A year of surprises for a special theater in Connecticut.

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Prospector Theater founder Valerie Jensen with employee Thomas Acocela, whose “sparkle” is being an improv piano player and singer. Acocela is the resident piano player for events and parties and does voiceovers and acting for the theater’s public service announcements and commercials.

Valerie Jensen expected local raves for the Prospector Theater when it opened a year ago in Ridgefield, Connecticut – given that it would be the only movie house in a 10-mile radius. But she did not expect the international response.

“The impact that our mission has had – really on the world – took me by surprise,” says Jensen, the theater’s founder.

That impact includes emails and telephone calls from every populated continent on Earth. And even a call recently from the White House.

“It is proof to us, and really has shown us,” Jensen says, “that we are doing something here that nobody else in the world is doing.”

That something has more to do with what is behind the screen than what is on it, even though, by all accounts, the moviegoing experience at the Prospector is superb, with state-of-the-art everything in four auditoriums, one of which is even outfitted with a dozen Eames Lounge Chairs and Ottomans.

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The staff at the Prospector Theater on opening night in November 2014. The first movie shown was “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.”

But what really sets Prospector apart is its staff, who are mostly people with disabilities.

”When you’re here and you see people working,” Jensen says, “your first thought is not even, ‘Wow, they’ve got disabilities and they’re doing that!’ You look out and you’re just so inspired and you see the people interacting. It’s really a beautiful thing.”

About 70 of the 100 employees at the Prospector have a disability, and Jensen and her staff have directed their good attitude and hard work toward providing an experience that is a throwback to the golden age of cinema.

“Our ushers meet and greet each of the audiences and welcome them and thank them for coming. It’s really about the moviegoing experience,” Jensen says.

“People have been driving far and wide to come here to experience it.”

One customer went so far as to say, “This has ruined moviegoing for me forever; I can never go see a movie anywhere else other than right here.”

Jensen, who just turned 40 and is easily recognized by a shock of bright pink hair, was motivated to launch the Prospector by experience with her sister, Hope, who is four years younger and was born with a disability. Doctors advised her parents to place Hope in an institution. They said, forget that!

Prospector Theater, Location: Ridgefield, Connecticut, Architect: Doyle Coffin Architecture
One of four auditoriums at the Prospector Theater, which all are equipped with state-of-the-art audio and visual technology, including special glasses with built-in closed captioning and hearing devices that describe the action on the screen. This one also features a dozen Eames Lounge and Ottomans.

Through the experience of growing up with a disabled sister and work with community arts groups, Jensen, a former second-grade teacher and mother of three, gained precious insight about people with disabilities.

“I learned how talented and ‘sparkle-icious’ they are,” Jensen says.

Sparkle-icious?

“We tend to make up a lot of words around here,” she says.

“Sparkle” has become a banner word around the Prospector Theater, used to describe that special glint in the eye of prospects, as they are called.

“We tap into the talent and the passion of our prospects,” Jensen says. “We call that mining for sparkle. Sparkle is the joie de vivre; it is the hobbies, the love, the interests; it’s whatever people love to do. We take that passion and help turn it into profession ….

“Each or our prospects,” she says, ”really is here because they have demonstrated that they really want to work, that they can work and they love whatever it is that they’re doing. We think that what we’re doing is challenging a lot of the stereotypes and negative perceptions of people with disabilities and creating almost a whole new language.”

Jobs for people with disabilities are hard to come by, and unemployment among that group ranges around 80 percent according to the U.S. Census. Having a job provides tremendous self-esteem, Jensen says, and opens doors to independence. Many of Jensen’s employees have been able to move into their own apartments thanks to a job at the theater.

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The Prospector was built on the site of a former movie house from the golden age of cinema on Prospect Street in the heart of Ridgefield, Connecticut.

The Prospector is a nonprofit enterprise, which provides a completely different set of business calculus that, for one thing, can focus on creating rather than eliminating jobs. Even so, the theater easily, and surprisingly, surpassed its goal of selling 58,000 tickets in its first year to hit 100,000 in just 11 months in business — something that might even raise an eyebrow on Wall Street.

“If you looked at us a just as a straight-up movie theater,” Jensen says, “we would appear to be the most inefficiently run movie theater anywhere. Where other theaters are working on putting in ticket kiosks and whatnot to limit the number of people they have working, we do things intentionally to make more meaningful jobs.”

Sometimes those intentions include knocking down barriers. Several prospects at the theater cannot read. But, as Jensen points out, if you replace written instructions with illustrations, you create a job for someone who otherwise might never enjoy the satisfaction of having one.

It is those kinds of approaches that got the attention of the White House and prompted an invitation recently to attend a panel discussion on ways to better serve people with disabilities.

“That was a big honor for us,” Jensen says. ”I think we really have an opportunity here to help shape public policy and the way people with disabilities are viewed in society.”

Equally important might be the way people with disabilities see themselves and how the chance to do meaningful work can change outlooks. The Prospector Creed, which embodies the philosophy of the Prospector Theater, could someday be embraced by organizations and people with disabilities around the world:

I will let my sparkle shine for all to see … I am what they said I could be, and what they said I could not be. I am strong. I am willing and able. I am a contributing member of society. I am a prospect.

For further reading:
A movie theater with a mission, NBC News.
Prospector Theater brings movie magic to Ridgefield, Connecticut Magazine.
Prospector Theater website.