While high unemployment levels among the disabled has been a national problem for years — only 18.7 percent were employed during 2017 — Ridgefield’s Prospector Theater has a mission to reverse that trend by ensuring that its workforce, dubbed “prospects,” is fully represented by this often-ignored demographic.
“We have about 115 prospects that work here and 70 percent of them identify as having a disability,” said Mike “Munchie” Santini, director of research and development for the theater. “We strive to be a vibrant and integrated workforce, where people with disabilities work alongside people without disabilities. There is no distinction between who’s who — we all wear the same black uniform and we are all called prospects.”
The driving force behind this distinctive approach to employment was the theater’s founder and Executive Director Valerie Jensen, whose sister has Down’s syndrome. Jensen previously ran an arts nonprofit for people with disabilities and she became angry that few of them were able to secure full-time work. On a serendipitous drive down Ridgefield’s Prospect Street during 2012, Jensen spotted the building that housed a cinema called the Ridgefield Playhouse (not to be confused with the live theater of the same name) from 1940 to 1970. The structure became a bank from 1974 until 2000, but had been vacant ever since.
Santini noted that Jensen had a brainstorm.
“She thought: My friends with disabilities need jobs and the town needs a movie theater,” he said. “She felt it was a perfect combination to create employment opportunities for a wide array of jobs and provide a service in our community where guests can come through our doors and interact with our prospects.”
The Prospector Theater opened on Nov. 20, 2014 and Santini emphasized “we have not been closed one day since.” The venue, which offers first-run Hollywood blockbusters with a programming preference for family-friendly fare, was organized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which is not common for a movie theater.
“We’re one of very few in the country,” Santini said. “It was a very difficult challenge at first to get our first-run licensing fee from the studios, but once they heard about our mission and what we were doing here, it just made sense for everybody.”
According to its website: “Prospects use education, engagement and employment to showcase their incredible talents, adding extraordinary value and sparkle to our business. Prospects are involved at every level of the Prospector’s mission — selling tickets, popping popcorn, filming, hosting events, editing, programming, landscaping, service learning, marketing, information technology, strategic planning, graphic design, game design, writing grants, baking, costume-making and so much more!”
During its soft-opening period, Santini discovered that the management’s enthusiasm was not synonymous with operational talent.
“We came from a variety of different industries and areas, but we had very few members of our key staff who worked in movie theaters before, so for us it was really a lot of trial by error,” he recalled. “Things like turning on the projector, playing the right movie, popping popcorn without burning it — it took us a couple of times to get that right.”
The four-screen theater also went against the industry norm by opening mid-morning. “Everyone told us we would be crazy if played early morning movies because nobody comes to a 10 or 11 (o’clock) movie,” Santini said. “We decided that we wanted that to be an offering. We have a large community of seniors who come in and love those early morning movies. We love to challenge a lot of the norms.”
To meet the mission of employment for the disabled, the theater has been creative in balancing schedules, with some people putting in a full 40-hour week and others only available for four hours. Disability is not an obstacle for duties, with Santini noting that the workers can be found anywhere from the ticket booth to the projection room to the back-office computer terminal for website updates. Even the exterior of the theater offered hitherto unconsidered employment opportunities.
“At one point, we outsourced landscaping and snow removal and we thought to ourselves: these are jobs we want to create at hours that prospects want to work,” Santini said. “So, let’s do our own garden, let’s do our own snow removal.”
The garden Santini referred to is on the theater’s grounds and includes tomatoes and herbs that are cooked into the theater’s café offerings. Beer and wine are also available for patrons and Santini encourages non-moviegoers to make use of the café.
“We wanted to create reasons for people to come and hang out with us, whether they are seeing a movie or not,” he said. “We have the café open for people to come by and grab a cup of joe on the way to work.”
Santini noted the theater sold more than 100,000 tickets to moviegoers in 2017, and he is eager to get past the summer in anticipation of the autumn’s titles.
“It looks like it’s going to be a pretty fantastic fall,” he said, citing such attractions as “Smallfoot,” “First Man” and the new “Mary Poppins” while giving special praise to the October release of “A Star is Born” with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. “It looks phenomenal.”