The eclectic life and career of Barry Solan
Sep 27, 2016 02:28PM
● By Steven Hoffman
Barry Solan was born with the spirit of an entrepreneur and a desire to connect with people.
His first first foray into the business world was as the owner of a Mr. Softee ice cream truck. “I created Barry’s Jewish-Italian water ice and sold that with hand-dipped ice cream,” he said with a laugh.
He enjoyed driving around the neighborhood and connecting with the community. Solan has always approached life with humor and enthusiasm, and claims to bring his own personal brand of incompetence to everything he does.
“I was brought up in an entrepreneurial atmosphere, but I was never inclined to make a lot of money,” he said.
Barry grew up in Wilmington, helping out at his parents’ grocery store, Solan’s Market, at 22nd and Pine streets. He was used to a lifestyle where there was never a huge amount of money, “but you always had enough to do what you wanted because there was a till.
“When I started to make money, I enjoyed nothing more than giving it away,” he said. “I have this image of enlightened capitalism that I always tried to live to.”
For a time from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, Solan ran the State Theater and created a cultural icon on Main Street. Built in 1929, the State was originally a vaudeville house, and then later transitioned to a film venue. Ultimately, the theater was knocked down in 1989 to make way for new construction. Under Solan’s watch, the State operated as a repertory theater, showing classic, foreign, and cult films along with first-run movies. Barry and partner Al Malmfelt took over operations of the State in 1979.
“It cost us $5,500 each,” Solan explained. “I was lucky to come in when you could piece these things together rather inexpensively.” Malmfelt later dropped out of the partnership when he realized the theater was not going to generate much income.
“I never made more than $7,000 a year,” said Solan, but he was doing what he loved, and was sharing his passion with fellow movie fans.
While Solan was figuring out how to keep the doors of the theater open, he was also enriching the cultural lives of the students and the community. Howard Fulton worked at the State Theater during the early years and recalled, “Barry had his finger on the pulse of what students wanted to see and provided an alternative to first-run movies.”
Solan pulled a stack of movie schedules from a manila envelope and spread them out. “This is the heart of who we were,” he said emotionally. The film schedules are a proof of Solan’s dedication to repertory theater. The State Theater operated seven days a week, running six to eight different films each week. Often there were 10 to 12 showings per week, plus a midnight movie and a children’s Saturday matinee.
“People who know movies look at these schedules now and say, 'This is unbelievable,'” he said. Solan always pictured himself living in a larger, more vibrant city, such as Los Angeles, but figured while he was here he’d try to make Newark more like the cities he loved. He wanted the State to offer the kind of films you’d find at places like UC Berkley. “I wasn’t exactly operating in a vacuum -- there was a whole web of theaters that were operating the same way,” he said. “I wanted our theater to show almost everything available, and I would guesstimate that I got away with 85 percent of what the best theaters in the country were doing.”
Ever gracious, Solan gives a lot of credit to the people who worked for him. His employees -- mainly high-school and University of Delaware students -- were encouraged to learn more about film and share their opinions. He claimed it was never really his theater, but belonged to the kids who worked for him. His right-hand man, George Stewart, helped with the daunting task of laying out the film schedules as well as managed the State.
“The State Theater was the center of the art scene in Newark the years it was open,” Stewart said. George was a fixture at the theater in those days, and also at the University’s radio station, where he created his hugely popular show, “Crazy College.” The radio show entertains with an eclectic mix of offbeat, rare and often silly songs. “Crazy College” hit the university's airwaves in 1984 and continues today, with a dedicated following of listeners.
Solan nurtured a love of music and film from a young age. From the time he could drive, he traveled to the Main Point in Bryn Mawr for music and headed to the TLA for movies.
“I could see my thoughts articulated on screen in a meaningful, sometimes darkly humorous, way,” he said. “They could say things I was thinking, but did not have the ability to put into some kind of artform. That was the original thrill of movies for me. I’d go see a film like 'O Lucky Man' and see my view of the world being expressed on screen.”
His passion for cinema continued to evolve as he matured, so it was no surprise that his work life came to revolve around film. “I had enthusiasm and a lot of energy. I loved movies and I made it into my career.”
The State had a dedicated group of cinemaphiles who would forgo comfort for their love of movies. As Solan explained it, the theater’s heating system was very antiquated, and during most seasons, the indoor temperature did not vary much from the temperature outdoors.
“We found an old sandwich board sign that said '15 degrees cooler inside,'” Solan said. It was an early advertising ploy to entice people to come in and watch a movie on a hot day. “Well, we put the sign up during the winter, because it really was colder inside,” he said, laughing.
His wife, Annie, added, “People would come bundled up with buffalo robes, blankets, coats and hats. We had a few absolutely devoted moviegoers – it was like a football game.”
Annie recalled an incident with an employee whose legs locked up while watching 'Pandora’s Box' on a particularly cold evening. “They had to lift him out of his seat and carry him out of the theater,” she laughed.
Solan later resorted to showing adult films a few times a year to make money for heating oil. “Plus, certain X-rated films became a sorority initiation year after year,” he said. “Whole gaggles of pledges would come down, but most would leave after 15 minutes.”
Solan recalled once reading a film fanzine that said, “Where in the hell is Newark, Delaware, and why do they have the best 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' we’ve ever seen?”
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who lived in Newark during those years who did not attend a midnight showing “Rocky Horror.” The cult movie made its debut appearance at the State the second week the theater was open, and then continued to run weekly for seven-and-a-half years. Audience participation was crucial to the whole experience, and the State had a dedicated and creative audience. “The movie often didn’t start until 1 a.m. because we had so much going on,” Solan recalled. “We always had music before the show, plus a Bugs Bunny cartoon, both of the Tim Curry shorts, and 'Paradise By the Dashboard Lights.'”
This pre-show primed the audience’s enthusiasm. Manager Stewart added, “Since the theater was such a physical wreck already, we were wildly tolerant of what the audience could do, as long as it didn’t damage the screen or wasn’t too hard to clean up.” Over the years, the show cycled through different generations of casts and crowds and kept its momentum. Solan said, “For the most part, it was a very liberating experience for a lot of people, because it chipped away at the restrictions in culture. You saw people transforming themselves as part of the experience.”
In the early years of the State, Solan and crew organized a few concerts, but quickly realized that they couldn’t compete with venues like the nearby Stone Balloon. Rick Danko, Blondie Chaplin and Paul Butterfield performed together in the first concert.
“The peak experience was having Muddy Waters play,” Solan said. Unfortunately, that show was scheduled on a World Series night and the turnout was poor. “It was the best $3,500 I ever lost,” Solan said, smiling.
Manager George Stewart arranged for John Cale of the Velvet Underground to perform. “It was the most successful concert we had, because it lost the least amount of money,” Solan said. Local rocker George Thorogood would also play, filling the theater with local fans.
During these years, Barry married his wife, Annie, and they started raising a family. Annie, busy with children and a career of her own, was not very involved with the theater. She said, “my contribution to the theater – besides being OK with Barry bringing home $7,000 a year -- was to go in to help clean up on Sunday mornings after 'Rocky Horror.'” During the summer of 1986, Barry decided to move on from the State Theater, but that was not the end of his involvement with film.
In 1988, the Solans opened a video rental store, Video Americain, in Newark. Moving from the theater to video rental seemed like a natural segue. “The video stores were a continuation but without the sex appeal of the screen,” Solan said. “Nobody wants to throw rice, mustard and hot dogs at a TV screen for 'Rocky Horror'!”
Two former employees, David Ostheimer and Michael Bradley, became partners in the new venture. Barry expected Video American to be the only video rental store in Newark. However, he was in for a surprise. He was working on the store in preparation for the opening when he noticed a Newark Video store.
“Nothing had changed in the Newark Shopping center for about 150 years,” he said.. “Newark Video had opened within a week of our store opening,” The Solans and their partners would eventually open five additional Video Americain stores, ranging from Baltimore, Md., to Norfolk, Va. However, their stores were not as conventional as the competition. Solan’s store offered mainstream films along with repertory cinema. The staff was knowledgeable about different film genres, and a sense of community developed among the movie-loving customers. Each store had its own unique customer base.
According to Annie, the Newark store had fans of foreign and indie films. Baltimore had a very anglophile audience -- “We had every British series in stock, all 15 years of 'Midsummer Murders,'” she explained. Barry added that the Charles Village store rented more hip films. “The most popular film rental at our Tacoma Park store, despite our artistic pretensions, was 'Baby’s Day Out,'” he noted with a grin. It always amused him that “the Volvo crowd wanted to be surrounded by the most eclectic movies in the world while they were renting 'The Nutty Professor.'”
Their Newark store would always struggle financially, but Annie felt it was important to keep a store in the town. The most successful location was Baltimore, and it was annually ranked as the area’s best video store.
“There was something inherent in the atmosphere of a video store,” Solan said. “How many businesses survive when there is a less than a 20 percent chance of you getting what you want when you go to the store? It was all about community.”
He added that visiting the Baltimore store was an opportunity to see and been seen. A trip to the video store was a social outing.
“They didn’t always get what they came in for, but they still found something to take home,” he said. Video American developed a nationally known reputation for its unique catalog of films and knowledgeable staff. “We were the best of the best,” said Solan proudly.
Director John Waters also enhanced their reputation. The video store scene from “Serial Mom” was filmed in their first Baltimore store, and Waters remained a fan of Video American. In an interview, Waters once said, “Video Americain was the best video store in the world.”
“It wasn’t true, but it was nice to hear,” Solan said. “We were maybe in the top 12.”
In 2010, health problems forced Solan to step back from the business. “The last years of Video Americain, Annie did 80 percent of the work. The stores stayed open because of her,” Solan said, smiling at his wife.
Over the next four years, as rentals declined due to video streaming, it was not possible to keep the stores open. Baltimore’s Roland Park store was the last to go, closing in 2014. With the popularity of Netflix, independently owned video stores could not survive.
“Books stores, record stores, video stores -- they all represented an exchange among people that has been almost entirely eliminated now. New things come and take their place but these things are lost,” Solan explained.
After spending 25 years in the video business, the Solans now keep busy with new projects and interests. Annie is working part-time for the Civil Air Patrol, and both do elder care. Barry was recently given a clean bill of health from his doctor, and spends time with a friend who is dealing with his own health crisis.
Looking back over his film-centric career, the most important thing remains the people.
“It is so gratifying to see so many people who worked for us go on to become creative people,” he said. “One of our employees is now a film professor. Others have gone on to work in film or own theaters. It’s what I am most proud of. I feel truly blessed.”
Each business spawned its own generation of film lovers. Annie explained, “They were drawn to working for us because of what we offered. Tarantino said his film school was the video store he worked in. We attracted people who wanted to learn about film. It was a lot of fun.”
Barry and Annie Solan have raised three children while living and working in the Newark area. Though mom and dad stayed local, the kids have ventured farther afield. Son David is practicing law in Baltimore, daughter Marielle is a New York City-based photographer, and daughter Danielle teaches music in Hong Kong. Solan feels that he has been graced every step of the way: Finding a wonderful mate, having a loving family, and doing work he loved.
“I’ve always had a questionable set of job skills,” he said, laughing. “I might make the full circle because I’ll never be in the film business again. But who knows, maybe I’ll get back on another ice cream truck.”