Historical building bought
In Spring 2008, Rusty and Pam Berry put a “For Sale” sign up in the Shepherdstown Opera House on W. German Street.
Lawrence Cumbo – a filmmaker who has produced features for companies such as National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, among many others was packing his family’s belongings to move to New Zeland. He told a friend of his that it was going to go quickly.
Upon returning from living abroad earlier this year, Lawrence noticed the building he had come to love when he first moved to Shepherdstown in 2002 had still not sold.
“Literally, (my family and I) came back in May, and when we rolled down German Street and saw the ‘For Sale’ sign and couldn’t believe it didn’t sell,” Lawrence said.
But Rusty said, though he and Pam had a few interested buyers over the couple of years the Cumbos were gone, it is an “awkward sized project.”
“It’s a lot of money for a couple to come up with, but it’s not big enough that any Regal Cinema isn’t going to buy this and open up a branch here,” he said. “I met Lawrence Cumbo in 2002. And the very first thing he said to me as we were introduced, he said, ‘If you ever want to sell this, give me a call.'”
So Lawrence and his wife, Julie, made and offer. The Berrys accepted.
The Opera House officially switched hands Oct. 28, and the Cumbos have already hit the ground running. The first night they officially owned the historic building they hosted a student film showcase.
“We want to do a lot more of that because there’s nothing better I mean, I’ve been a student filmmaker, and there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing your film on the big screen instead of in a college classroom,” Lawrence said.
And besides initial housekeeping, the Cumbos have plans to to upgrade the sound system, record bands live and host a live opera series, install hardwood floors so people can dance and even host and open mic night to encourage “more of a creative hub.” Lawrence also wants to keep the Opera House open about six nights a week.
But Lawrence wants to reassure community members that he wants to preserve what the Berrys, who opened on Feb. 14, 1992, have already built.
“We want to keep it the way it is, but we want to add new and maybe exciting things,” Julie said.
Prices will not go up; in fact, some prices have gone down. And the popcorn recipe is the same.
“And that conveyed with the sell,” he said.
The Cumbos also plan on continuing to show independent arthouse films.
“It’s very fitting, I think, for Larry and I to take on this project because of his background in filmmaking and photography and the connections that he has,” Julie said.
And Lawrence said this will also remain a family affair. He said his daughters, Gabi, 11, and Annie, 8, already helped expand and arrange concessions the first night they were open.
“We get to make popcorn and we get to serve people and use the cash register,” Gabi said.
And Lawrence believes the family wouldn’t be where they are if it weren’t for Julie.
“This wouldn’t have been possible without my wife, Julie, because while I was traveling all the time making films, she was at home raising our children, and that was the tougher job of the two,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence, who once was delivering up to 58 hours of documentaries, will now focus on one or two features or special projects a year something Julie is thrilled about.
“I’m excited about it because we’re in the same town,” she said. “Larry used to work in D.C. And travel a lot so he wasn’t able to enjoy the community the way I did with the kids.”
And the Cumbos are looking forward to firmly planting the roots they have already made in the town.
“This is a new path,” Lawrence said. “It allows us to be much more active in the community.”
“We’re very rooted here in Shepherdstown and love the community, and this feels like home even though we’re not from West Virginia,” Julie said. “This allows him to do what he loves and be involved in film but be closely connected to this community, which he didn’t have the chance to before. So for me, it’s a dream come true.”