A rose is a rose is a rose, except for when it’s a theatre.
Elegant, well-lit, and timeless, this one is enveloped in the heart of Port Townsend. Now, 30 years after its resurrection in 1992 by visionary Robert “Rocky” Friedman, the business is up for sale.
A few times during three decades of overseeing the circa 1907 building on Taylor Street, Friedman wondered if it was time to start his next venture. Yet the timing just never seemed right.
When it was, it was unmistakable.
“I woke up one December morning in 2019 and my first thought was, ‘I’m going to sell the Rose,’” he said during a recent conversation.
“There was no real decision, it was just this moment of clarity.” And he felt he needed that in order to proceed.
After all, the historical theatre was his self-described passion project.
“My life was built around the Rose,” he said.
Ironically, many decades previous, the notion that he would open a community-focused theatre hit Friedman with an equally unmistakable force: “I remember the exact day when I decided — after thinking about it for some time — I remember the exact day, and what I was doing, and where I was, when I decided, ‘OK, I’m finally going to do this.’
“And that’s when the moment of resolve came over me.”
Bookended by a complete sense of surety, he was confident the time to finally part ways with the Rose had arrived. He began plans to sell the business in 2022, the theatre’s 30th anniversary.
But trying to outline his next venture while being ensconced in the theatre wasn’t working out.
“What I realized is that I was already putting one foot out the door,” Friedman said, deciding both efforts needed his attention one-hundred-percent
“So I decided very quickly that I was just going to move ahead with it [listing the business], it felt like the right thing to do. So I did.”
In early 2020, he contacted a group in Los Angeles that specializes in theatre valuation. But concerned with the ever-widening reach of COVID, they’d put a moratorium on flying.
A local business from Seattle stepped in to assess the business, but momentum slowed in a climate of uncertainty.
As threats of the pandemic inched closer to home, Friedman felt the responsibility to keep his community safe.
Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” blazed from the Rose’s main screen in mid-March, and by the 15th, the doors closed.
For how long, Friedman couldn’t be sure, but his commitment to getting the theaters back on their feet before he listed the business was unquestionable.
It’s arguable that Friedman is one of the most singularly beloved folks in Port Townsend.
Over the years, countless middle school and high school students cut their teeth in the wide world of work behind the concessions counter in the lobby of the Rose, learning to snap open a popcorn bag with a neat flick of a wrist, tidy the famous spice station, and make change for customers.
“As far as what I have enjoyed the most about running the Rose,” Friedman wrote in a follow-up email, having asked for some time to mull over a few questions; “Employing people is right up at the top; providing jobs, witnessing the young people grow into them; lasting relationships with the staff.”
Surely the Rose itself is a testament to enduring connection.
Moved from its original location just one year after opening in 1907, the theatre closed in 1958 and was subsequently repurposed for multiple enterprises before Friedman began bringing the building back to its original purpose.
“I owe this town a lot for giving me this job for 30 years,” he said, extending particular thanks to Phil and Sandra “Krist” Johnson, who own the Rose building (Sadly, Phil passed on in early 2022).
“The Rose would never have happened without my incredible landlords,” he said. “They bought the building for my purposes.”
David and Alison Hero, who own the site that houses the adjacent upstairs Starlight Room — a separate theatre and business venture that will sell with the Rose — also deserve a shoutout, for, in Friedman’s words going “out on a bit of a limb to partner with me on the Starlight project.”
While Friedman knew what kind of theatre he wanted to open from the get-go –– there would be real butter on the popcorn, and every movie would be introduced by a person, for starters –– it was a bit more difficult to transition from a server at a Mexican restaurant to the face of the Rose.
“I knew that I was creating a job for myself, and that was going to be part of it,” he admitted. “But knowing that and experiencing that were two different things for a little while.”
“I’m by nature an introvert,” he said. “And it the early years, it was a bit of a challenge for me to be stopped everywhere I went and be asked movie questions.”
The prime ambush spot? The produce isle at the Port Townsend Food Co-op.
“But I quickly got over it, or, not got over it, but got used to it. Because the questions and comments from people were so informed and so genuine … people made me feel so comfortable,” he added.
“And I went back to eating my vegetables regularly,” he joked.
Earnest, he admitted what he would miss most about the Rose were the people.
“I never wanted to open just a movie theatre. I wanted to make it part of the community,” Friedman said.
Now he is committed to taking the time it takes to find a predecessor who has a similar ethos.
“It’s what I owe this town to be as thoughtful in who I sell to as I possibly can be,” he said.
His ideal buyer(s)?
“I want someone who is smart and sharp and creative and just bursting with ideas, and I don’t want them to handle [the Rose] or my past tenure there as anything that’s precious. I just don’t,” he said, serious.
“I don’t — I don’t want that. They need to make it their own,” he added.
“My attorney made me promise not to drive by the theatre for a full year,” Friedman said.
“I didn’t agree to that,” he said laughing, “because I think that’s going to be impossible.”
Then he got serious. He understands what his attorney is alluding to, making stepping away just a bit easier.
Friedman confirmed that his daughter, Renata, who grew up in the theatre and still logs Rose work hours remotely, supports his decision, agreeing that it’s a good season for a change.
“We are on the same page, proverbially,” Friedman said.
“She’s always been — even at a young age — she’s always been my closest business confidant,” he said. “She’s, I think, one of these rare, creative people who is equally adept at the creative side as well as the business side, and promotion side.”
“I just marvel at it.”
In anticipation of his departure, a former business owner told Friedman that it’s just as important to know what you are going to, as what you’re leaving.
Taking the forward view, Friedman hopes, will help keep him focused on his next adventure.
“Most of all I want a creative-centered life instead of a business-centered life,” he said. “I have projects I want to do that involve writing and photography, possibly a very short film that’s been gestating in my brain since the 70s. I want to do volunteer work here in town. I will be busy.”
But before he embarks on his next journey, or likely, journeys, as longevity runs in his family (his mother is 102), Friedman reflected on years of day-to-day theater operations.
“There’s not a part of the business that I haven’t enjoyed,” he said.
“I’ll share a secret with you,” he said. “When I was still managing nightly, when I had a floor shift, and I would go behind the concession and turn off the lights and set the alarm, and on my way walking from the alarm to the front door, I always said, ‘Goodnight.’”
He searched a while for his next thought.
“I was saying it, not to the ghosts, not the…” he hesitated. “I was saying it to all the people, all the memories, all the voices that have inhabited that space, and it was just something that was very real for me. It’s one of those things I can’t explain.”
“I still do that, when I’m the last one out the door.”
“It’s been thoroughly enjoyable, having a job, a business that touches people emotionally,” Friedman said. “Whether it’s laughter or tears or indifference or someone stops me in the produce section, and says, ‘Why on earth did you bring that movie?’”
“It’s been a remarkable and wonderful 30 years,” he said. “I can’t believe how much time has passed, but there it is. I look in the mirror and
I believe it.”
“I don’t know if I want to put this is the paper,” he said, cracking up, “but, so,
I was texting with Renata last week, and I said what my day involved and I said I also had some peanut M&M’s. And I said, ‘You know, I’m going to miss that. I think I will miss the popcorn and the peanut M&M’s.’”
Friedman continued his confession, buoyant with laughter.
“It’s really a bad scenario when you’re there [at the Rose] late at night and you’ve just got the munchies, and the yogurt is at home,” he said. “What do you go for?”