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Lighting Up the Night 

by Carrie Scozzaro & r & Charlie Chaplin waddled past the Fox Theatre the other night. My friends and I were wandering downtown when we ran into a crowd gawking at the Fox's south-side exterior wall. Incongruously, there was the Li'l Tramp, projected through the urban night, 30 feet high.

Murmurs of "cool" all around. My friends launched into their own Chaplin schtick, like some kind of live-version Mystery Science Theater 3000. Big laughs, but no one knew why silent movies were showing for free. "Maybe it's so the homeless have something to watch," someone joked. "Publicity?" someone else asked.

If so, it's free publicity, and for a good cause. CenterStage is casting its light on one of the city's treasures. Literally. Tuesdays through Saturdays, beginning just after dark and lasting almost until midnight, a glow emanates from the building, flickering across the massive whitewashed fa & ccedil;ade of the Fox Theater just north of CenterStage on First Avenue. It's not a haunting, but the shimmer of a projector showing - ironically - many of the same silent film stars whose movies once played inside the Fox: Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd. Sometimes, if they're in a more serious mood, CenterStage even shows Potemkin. On the nights I've visited, it's been the debonair Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. in The Three Musketeers.

Oddly enough, the movies started as a lark, explains Artistic Director Tim Behrens. After acquiring a new projector, CenterStage -- which caters weddings and special events -- started projecting wedding images onto its walls. Then they discovered that the images traveled across the entire dinner theater. There was no place to go but out. Up on the third floor, ella's bartender Mike Steele envisions expansion, like more independent film festivals. An EWU master's degree candidate in creative writing, Steele says that "people call in" about the movies, as if they can't believe a place would show them for free.

If you live, work or play around the southwest corner of downtown Spokane, you may already know the story of CenterStage: old building renovated by a nonprofit group committed to supporting Spokane arts with dinner theater, jazz, rehearsal space and special events. CenterStage's mission statement declares that it's "dedicated to the creation, exhibition and performance of all the arts." It's an arts complex that's exhibiting movies to maximize the potential of another arts complex right across the street.

Behrens demurs, saying that showing movies is no big deal, just something they do: "We just see it as part of the effort to light up the Fox, to call attention to it and get it renovated," he says. But in their quirky, unexpected way, the silent movies up on the Fox wall enrich the lives of downtowners.

Judi Kloess sure enjoys the movies. Joined by friends inside ella's one recent night, Kloess called the silent movies a good backdrop for an already terrific place to come hear great music and eat good food. "I love the atmosphere here," she says. Waiting for her husband Joe, ella's early-set piano player, "I sometimes sit in my car and watch them," she says,

One flight down, Nathan Aschbacher was enjoying the late-night charm of the lounge with friends. The twentysomethings share their concerns about living in Spokane. Aschbacher feels disheartened by the lack of employment necessary to keep people here. "We can't underestimate the importance of getting the 23-to-35-year-olds to stay here," he says.

You don't have to read the paper to wonder if anything is happening at CenterStage, says Aschbacher (who may be a bit biased, since he also serves on its board of directors). Likening CenterStage to the Crystal Ballroom in his former home of Portland, Aschbacher is optimistic. "This has the potential to be 'the spot' in Spokane." It's a work-in-progress, a place that casts light and shadows on a wall just to call attention to what Spokane once was. And what it still might be: the kind of city that offers random bits of culture and unexpected cinematic surprises.

Michael Bowen contributed to this article.

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