Ours is a culture so steeped in storytelling that it’s easy, perhaps even cathartic, to reimagine our ordinary lives in terms of a Harlequin romance or a Hollywood blockbuster.

In truth, life is messier than that. Lonely souls don’t usually meet in the cute way Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan have time and again. The little guy doesn’t triumph over adversity quite like he does in almost every American movie. And, all our woes won’t be resolved once a crazed villain bent on destroying the world is overcome.

Sometimes though, a real-life story can be pretty compelling — just like the movies. Take the Tropic Cinema for example. The popular movie house celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2014 but its journey from a backyard soiree to the third-ranked tourist attraction in Key West (see Trip Advisor) is pretty much the stuff of make-believe, particularly in an era when movie audiences are turning away from the shared experience and choosing to watch films at home on their mega TV screens instead.

Matthew Helmerich has been involved with the organization for the length of the theatre’s history, first as a board member and now as the non-profit’s executive director. In classic showman’s lingo he outlined the Tropic’s improbable journey.

The Tropic began with a “rag-tag” group of cinephiles (on this far flung tropical island, no less), roaming from home to home in order to watch the kind of quality films that never made it to Key West. Films were projected onto carport walls to an audience sitting in lawn chairs. This went on for about six years until the crowd grew so large, and the enthusiasm so great, that a permanent home was envisioned. Before you knew it an old carpet warehouse on Eaton Street was transformed into a thriving community cinema that now houses five screens.

But why is the Tropic so popular, especially in a town with so many tourists and temporary residents?

“According to surveys, it’s the cleanliness,” Helmerich said. “A significant number of movie-goers in Key West value a tidy space. I think audiences know and appreciate what they are getting here.”

An unexpected answer, but logical. Like many once-revered public experiences, movie going has devolved from a special event to a bit of an ordeal. And along those same lines, certain films warrant an audience engagement that is less about adrenaline and more about civility, with or without a glass of wine, which you can sip while watching a movie at the Tropic, by the way.

Diverse programming is also crucial to the Tropic’s success. As per its original mission, the cinema programs those films that wouldn’t ordinarily make it to the multiplex but it also screens those more wildly popular popcorn flicks like “Maleficent” once they leave the multiplex. At the same time, Helmerich and his staff strive to make the Tropic home to a variety of different cinematic experiences, like an affordable and popular Saturday morning kids program this summer that harks back to the golden age of cinema.

Perhaps the one thing that makes the Tropic so vitally different and so integrated into the community is the fact that it is a non-profit organization; community not corporate interests motivate it. As such, the cinema’s future is determined by a dedicated board of directors, its finances are kept buoyant thanks to the support of more than 3,000 members of the community and a small but thoroughly invested staff keep things operating smoothly on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps most important of all, however, are the more than 200 community members who volunteer to sell tickets, tear tickets, pour wine and soda and keep the pop-corn machine popping during every single shift.

Helmerich stressed that even though lots of folks are buying tickets to see the movies, the Tropic could not fulfill its mission without its volunteers, or its members for that matter. Volunteers make a tremendous difference economically but more importantly their involvement impacts the whole movie-going experience in a positive way. And it’s true; patrons are clearly relaxed and happy when they step off the street and into the lobby. And it’s not just because of the movie they are about to see, but because of the place and their role in it.

It’s hard not to think of the narrative arc of classic motion pictures like “Cinema Paradiso” and “The Last Picture Show” when it comes to the Tropic. In both films the movie theatre serves as a vivid metaphor for the fate of a town and its residents. But in both films the movie house falls into disrepair, closes and is ultimately demolished to make way for something new.

Not so the Tropic. According to Helmerich Tropic Cinema’s future looks good, one of growth, increased community involvement and ever more creative programming. That says a lot about the Tropic but it says a lot about the priorities of the people of Key West as well.


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