Chestnut Hill resident John Toner, executive director of the Ambler Theater, poses in front of a poster of “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” a film that he contends changed his life.

Chestnut Hill resident John Toner, executive director of the Ambler Theater, poses in front of a poster of “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” a film that he contends changed his life.

by Nathan Lerner

Were you able to score tickets to Los Angeles’ Dolby Center for the annual Academy Awards festivities on Feb. 22? If not, don’t despair. There is an appealing alternative closer to home. The Ambler Theater will celebrate its 12th birthday with a gala evening on Oscar night. It will be replete with food, drinks and the Academy Awards ceremony projected in HD on the big screen.

As executive director of the Ambler Theater, Chestnut Hill’s John Toner will oversee the event. He commented last week, “The Oscars are the biggest and most publicized celebration of movies in the world. The event itself can get a little long-winded, and a lot of great movies and performances get overlooked, but it’s still fun, nonetheless. And it’s always fun guessing who will win.

“We started the event as a way to celebrate the theater’s birthday and the great movies we have shown over the course of the year. From there, it has grown into the gala that it is now. It really took off after we finished the restoration of the front theater in 2007. We saw growth every year in the party up until 2013. That year we had our largest crowd of about 400 patrons.

“For years, we worked to make the party bigger and better, but then reached a point where it was just too big. And bigger was fighting better. So we have strategically scaled back the event over the past two years … and we have actually capped the number of guests at 250.”

As part of the event, the Ambler Theater invites attendees to predict the Oscar recipients. Toner characterized their Pick the Winners contest as “one of the most successful parts of the evening.” They post the updated results to their website as soon as awards are handed out, and they also share them on screen the night of the awards.

Toner, a self–described “baby boomer,” was born in Philadelphia and raised in Doylestown. He went to Central Bucks High School, Swarthmore College and Villanova Law School. He practiced law for 20 years before gravitating to running movie theaters as a profession. Toner has lived in Chestnut Hill for seven years with his wife, Rebecca Bushnell, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Having grown up in Doylestown, Toner enthused, “I love the similar small-town, walkable nature of Chestnut Hill.”

Toner was not a movie buff growing up, but when he lived in New York City in the ‘70s he fell in love with film while attending repertory cinemas and seeing classic films by Godard, Bergman, Fellini and the ‘70s Hollywood upstarts like Scorsese and Coppola, as well as Hitchcock and others. Officially, Toner’s favorite film is “The Lady Eve,” directed by Preston Sturges, which starred Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck. However, it was another film, “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” a 1974 film from French New Wave director Jacques Rivette that Toner said “changed my life.”

As a result, Toner helped establish a non-profit organization whose first movie theater project was the County Theater in Doylestown, which they reopened and renovated in 1993. After running the County Theater for 10 years, the nonprofit group was approached by members of the Ambler community about reviving the Ambler Theater. After a year and a half of renovations, they reopened the venue. In 2005, they helped reopen the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and ran their theater operations for three and a half years. (It is now fully independent.) In 2013, they took over the operations of the Hiway Theater in Jenkintown, and last summer they reopened the Garden Theatre in Princeton, NJ.

At the Ambler Theater, “Our biggest challenge is bringing in enough great films to keep our members and patrons happy. That and keeping this 1928 building in good running shape. There is always a leaking roof or old plaster to repair … They just don’t make movie theaters like this anymore, which is one of the big reasons we got into running them. I’ve read that less than 5% of the movie theaters from the Golden Age, the ’20s though the ’40s, still exist as movie theaters.

“Anyone of a certain age who grew up in the Philadelphia area knows how many theaters are gone from Chestnut Hill, Mt Airy, Germantown, Willow Grove, Hatboro and on and on. There were scores of local movie theaters, one for every neighborhood, that are all gone. That’s why we’re happy to be involved in saving some of the few that are left and trying to preserve their original designs.”

The Ambler Theater Gala will take place Sunday, Feb. 22. Doors will open at 6:30 pm for a red carpet reception. More information at 215-345-7855 or Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at