MY HALF CENTURY WITH THE SYRACUSE CINEPHILE SOCIETY
A true story in two parts by Mark Philp
Part One: The Film Years
Thinking back, it’s hard to believe when I arrived in Syracuse, NY in the late summer of 1970, the Syracuse Cinephile Society had already been going for at least three years. Even more astounding is the fact that here we are a half century later and both the organization and myself are still going strong.
I had taken a job as a film editor at a local TV station where I eventually worked for 38 years. Having always loved classic films, it didn’t take more than a couple of weeks for me to discover the Syracuse Cinephile Society. Little did I know what a huge part of my life that would become.
The weekly screenings were held in a dark and gloomy basement under a “road house” type restaurant on the city line. One walked past the restrooms, down a rickety staircase, and along a smelly hallway that was lined with empty beer kegs and garbage cans. The “screening room” contained little more than a projector, a screen, a couple of dozen chairs and lots of cobwebs. In looking back, all the cobwebs seemed like a nice touch since the first show I attended was a double-bill of “The Old Dark House” and “Freaks”.
After my introductory Cinephile show, and regardless of its bleak surroundings, I just knew that I had stumbled upon something which I wanted to be a part of it. That was mainly due to my first encounter with Cinephile founder Phil Serling. Phil was many things, a former boxer, community theater actor, deputy sheriff, and perhaps most importantly a film collector. It would be his large, ever growing, collection that would provide the basis for the early years of the Syracuse Cinephile Society schedules.
Often described as a character right out of a Damon Runyon story, Phil was a big, friendly, guy who knew everybody and everybody knew him. No kidding. It was impossible to go anywhere with him without hearing a chorus of “Hi, Phil!” echoing throughout the room.
It was the same sort of thing at his house on Saturday nights when he held his weekly movie shows in his basement screening room. Nobody got a specific invitation, it was an “open house” in the truest sense and just about everyone Phil knew would show up at one time or an other. Anyone who happened to be free on a Saturday night, and many planned on it, would make their way down his winding, narrow, basement stairs to partake in what ever cinematic delight he came up with.
A big part of the fun was how you never knew who’d be sitting next to you. On any given Saturday night “the usual suspects”, as Phil called them, might include a popular TV sports anchor, the guy who fixed his car, a once famous boxer, a former Broadway chorus girl or even the County Sheriff, plus a unique assortment of film buffs.
Most week’s entertainment usually came from Phil’s collection, but occasionally another collector might provide something. Good or bad, it was always a welcomed diversion. It’s fair to say how sometimes that bunch could be a tough audience and be brutally critical of a particularly bad film. Still, they always found an appreciative comment to give the contributor even if nothing more than “The movie was lousy, but boy that print looked great.”
When I first became involved with the Syracuse Cinephile Society Phil was pretty much a “one-man band”. He’d set up the projector, the screen, and the chairs, all the while greeting everyone who came in as he took their money. Come showtime, he’d introduce the film, plugged the upcoming attractions, then run to the back of the room to turn off the lights and start the projector.
When he found out that I was an experienced projectionist and was willing to pitch in, I was given the title of “Vice-President of Projection”. That wasn’t as big a deal as it sounds since Phil called anyone who did anything for Cinephile a vice- president of something or other and at one point I think we ended up with more vice-presidents than paying customers.
Over the next couple of years Syracuse Cinephile grew out of that dank basement. And at various times, the shows played in the back rooms of different restaurants and bars with names like Deny O’s, The Celebrity Den, and even an old firehouse turned tavern called, appropriately enough, The Firebarn.
The Firebarn was definitely my favorite. The screenings were held on the second floor in what had been the fire crew’s living quarters. It had been gutted of its interior walls and became a single large room with a high ceiling. Perfect for movies. It was at a time, when nationwide, classic films were seeing a renewed interest among college students and we routinely packed the place with double-bills that featured, among others, the Marx Brothers, Bogart and Buster Keaton.
Of course, after the show with so many people leaving via the narrow stairs it proved to be such a slow process that we had all we could do to keep the fun-loving audience from exiting down the still existing brass fire pole.
Cinephile’s popularity grew and in the mid-1970’s when the Onondaga County Civic Center opened, as both a county office building and multi-theater performing arts complex Phil was invited to move the Cinephile operation to the new venue, not only for its own series, but to help fill scheduling gaps so that there would be something going on in at least one theater every night of the year.
Calling our Civic Center film schedules “varied” is an understatement. The first year alone included everything from Olivier’s “Hamlet” to the cult classic “Night of the Living Dead” with scores of well-known classics in between. It can’t be said that we didn’t try to schedule something for everyone.
Our annual triple-feature Halloween horror show and, strangely enough, something called “The Worse Than Bad Film Festival” guaranteed full houses. The latter was usually two or three obscure films, better left forgotten, such as the first (and only) all-midget western called “The Terror of Tiny Town” or a little Mexican gem that had something to do with female wrestlers and a marauding Aztec mummy.
That’s not to say the mainstream classics didn’t work for us. For example, when the schedule included any of the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy musicals all we had to do was open the doors and stand well back. Comedies with Chaplin, Lloyd, and Laurel & Hardy all had big followings as did occasional sci-fi double-features like “ War Of The Worlds” with “The Day The Earth Stood Still” which never failed to bring them in.
While the first few years at the Civic Center did pretty well for us, as often happens, the times and the public’s taste began to change and attendance started to drop. To bolster the Cinephile coffers, Phil came up with the idea of bringing in live, one-man shows by stars like Vincent Price and Star Trek’s “Captain Kirk”, William Shatner. A couple of them did pretty well, but overall it proved to be a financial disaster nearly bankrupting the group.
It was a struggle and took some time, but the bills finally got paid off and with the dwindling attendance it was decided that in order to keep the Syracuse Cinephile Society alive, it was time to go back to our roots and find a welcoming restaurant.
It was a needed move and after a little searching we ended up in a rather “cozy” upstairs room over a restaurant near the city’s “Little Italy” district. Although somewhat limited by the smaller size, the Monday night shows actively remained there for 13 years, the longest of any place we were ever at.
While still at the Civic Center the group had the opportunity to host Cinecon, the first of what would be a number of national and regional classic film conventions. Later settling permanently in Los Angeles Cinecon was at the time held in a different city every year. so when the offer of Syracuse was chosen and we dove head first into the world of “cons”. All things considered, for novices, we put on a pretty good show and had a lot of fun.
With a successful Cinecon under our belts, it wasn’t long before the wheels started turning in Phil’s head and he decided that “it can’t be that hard” to have the Syracuse Cinephile Society start its own film convention and thus, throwing all caution to the wind, Cinefest was born.
The first Cinefest was held downtown at the Hotel Syracuse with a simple concept. There would be two screening rooms and dealer space to buy films, posters and other movie related items. After a year or two, we dropped the second screening room because our attendees didn’t like having to choose between films and wanted to see everything.
The curtain fell on the initial Cinefest and with some surprise it was actually a success. Attendance was higher than anticipated and we didn’t go into hock. You couldn’t ask for better than that so planning started on Cinefest 2.
As time went on, Cinefest developed into one of the premier classic film conventions in the country and ran for 35 years. Each one attracting as many as 600 enthusiasts from literally all over the world. Film historians like William K. Everson and Kevin Brownlow regularly attended and popular film critic Leonard Maltin became a yearly fixture hosting Cinefest’s annual movie memorabilia auctions.
The archives and studios threw open their vaults to us, often competing for screen time to show their latest restoration. 35mm screenings were added either at the historic Landmark Theater or the recently restored Palace Theater. Early on Saturday mornings, busloads of still sleepy-eyed Cinefest attendees would be transported on the short journey to whatever venue it was and would not be seen again for most of the day.
Oddly enough and despite its increasing success, Cinefest was never thought of as a long-term venture. Plans were usually only made on a yearly basis and a month or so after each show, there would be a “postmortem” meeting to discuss the outcome. When it was confirmed that all the bills had been paid with a couple of bucks left over and having avoided any major disasters, Phil would give a sigh of relief and always say “Well, we made it through another one. So what are we doing for next year?”
Eventually, and almost without realizing it we reached Cinefest 20. It wasn’t until then that we finally starting thinking in terms of a long-time future and the possibility of actually making it to Cinefest 25. The idea that we might be doing this for a quarter of a century had somehow started to seem appealing.
Another couple of shows passed and in January of 2002, just weeks before that year’s edition, we took a tragic blow. Syracuse Cinephile Society’s founder and our good friend Phil Serling died suddenly of complications resulting from an auto accident.
Phil’s death came as a shock to Cinefest staff and attendees alike, but having occurred so close to the upcoming edition it gave us the advantage of having everything pretty much finalized by then. So, as a tribute to Phil, the show went on as planned. It was a tearful, but successful event. Like musicians in a well-rehearsed orchestra we all knew our parts and the only thing missing was the conductor.
I previously described Phil as a “one-man band” doing everything himself in the early days. Even as more people became involved in Cinephile’s operation in areas like projection and film inspection, registration duties, and generally helping with Cinefest, he remained firmly in charge and made all the important decisions. Saying that isn’t meant as being critical, just a comment on how things worked in those days.
As we grieved, those of us who helped run Cinefest decided that we wanted to try keeping it going and reach the quarter-century mark, but we also agreed that there had to be a more formal structure. The best way seemed to be applying for non-profit status and, like most other arts organizations, have officers and a board of directors. To get things rolling, long-time Cinefest associate, Bob Oliver, was named President.
Bob’s experience with another non-profit group was just what was needed to get through the bureaucratic minefield laid down by the IRS. Thanks to the combined efforts by him and our expert accountant Cinephile’s financial house was put in good order. With everything under control, Bob stepped down as president but for many years continued with the group as its treasurer. The board then unanimously elected long-time Cinefest cohort Gerry Orlando as its new president.
The best way to describe Gerry is as a master showman. He loves the razzle-dazzle of promotion and, had he been born in a past century, may have very well been another P.T. Barnum or Florenz Ziegfeld. It didn’t take us long to discover that unquestionably his biggest asset was his uncanny ability as a movie programmer. It was a skill that would prove very important to the group’s future, but more about that later.
Now, you’d think that after each blockbuster Cinefest the team could take a well earned rest, but that was never the case. Traditionally, the Monday night film series resumed with its Spring season two weeks afterwards. While sometimes seeming to take a back seat to Cinefest, the Monday night series had been chugging right along all those years and still offered some of the the best classic films Hollywood had to offer.
Due to circumstances beyond our control, the series had been moved to new quarters in a neighborhood restaurant on the city’s North side. While the weekly shows were still attracting good crowds, considering the limited size of the room, rumors began circulating that the restaurant was having deep financial troubles. Rather than risk coming in some Monday night and finding that the place had been padlocked by the sheriff it became clear that a search for a new venue had to begin and soon.
That duty fell to president Gerry Orlando and little did he realize what a project that would be. The poor man spent a good portion of a year visiting almost every restaurant in the county and found nothing suitable. Most rooms failed to meet the height and size requirements for our projection and screen or couldn’t be guaranteed for 24 weeks a year. Others simply had owners who could not be convinced that our concept worked. Things began to look bleak until Gerry came to what was just about the last place on his list.
Taking up almost the entire ground floor of an old factory building, and located just north of downtown in an industrial area that was being redeveloped, The Spaghetti Warehouse had much to offer us. Its large dining rooms with exposed brick walls, dark woodwork, and visible beams and duct-work overhead seemed to have just the right mood for classic movies. Off- street parking was also a plus.
Besides good food, two things really sold him on the place, a large private dining room, with high ceilings that could easily accommodate what we hoped would be expanding crowds and a management that not only understood what we were doing, but, as they would prove many times over, gladly supported anything we wanted to do.
Our partnership with The Spaghetti Warehouse is more than a decade old now and it can honestly be said that we’ve always felt right at home there. The management never second guessed us. If we said we wanted to do something like mount the projectors on the ceiling they’d respond by showing us where the ladder was kept. Whatever we wanted was okay with them. Not only that but the same skilled servers work every show and are looked upon by the group’s staff and audience alike as an important part of the Cinephile team.
It had taken a period of adjustment getting use to working without our former leader, but Cinefest soon got back in the groove and flourished. We all worked hard in our various functions. The years passed and by the time we reached Cinefest 32 there were major changes in the wind that would affect, all film conventions and not just ours.
The motion picture industry had just about completed transitioning from film to digital distribution. Many of the kinds of rare films that we had been getting from the archives were now being released only in a digital format and film prints were no longer being made. On top of that, the studios had started offering many desirable titles through their new “manufactured on demand” DVD program which made the need to screen them at film conventions less necessary.
For the first time, in order to get those rarities that our attendees came for, we had to run some in a digital format. Our first venture amounted to little more than two or three digital titles clustered together on one evening. Just three years later, at the final Cinefest, digital screenings made up over 60% of the schedule and ran in all parts of the entire four days. By then I was Cinefest’s sole digital operator.
Showing digital to an audience of die-hard film buffs wasn’t a job I’d wish on anyone. We spent a small fortune renting state-of-the-art digital projection equipment. As good as those screenings were and while still having a “feel” of film in appearance, some people were suspicious and hard to convince that digital was the future and the only way they’d get to see those rarities. More than once we were accused of “selling out”.
To complicate matters even more, some of our major sources started bringing their shows in on computers and as formats changed we eventually had folks simply saying ”here” as they’d hand us the next feature on a hard drive the size of a brick, or even on a flash drive, and sometimes in a format we knew nothing about. It began to look like any future shows would have more need of IT specialist than a projectionist. It still amazes me that one way or another and with much help from computer savvy attendees, we were able to show everything scheduled those last couple of years.
Finally, after Cinefest 33, the board decided that we should “go out while we were still on top” and Cinefest 35 would be the ”grand finale”. There were lots of reasons, the technical changes, for one, availability issues with the archives which now required Gerry to track down and obtain the rights to each title. Then too, it was getting almost impossible to attract new, younger, persons to join the staff. With just a couple of exceptions, we all had been doing our jobs since the first Cinefest and to be perfectly honest some of us were slowing down.
At the same time as the decision was made to end Cinefest, there was discussion as to what to do about the Monday night series. For a couple of years, Gerry had been warning us of his increasing difficulty in lining up good 16mm prints of the major titles we needed to continue. Most of us had seen the jumping and chattering of warped and shrunken prints as these things started to be an almost a regular part of each week’s show.
I remember the first time I suggested that we might possibly augment our film shows with an occasion digital presentation to fill any holes in the schedule. The reception to my idea was, shall we say, overwhelmingly negative. After a period of discussion, it was tabled. Even if there had been more positive interest, in hindsight, I hadn’t a clue of what would be involved and it would have failed miserably. The future of the Monday night shows stayed up in the air.
As March of 2014 arrived we were all ready for the next to last Cinefest. Reality was finally sinking in that the one to follow in 2015 would really be our “Grand Finale”. Somehow Gerry had pulled together enough decent prints to get the Monday shows through the upcoming 2014 Spring season but beyond that the future looked pretty bleak.
It’s not easy ending something that’s been going on for almost fifty years and even as what we expected to be the final season was starting some of us weren’t quite ready to throw in the towel. We were informally exploring an option that might be able to offer us a reprieve.
End of Part One
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Part Two: The Digital Revolution
It had been at least a couple of years since I had first brought the idea of digital up for discussion, but in that time there had been major improvements in both equipment and the its on-screen results. Online user reviews, which once bordered on vicious, now were more generous in their comments and praise for the much superior picture and sound were becoming the norm. The more I read about the improved technology the more I thought that time was right to revisit the idea.
To my surprise, both Gerry and Bob were thinking along the same lines as me and, after a number of back and forth phone calls and emails, we decided that we’d become an informal committee of three to at least explore what our digital options might be.
Before we could even start looking at the technical end of things there was one very important item that needed to be taken care of. We all agreed that the only way to go was strictly legal, which meant paying for public performance rights for each of the movies. we would show. Being this was part of programming, Gerry took on that chore. He contacted the studios’ distributors and after explaining what we wanted to do was able to negotiate rates that were very workable for us.
Once that hurdle was passed, I spent weeks reading about and researching projectors and related equipment. Then after talking with manufacturers and online dealers I was finally able have a reasonable idea of what we needed. Still, I had a lot of questions and wasn’t comfortable just going by written words or verbal promises. I felt we really couldn’t buy all this equipment sight unseen. Still, we decided to try and make this digital thing work.
After discussing the pros and cons we decided to go through a local audio-visual dealer. They were very cooperative and gave us the opportunity to do side-by-side comparisons of several projectors at our own venue until we found just the right one for us. In addition, we would be able to have everything professionally installed. In the long run it probably ended up costing us more, but it was worth it.
By now the time of the Spring 2014 season had ended we were rapidly reaching the point where, if we were to keep the series running, we had to commit to a format for the Fall season. It just wasn’t possible to guarantee that a new digital system would be ready in a matter of less than three months. I don’t know what magic he used, but almost miraculously Gerry came up with twelve more decent 16mm prints of good movies for the fall season. So now it was set that digital would have its premiere in the Spring of 2015 just two weeks after the final Cinefest.
That extra time was a gift. Now there was no need to rush installation and besides we needed time to finish selecting the audio and other equipment that still had to be ordered. The new gear started arriving in September and as the Fall season neared its final weeks we had them start installation. Everything was up and running by the time we took a little break for the holidays.
Within a day or two after New Years, we started in earnest testing and training on the digital technology. We regularly did test screenings of upcoming shows and worked out all the bugs in our system and operating procedures. Although we had plenty of time, there was a deadline. We had to be completely ready to go by the last day of February. After that we needed to channel all our energies to the last minute prep and setup of the final Cinefest. It was an event which we wanted to go flawlessly.
In order to help finance the switch to digital, it had been decided that, when it was no longer needed, we’d sell off all the Cinefest film equipment. As we were loading it in the purchaser’s truck everyone felt a little sadness. After all we had been doing this a long time. but we didn’t have time to dwell on it, our digital “opening night” wasn’t that far away. Success or failure, there was no going back now. We were firmly committed to digital.
The next couple of weeks flew by with almost daily sessions with the equipment. Aside from the obvious fact that we would no longer be running our shows on film, the new technology meant we still had many things to learn.
Some were simple, like getting use to the new jargon. “Movie” replaced “film”, instead of calling the copy of the movie a “print” it became a “transfer’, and even those of us who’d actually run the shows had the new title of “digital operators” instead of “projectionists”. Still, old habits are hard to break and even now, after all these seasons, one of us will occasionally slip and after seeing an exceptionally nice picture will say something like “Boy! That print looks great!”
The biggest change was the placement of the projector. For film it was simply on a cart at the back of the room about forty feet from the screen. Digital projectors had to be much closer and to get the same size picture we’d need it to be no more than about eighteen feet out. Placing a cart there would mean that more than half the seats would have an obstructed view. Although we were hesitant to do it at first, the only real alternative was to mount the projector on a support hanging from the ceiling. Thanks to the room’s extra height it became the perfect solution.
Naturally, one change always to lead to another. With that kind of a setup, we realized that should the projector ever blow a lamp during a show, it would be impossible to replace it without disrupting people, moving the tables and chairs, and hauling in a tall ladder. Then we’d have to wait for the dead lamp to be cool enough to remove it. The whole process would likely take about an hour.
While we hadn’t considered it before, after crunching the numbers, it was decided to buy a second projector to serve as a backup. Switching from one to the other would be pretty simple and after a couple of practice sessions, we got quick enough to get the show back on the screen in just about three minutes.
Well, opening night was soon upon us and the day before I did a full technical “dress rehearsal” running the entire show just as it would run before our first audience. Everything went without a hitch.
As we opened the doors to our first audience, made up mostly of long-time regulars, everyone seemed glad we were back and with a season loaded with great movies. Still it was obvious that many people didn’t really know what to expect. Some thought they’d be watching the show on a big TV while others looked around and not spotting the new smaller projectors hanging from the ceiling didn’t really see any noticeable differences.
At the stroke of 7:30 Gerry started his intro and after a few minutes the lights went down and a picture hit the screen. First up was the outstanding Vitaphone musical short “Mirrors” featuring Freddie Rich and his orchestra. Many folks, who were use to seeing these shorts on less than pristine 16mm prints, were openly pleased at how this one looked.
When the short ended with a fade to black, I made the changeover to the feature and after a few seconds up came the familiar 20th Century-Fox logo looking better than ever in Technicolor. The feature selected to start the first digital season was the lavish Fox musical “Week-End In Havana” staring Alice Faye, John Payne and Carmen Miranda. Even those who were skeptical about digital had to admit that it looked and sounded excellent. Certainly like nothing they had seen on on 16mm.
As the show ended, we nervously stood in the back like Broadway producers waiting for the reviews to come out in the early edition of the newspapers. Only we didn’t have to wait that long, as the audience was leaving many had broad smiles on their faces and the comments were uniformly positive, with some even downright ecstatic. Still there was an occasional dour face because we weren’t running it “on film”, but even with that it was an overwhelming success.
As the season progressed more and more people were not only accepting the new technology, but embracing it. Weekly attendance started to grow by leaps and bounds. Still there were holdouts who, while admitting the improved quality of our presentations, always ended their comments with “…but it’s not on film.” Even so they still kept attending every week. Slowly but surely, one by one, they started to come around. The more they saw, the more they came to appreciate the benefits of the new format. Nobody said they couldn’t like film anymore, just that they wouldn’t find it at our shows.
We learned something from our audiences early on. They come to be entertained and see a “movie”, not to see a ”format”. It doesn’t matter what medium it’s on, as long as it looks and sounds as good as they’ve come to expect. That’s why we strive to give them our best every single week and doing that takes more than just a couple hours on a Monday night. A digital show is much more complicated than it seems.
As I’ve explained, the main reason we had to give up film was that 16mm prints had stopped being made a number of years prior. The ones still around were getting to be very bad, especially color prints which would fade and often turn red or purple and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it. Whatever the print looked like is what the audience saw on the screen. Digital however is different. It gives the operator an opportunity to make adjustments to the projected image.
That’s why every Monday afternoon, you’ll find us at The Spaghetti Warehouse doing a test screening of that night’s show and making little tweaks to the projector’s settings to get the perfect combination of color, contrast, brightness, and other things for that specific movie. It’s something that’s never done elsewhere and what makes our visual quality stand out. Sure, it’s a lot of extra work but the comments and smiles of the audience as they leave makes it worth all the extra effort.
Another area of importance is our track record for having technically “clean” shows. When we designed the system, we put in a lot of redundancy along with having spares of various components on hand. If there was a problem, we could quickly find a way to work around it so any disruption to the audience would be minimal and, as it turned out, would more often than not go unnoticed.
It was recently pointed out to me that even after five years, nobody has become blase’ or takes digital quality for granted. Every week all of us, staff and audience alike, are still in awe of the product we’re putting on that screen. I hope that never changes. I guess you could say that the “oohs” and “aahs” we heard on opening night continue to this day. Nobody can ask for more than that.
As I write this, our 10th digital season has come to an end and each one’s gotten better and better both in attendance and audience satisfaction. It has reached the point where many people come to every show regardless of what it is. It’s no longer “just a movie” to them, but an important part of their weekly routine that they look forward to.
My little contribution to this venture has always been on the technical side. First, as a film projectionist and now as Chief Digital Operator so my outlook on things has been slanted in that direction. Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the most important part of our organization. Syracuse Cinephile’s wonderful staff.
No successful operation can be the result of one person. With Syracuse Cinephile it’s the combined effort of several people. Whether it’s our enthusiastic second operator or the skilled technician who keeps everything working, they both have important roles.
The same can be said for the rest of the crew. It doesn’t matter if they’re working the box office, passing out the free popcorn and candy, or doing chores behind the scenes that people will never know about, everyone is appreciated and each has the same philosophy. The customer comes first, so we make them feel welcome, treat them with respect, give them a good time, and a reason to come back. It’s just that simple.
Still, nothing would matter if we didn’t have outstanding programming. The Syracuse Cinephile Society is blessed to have one of the best and most creative programmers in the business. One who has earned respect from his counterparts at archives and other film series around the country.
Gerry’s amazing memory and knowledge of classic films plays a big part in creating the popular programs that we show each season. Not only when it comes to picking features and having a good balance to the schedule, but with his uncanny ability to find the just perfect short to go with each one. Sometimes the connection is very obvious, but other times, after seeing the feature, exiting audience members will be heard gleefully exclaiming “I get it now! I finally get it!”
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this history of the Syracuse Cinephile Society as seen through my eyes. I’ve had a great ride for the last fifty years. My story has gone from the early days to the present, but there is no ending. The organization is stronger than ever and should be around for years to come. Hopefully, the same can be said about me.
(c) 2019 by Mark F. Philp