ROCHESTER THEATER PROVIDES A SPACE TO FLOCK AROUND FILM
By Leanna Gerry
In a world of ever-growing technology, it sometimes seems that our capacity to connect with one another is slipping away. Sensing this relational deficiency, businessman Andy Smith jumped in to fill the void. With the help of his wife, Anna, Smith opened Gray Duck Theater and Coffeehouse near downtown Rochester last May. While expressing international sensibilities, the cinema aims to bring local people together around thought-provoking films.
FILLING A NEED
Smith spent his adolescent years in Los Angeles, the cradle of cinematic genius. “Because film is just a very important part of the overall culture [in LA], they have things like outdoor screens a lot more,” he explains. Smaller establishments are common and often “foster more conversation around a film and house more obscure things.” In love with this atmosphere, Smith’s dream was to bring cinema to a region that needed it. He began looking for real estate in the upper Midwest in 2017, and eventually decided on Rochester. Med City turned out to be the “sweet spot,” according to Smith; Rochester’s “emerging art scene,” as well as the educated and international audiences drawn by Mayo, provided a perfect environment for the micro cinema he envisioned.
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
Soon enough, Gray Duck Theater and Coffeehouse was born. Anna Smith named the theater in honor of the popular game she played as a child, and Smith, for his part, says the name fits perfectly. “We thought it sounds cool—it’s a pretty collection of syllables—but also it communicated very clearly that we were here for Minnesota, that we were here to create local relationships.” And create relationships they did. Smith now collaborates with local suppliers like Fiddlehead Coffee Company and Spring Grove Soda Pop, and he hopes to add local beer and wine vendors to the list someday. Films, too, become a local affair when Rochester businesses sponsor Q&A sessions after showings at Gray Duck. In October, for example, TerraLoco co-hosted “Brittany Runs A Marathon;” the shoe company set up makeshift shop in the theater lobby and answered visitors’ questions about running and exercise training. The event was especially exciting for Smith. “We love partnering with local organizations…especially if we get a film that touches on social issues or social justice, or generally things that impact the Rochester community,” he says. More importantly, these occasions allow visitors to become personally involved themselves.
SHARING AN EXPERIENCE
Though Smith’s mind brims with plans for Gray Duck’s future, for now he intends to give Gray Duck a character all its own. At regular intervals, he selects films “that should be conversed about” and “should challenge or encourage people,” showing them at various times on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. He keeps international citizens in mind as well by showing films in other languages, such as Mandarin. Monthly film Q&As, space rentals, free family cartoons and sponsored events are other attractions that Smith uses to draw customers, not to mention the coffee. “We love to have fun with movie-themed lattes,” Smith says. His regular bestseller is a honey, lavender and vanilla latte called “7 Husbands.” Named for the lavender-eyed, husband-exing Elizabeth Taylor, Smith says the drink provides originality and “a great connection with old Hollywood.” He anticipates that movie themes will continue as the coffeehouse creates new holiday beverages. All things considered, Smith is very optimistic about the future of Gray Duck, and not even technological competitors frighten him. He says, “A great restaurant or chef isn’t necessarily thinking that he’s competing with supermarkets, because it’s about the experience that (he offers)—the excellence and quality.” He encourages all Rochesterites to come and encounter the same excellent experience at Gray Duck. “It’s bustling; it’s exciting,” he says, and pauses with a smile. “When you see it when it’s alive…for me it’s life-giving.”