Keeping Folks Entertained

WINSTED - Stop by The Gilson Theater during business hours and chances are good you’ll find Alan Nero, who has owned the theater since 1985.

"I didn’t realize I was going to open a theater," said Nero, who originally set up an arcade in the historic building.

Alan Nero was born and raised in Winsted. He attended local schools and, like his father, was a member of the Winsted Fire Department for many years.

From around 1981 to 1985, Nero was the department’s daytime driver. While he enjoyed his job as a firefighter, he decided to leave and begin a business venture that he continues to this day — The Gilson Theater.

In 1985, Nero, then 30 years old, decided to buy the former Strand Theater building at 354 Main St. The 740-seat theater had been empty for nearly 10 years and Nero was able to purchase the building at a good price.

Having previously owned a lawn and garden shop called Enginero’s, Nero was familiar with the business world, but he never expected his business venture to turn out quite as it did.

Originally opening an arcade and concession stand, Nero quickly discovered it was not games that people wanted, it was movies.

"Everyone wanted to see movies," he said. After all, the Strand Theater was a landmark in Winsted and the Cinerom Theater was about 10 years away from opening its doors.

Since the building was still equipped with the carbon-arc projectors used to show movies when the Stand was operational, Nero decided he would learn to use the equipment and give the community what it wanted — a theater.

Not knowing the first thing about running a theater, Nero began asking for help. After consulting with a Torrington theater owner, he made one phone call that changed his life.

"I called Warren Gilson," said Nero. "He showed me how to take apart the projectors and run them and never took a dime for it.

"He was a technician for all the theaters. He changed most theaters to sound," said Nero.

Forever grateful to Gilson for showing him the way into the theater business, Nero decided to name the business after his teacher and opened The Gilson Theater in 1985.

The Gilson Theater was different from other movie theaters. Originally accommodating 740 patrons, Nero changed the layout of the theater by tiering the floor. He kept only 200 seats, but added tables so that dinner could be served while customers enjoyed the movie.

In 1990, Nero decided to convert the space on the second floor of the building to a jazz lounge and for four years drew crowds of music lovers to town from near and far.

Noticing a change in business, Nero decided it was time to convert the space to a second smaller theater and changed the format of running two movies in the main theater on Friday and Saturday nights to running one movie in each theater, six nights a week. The change has been a positive one for the entrepreneur.

With a simple menu, cold sandwiches and drinks, Nero has changed little over the years, except to add hot food specials to the dinner choices.

"Consistency is pretty much what you have to have," said Nero. "Hopefully the changes I have made are for the better."

Nero shows second-run films in both theaters.

"To be first-run is a very expensive avenue. You pretty much have to cater to all ages and our novelty still allows me to get good crowds for second-run films."

Nero recognizes that technology changes in the near future may impact his business, but he is rolling with the punches.

"We’ll be in the digital age soon," said Nero. "Within the next five years we will see a big transition in films. It scares me, but we’ll have to deal with it. It’s hard to think that the updated equipment we use now will be archaic soon."

But Nero also recognizes the potential that his business has and the space he owns.

Aside from catering large parties and even holding a wedding or two, Nero is open to new ideas and utilizing the space when he is not showing movies.

Starting within the next month, Nero plans to use a space that has been empty for over 20 years. A small room next to the main entrance of the theater has been great for storage, but Nero has decided to finally put it to good use and is currently in the process of creating a take-out Mexican restaurant under the Gilson name.

Seeing a change in the demographics in town and a lack of good Mexican cuisine, Nero says that the take-out business should be up and running very soon and will fill a void in Winsted.

Inside the theater, patrons will also see a change — new seats. Finally retiring the original Stand Theater seats in the main theater, Nero is replacing the chairs this month.

With a successful business to run — you can always find Nero at the theater — there is not much down time for the business man. So what does he do in his time off?

"I play guitar," said Nero.

Nero, who started playing at age 10, doesn’t play to big audiences, but rather enjoys playing as a means of relaxation. Bluegrass, folk, jazz, it doesn’t matter. He just enjoys playing.

"I like music. I play myself to sleep."

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