Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

In Their Element

It’s easy to take Studio 35 for granted. The humble, single screen cinema has been tucked away in Clintonville’s backyard for decades. “Oh,” someone will say as recognition kicks in, “that’s the Rocky Horror place.”

Well, that’s accurate, but not in total.

The full story, is that once a month, as the first Saturday gives way to Sunday, the freaks come out and celebrate the cult-y-est of cult classics. With the same frequency, however, Studio 35 executes one of the most entertaining, if not worthwhile, beer tastings in town.

Nothing illustrates the combo better than the annual, always sold-out Dude-A-Thon—a tribute to all things Lebowski, from Jesus to Jackie Treehorn.

Sure, you can sip a White Russian if ya like, but you’d be wasting precious belly room and liver function on what could be saved for beers that most people don’t get to lay lips on in Ohio.

Now, all of Studio 35’s beer tastings are popular, but the Dude-A-Thon is the granddaddy of them all, with a history of selling out minutes after the tickets go on sale, and usually a full six weeks in advance. As a journalist, I had no choice but to diligently attend all three. Yes, I probably shaved a good five or six years off my life, and I violated the ethics of journalism by immersing myself in the story, but I did it for you. The question I need to answer is if the product got diluted over three days.

Friday’s crowd was a little bitter, but the stink of the workday was still on us. Columbus Brewing Company brought the goods and announced that they’d finally cut ties with the old brew house and fully moved operations to the new facility. Their new branding was on hand, and we were treated to two versions of Bodhi. Great stuff. That didn’t stop somebody in the crowd from using Twitter to yank Eric Bean’s and Tony Corder’s underwear up their cracks with a salty swipe at their barley wine. That was after newly minted sales manager Lee Hill was roundly heckled for explaining the finer points of a beer to the crowd. Yes, this was definitely the Dude-A-Thon. One would-be costume participant was shamed into hiding for being so lame.

Day Two was more of the same, except the people from 3 Floyds can dish it out as well as they can take it. The highlight of the night? A man cut a hole in rug, stuck his head through it, and won the costume contest. Sunday, a new rep from Bells took heat for losing track of the beers we were drinking. I mean, if the people who brought the beer aren’t spared any quarter, how can anybody else emerged unscathed? A man shaved his pits and his legs to commit himself to being the Maud/Valkyrie. Jarring. He was given the prize pack in hopes he would cover himself with the included shirt. He did not.

Each night met expectations. It’s two hours of sheer irreverence everybody gets to share, and when you really think about it, that’s what craft beer is all about. Then, you settle back in your seat with a buzz and watch one of the most quotable movies in the history of American cinema.

The Dude-A-Thon and its wild, crude, off-kilter vibe is just one part of the charm at Studio 35. It helps that owners Eric Brembeck and Rita Volpi were regulars themselves when they bought the struggling theater as part of a partnership in 2006. The husband and wife duo assumed full control in 2008, making subtle tweaks to the business model, hiring an outstanding staff, and quietly building the theatre’s reputation as a craft beer destination. Everybody takes pride in Studio 35, especially the regulars.

They renovated in a major way a few years ago, turning a dingy, cramped serving area into one of the best beer bars in the state. Forty beers are on tap, all craft selections. Even the vaunted PBR handle, which is almost obligatory in a neighborhood like Clintonville, can’t be found.This is why people who really know craft beer make Studio 35 a regular stop in their rotation. Growlers are properly filled, and the lines are well maintained. It’s a first-class beer bar that happens to have a full-size theater in the back.

That’s no accident. Hollywood is not kind to the small, single screen theaters. The big production studios won’t let small theatres entice patrons with discounts or free passes, and they demand a full commitment. You can’t show another movie on the same screen, you have to show that movie ‘x’ number of times per day for a minimum of ‘x’ number of weeks. Oh, if you pass on showing that movie on opening weekend, the production studio might not let you pick it up until after it’s been out for four weeks. So a small theater like Studio 35 might take a gamble on some super-hyped comic book movie, make some money on opening weekend, and then be stuck with a staff queuing up a flop to an empty theater for the next three or four weeks. So, to keep the bills paid you need to make money. Beer tastings help. Showing the “Walking Dead on Sundays” actually draws a solid crowd. World Cup matches, Buckeye football, and the Columbus Crew pull people in. Debates, Elections … they leave no stone unturned. The screen at Studio 35 lifts up revealing a stage that recently played host to Improv Wars, a seasonal battle between local improve acts that takes place in weekly installments. Want to rent the theater out? Call.

Is it successful? Well, Eric and Rita are currently renovating the Grandview Theater to sprinkle a little bit of that Studio 35 magic on the west side. Once that’s up and running a plan is in place to build a second floor mini-cinema to help Studio 35 honor its commitments to those big production houses without playing flops to an empty house. “A second floor gives us some flexibility,” Eric explained. “The question is whether or not I’ll have money left after we fix up Grandview.”

Grandview is due to open sometime this spring, and the second screen at Studio 35 will be undertaken later this year. The goal is to keep the bar and the theater open during construction, so a lot of logistical work needs to be addressed. “It’s something we thought about back in 2011,” Eric said, “but we ran into so many things with the first floor and we didn’t want to cut corners. We want to be the best we can be so that comes first.”

That approach is what makes Studio 35 special, and in an era where these vintage theaters are being shuttered at an alarming rate, it’s good to see somebody has found a way to keep the dream alive. It’s fun to go out and see a movie, but that experience means so much more when you can go and see that movie at your favorite bar.

It seems that Columbus abides.

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