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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007 02:34 pm

Reel to real

Theater owner decides to put his money where his mouth is

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Untitled Document Every time I interview Tony Kerasotes, he presents me with the exact same problem: How do I ask a follow-up question when my chin is on the floor?
     We first talked in January, just after he had exercised his extraordinary powers as the CEO of Kerasotes Showplace Theaters — which owns every indoor movie screen in Springfield — to postpone the opening of the wholesome black frat flick
Stomp the Yard. His rationale — a fear that Stomp would attract the same young toughs who had fired gunshots in the lobby of his Parkway Pointe theater during a horror flick on Christmas night — brought scorn from as far away as LA Weekly and AllHipHop.com and as close as the hometown daily, the State Journal-Register.
     But did Tony Kerasotes care? Is the pope Jewish?
     “I did have a little kernel of doubt as to whether I had done the right thing, but when the
SJ-R came out editorially against what I did, I knew I had done the right thing,” he told me then. “I think there’s a lot of people who just want to stick their heads up their politically correct anuses.”
     That’s a partial quote. I’m leaving out the part where he referred to my colleagues at the daily by using a word we can’t print unless we’re talking about cute little furry felines.
     After I lifted my jaw off my desk, I managed to stammer out something brilliant like “Is that on the record?”
     Ha. Is the pope Catholic?
     We talked this week, and Kerasotes did that whole jaw-dropping thing again.
This time, I called him because I had heard that he had invited several leaders of Springfield’s African-American community over to his office for a chat. Roy Williams, head of the Illinois Association of Minorities in Government, and Ken Page, president of the Springfield branch of the NAACP, both said they assumed that Kerasotes wanted to discuss how to handle future films that might attract the same saggy-pants set. “I had no idea what it would be about. I thought it was going to be what to do when certain movies come out,” Williams says. “I didn’t even ask,” Page says. “I thought it was just going to be ‘How do we not let this happen again?’ ”
It was a lucky thing they were all sitting down when Kerasotes revealed the real purpose of the meeting: He wanted to know what he could do to help. Not what he could do to help repair his reputation on AllHipHop.com, not to help smooth things over with the Alpha Phi Alphas, not what he could do to help white patrons feel safer in hislobbies. No, Kerasotes wanted to know what he could do to help with the real root of the problem. “He wanted to know what he could do to help out with the kids before they get to the point where they behave the way they did the night of that shooting,” Williams says. “He wanted to know what he could do to make an impact on a child’s life,” Page says. Of course, Kerasotes has a more colorful way to phrase it. “I wanted to get together not to rehash the Stomp the Yard brouhaha but to see what we could do down the road to help some of these lost children who are polluting the atmosphere with lead,” he says. “It is a social problem, and I’m willing to devote some resources to it.”
Williams and Page suggested that Kerasotes meet with leaders of programs already addressing at-risk youth, such as the Urban League and the Springfield Housing Authority. Another participant in the meeting, attorney and Black Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Dorsey, goaded Kerasotes to get his rich-white-guy buddies involved. Kerasotes told me he plans to take all that advice.
“I’m going to meet with some more people and come up with a plan. It won’t be a final plan, but it will be some initial steps,” he says. “I’m going to do a little something, then a little more, then see how it works.”
Initially reluctant to allow me to write about this meeting, Kerasotes made me pledge not to raise unrealistic expectations. “The disadvantaged portions of the community have had all sorts of promises unfulfilled. I’m not about to get in that bed,” he says. But, as a card-carrying cynic, I can’t let this event go undocumented. Here’s a guy in the throes of a magnanimous impulse, a guy who has the power and the means to make Springfield a better place and a guy who has an uncanny knack for surprising us. After he’s had all his meetings and formulated his plan, I hope Tony Kerasotes stuns me speechless again — by doing something shockingly good.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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