Michael Purro described South Windermere Theatre as “the best-kept secret in Charleston,” but he knew he had something special. He spent years building a strong following for his family-run business. Regular visitors to the theatre are among the many Charlestonians, from local filmmakers to sports fans, who were saddened last week when he had a heart attack, passing away on Monday, November 19. He was just 40 years old.

Just over three years ago, Purro took over the theatre with only one day’s training on the projection equipment from the previous owner. The business had changed hands a lot, closing for periods of time. The determined entrepreneur caught on immediately and started reeducating his customers in movie screening matters. In his jovial, welcoming manner, he was always eager to explain that his competitors had first dibs on showing movies in the area, holding onto movies for months before passing them on to him. “I want to support the community,” he said, “as opposed to the corporate-run cattle movers.” He tried everything he could to keep it afloat — sports screenings, independent film premieres and mini-festivals, regular showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and deeply discounted ticket and concessions prices — which included beer and wine as well as menu selections from nearby restaurants. He believed it was time for the movie industry to get back to basics. “No movie star out there is worth $20 million a picture. In the good old days, people went to ‘feel’ a movie — to experience it. Now they just go to amuse themselves for two hours, then they’re done.”

Purro wasn’t just selling theatre tickets — he was selling a nostalgic experience. He was also always willing to help up-and-coming filmmakers, a rare acknowledgement in the tough business they were trying to succeed in. “I don’t pass judgment,” he would say, “and I’m not going to stand in the way of people getting their word out.”

One of those filmmakers, Trevor Erickson, recalls one of Purro’s other pursuits taking up space in the projection room. “He joked about it not being the best place for his glasswork,” says Erickson of Purro’s glassblowing. “He was incredibly helpful when I planned to shoot a film there, always friendly.”

Michael had many plans for South Windermere — more small film festivals (including another Asiamania series of rare Asian flicks), more arthouse movies, and a facelift for the building with a wooden deck out front. He was even considering hooking up gaming consoles like Xboxes to the huge movie screens and creating a pair of gargantuan gaming rooms for rent during the daylight hours, something he’d done often for his own amusement.

It’s not certain yet whether the Purro family — including Purro’s wife Sandra, his teenaged daughter Alexandra and his son, Michael Jr. — will continue to run South Windermere, which for the moment is closed until further notice. Although Michael always acknowledged that the theatre struggled to pay its bills, it fills an important second-run niche for downtown Charleston residents. Not as artsy as The Terrace or as commercialized as the multiplexes, it’s a hang-out for grateful movie lovers and forms an important part of our indie film dynamic. Michael Purro has left behind many friends, as well as a theatre with a lot of memories and a great deal of potential.