“Greek Epic: The Latchis Family and the New England Theater Empire They Built
By Gordon Hayward
Reviewed by Charles Fish in the Summer/Fall 2017 issue of Vermont History, The Journal of the Vermont Historical Society
Hope and ambition can arise anywhere. For Demetrios Peter Latsis, it was in his hometown of Kastanitsa, a Greek village so small and remote it was untouched by the Germans in World War II. Demetrios, whose family name was changed to Latchis at Ellis Island, emigrated to America in 1901 at the age of thirty-seven.
What followed was both a classic American story of immigrant enterprise and an intensely local one. Greek Epic’s first chapter describes the construction of the Latchis Memorial Theater in Brattleboro, 1936-1938, built by Demetrios’ sons in his memory. The last chapter is an account of the rescue of the Latchis building by the Brattleboro Arts Initiative and its preservation as an arts and performance center and a business enterprise through the extraordinary efforts of local volunteers, the Preservation Trust of Vermont, and a complex mix of grants and loans. The outcome was a two-fold arrangement, with arts events under the wing of the non-profit Latchis Arts, Inc., and the theaters, hotel office, and retail spaces under the management of the for-profit Latchis Corporation.
In between these two chapters, Gordon Hayward tells the story of the tumultuous rise and fall of the Latchis family businesses with evident admiration and in fascinating detail. From humble beginnings the family “over thirty years went on to build five thousand-seat movie theaters, and own or lease a further ten in three states” (p. ix). We meet some interesting characters, starting with Demetrios himself, who, after a brief spell in Lowell, Massachusetts, working in the mills, came to Keene, New Hampshire, where he had a half-brother, then to Hinsdale, N.H., and eventually to Brattleboro. He sold fruit from his pushcart, first literally pushed or pulled, later horse-drawn and motorized. Demetrios and his sons expanded the fruit business and opened a confectionery shop. In 1919, son Peter took the family savings – without permission – to buy projection equipment to show movies at the Town Hall. His older brother, Spero, recalled that the family “was about to kill him,” but after drawing a packed house, “the family let Peter do whatever he wanted. He seized the throne and for the rest of his life he never looked back” (p. 50). But this businessman was also, in Hayward’s words, “the artist, the renaissance man, the self-taught entrepreneur who went home at night to read Plato and Aristotle or to play his saxophone” (p. 73).
Spero, the oldest son, was known as the “organizer, the businessman and controller, the brother who kept everything in line” (p. 57). The youngest son, John, worked in the business, but his achievements and interests might have taken him in a different direction. The only son to be college educated, he graduated from Dartmouth College, where he had studied Greek philosophy. His nephew recalled hours together spent discussing philosophy and theology. His daughter, Joan Latchis Amory, remembered that her father was a great reader of classical Greek, and liked the playwright Aristophanes. His Kastanitsa Greek (family-learned, for he was born in America) was considered by his Dartmouth professors to be close to the ancient pronunciation: in reading the New Testament in Greek he would explain how differences in translated would affect the liturgy. “He would have made a wonderful professor, or a doctor,” she went on to say, “but he had been brought up to be part of the family business” (p. 140). This is a hint of another aspect of immigrant experience: the difficulties that can arise when the opportunities of America threaten to draw one away from family.
And of course there are many other characters and events to lead the reader on. Necessary to mention, however, is the splendid sixth chapter, “Evoking Greece in 1937-1938: The Art in the Main Theater.” There were earlier Latchis theaters in Brattleboro, but the one built in these years is the one that survives today, and although its exterior is Art deco in design, one of just three such public buildings remaining in Vermont, its interior is given over to classical Greek imagery in honor of the family origins. The chapter features a number of striking color photographs by Jeff Woodward of the restored iconography of the theater. Here we see, among others, Chiron with Achilles on His Back, Cupid Presenting Psyche to Zeus and Hera, Bacchus and Revelers, and Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, Courage, Inspiration and Arts.
Two prominent features of the book are the memories of the family members Hayward so helpfully interviewed and the heavy emphasis on context. Much of the personal detail of the story comes from the family itself. Hayward tells us what was going on in Brattleboro, the state, and the country at the various stages of the Latchis story. While occasionally the information may seem familiar and unnecessary, in general it repeatedly reminds us that the Latchis experience, like nearly all sustained human effort, has been dependent on circumstances beyond one’s control. This is evident in Hayward’s account of the economic and social conditions that favored the rise of the Latchis enterprise and the forces that destroyed it. The theater business was hit hard, for example, by the growth of television, the rise of multiplex theaters, the difficulties of the movie distribution system, indebtedness, and the burden of aging, hard-to-maintain buildings.
This book is a new venture for Hayward, a distinguished garden designer and author, and a personal one as well, for he is the board president of Latchis Arts and has a keen appreciation, warmly expressed, of the efforts of the many people who transformed the building and the business, Challenges didn’t disappear when the painful, eighteen-year struggle of Demetrios’ great-grandson Spero and his wife, Elizabeth, to keep things going ended with the 2003 sale to the Brattleboro Arts Initiative. A spectacular example was the 2011 floodwater damage of Tropical Storm Irene, costing $600,000 to repair with additional loss of $200,000 of business income. Hayward movingly describes the efforts of Executive Director Gail Nunziata and others to restore the building and the business.
Hayward writes in a clear, engaging manner; one senses the person behind the words. His presence is felt most obviously in the Introduction, in which he describes trips to Greece with his wife, Mary, and in the various acknowledgments of the Latchis staff and volunteers. The immigrant story and the regional theater history should find readers everywhere. The local details will be of most interest to readers in this area of Vermont and New Hampshire. Perhaps only a reviewer would miss an index.
– CHARLES FISH
Charles Fish is the author of In the Land of the Wild Onion: Travels Along Vermont’s Winooski River (2006) and other works about Vermont.