teacher.

Venture surprises film fans

The torch-passing from George Lefont, Atlanta's pioneering art house entrepreneur, was greeted both with relief and awe among film buffs.

The Plaza is a financial high-wire act. Its ups and downs largely mirror the uneasy future faced by art and revival houses everywhere in an age of 34-screen multiplexes, Netflix, DVD-watching airplane passengers and Turner Classic Movies.

The Rejs' uneven answer so far: second-run independent films, movies paired with art openings at the lobby gallery, and monthly throw-back events like matinee horror flicks (kids free) and '80s-style splatter movies for adults.

They've also held "Grease" singalongs and a "Summer Camp" series — campy classics like "Barbarella" (starring Jane Fonda, whose daughter, Vanessa Vadim, showed up for the first screening) and "Some Like It Hot."

"The people running the Plaza are doing something heroic," said Linda Dubler, curator of media arts at the High Museum. "They're going out on a limb to keep that experience alive. It's a very risky enterprise."

Told he'd been called heroic, Jonathan – whose four tattoos include the Creature from the Black Lagoon and a band his brother played in called Dead Elvis – shook his head.

"That's a good way of saying, 'Thanks for doing that. Glad it's not me that bought this place.'"

Multiplexes pose a challenge

The Plaza's original single screen looked out on 1,000 seats, including a balcony. While the theater never achieved the cache of the 4,000-seat Fox or the long-gone Lowe's Grand (where "Gone With the Wind" premiered), the Plaza's fun-house deco marquee signaled decades of movie-going good times.

That ended in the 1970s, with the advent of urban blight and twin-screen suburban competitors. The Plaza survived as a porn house until it was rescued in 1983 by Lefont, who converted the balcony into a 200-seat second theater.

Yet running a combo art and revival house became increasingly tricky with the steroid-like multi-screening of theaters, even for someone like Lefont. His empire once included movie houses in Ansley Park, Toco Hills, Garden Hills – all closed.

"It was a labor of love, owning [the Plaza] as many years as I did," said Lefont, who now runs the eight-screen Lefont Sandy Springs.

The Rejs were Plaza regulars, as much lovers of local color as film enthuusiasts, often approaching a night at the movies the way gourmands hunt for locally grown produce. Their first "not-date," as Gayle called it, was the French movie "Amelie" at the Garden Hills Cinema.

Growing up in Columbia, S.C., Jonathan always figured he'd wind up in Atlanta. He floundered in school at everything but art ("If I got a C in math we were going out to dinner; it was celebration time") and took up film and video at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

He got editing jobs with CNN's documentary unit and then at the Cartoon Network. He hung out with artists and musicians – he played in a band called the Mouthbreathers – and his production company made music videos for groups like Man or Astroman? and Mastadon.

He met Gayle while she worked at the Star Bar. She had master's degrees in theater and English education, but spent years managing multiplexes and booking bands. She finally tired of "being the only sober person in the bar at 3 a.m." and landed a job running the drama department at Stockbridge High School.

They got together the same way they bought the Plaza.

"People ask, 'When was the moment?'" Gayle said. "It just sort of happened."

A friend called Jonathan in 2003 about an apartment in Malibu. He grabbed his bike, computer and not much else. He worked on a few reality shows, hated it, and ended up "just surfing every day."

That lasted two years. Jonathan moved back to Atlanta and married Gayle.

Then the whole Plaza thing came up.

It hasn't been easy. Indie films no one else in Atlanta will show, and that the Rejs thought would be their sweet spot, have too often bombed. Events – kiddie matinees, splatter flicks – have been hits.

The result, said Jonathan: "We're making enough to keep going. It's good I have a production job. We wouldn't be living off this."

Yet despite the monthly roller coaster, the daily headaches, the lost vacations, the Rejs say they're glad they saved, as Dubler put it, "one of those rare relics in Atlanta, which is a place that prides itself on obliterating the past."

Gayle talks about driving by the marquee some nights and thinking, "Huh, that's my theater."

"Sometimes during a spook show, there'll be 300 people in there, and we'll get some popcorn and sit with everybody else. And we'll look at each other and go, 'This is so cool. This would not exist if we hadn't bought it — these people just had an experience that would not exist.' "

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