AN OUTLINE OF SYRACUSE CINEPHILE HISTORY
By John Weber (Updated March 2015)
March 2010, and Cinefest turns thirty. It is with no small measure of astonishment that I realize that it began almost half my life ago, and so much has transpired in the intervening years. I have been asked present a précis regarding the origins of our annual “family gathering” as I remember it, so that posterity might know just how this event came about, and just who exactly is to blame for its occurrence in one of the most notoriously unpredictable times of the year, climatologically speaking.
The actual Genesis of the Syracuse Cinephile Society itself is somewhat obscured in the mists of yore, but it was related to me after a fashion by our founder Phil Serling several years ago, probably with some measure of embellishment, and I duly relate it here in turn.
As far as can be ascertained, sometime in the spring of 1967 Phil was talking with Sam Goldsman, an old friend who had a passion for silent film. Sam often told anyone who would listen that as far as movies went “My mind is a blank after 1927”. Sam didn’t care for most modern films, and was an admirer of Douglas Fairbanks, Lon Chaney, Buster Keaton, and John Barrymore. He suggested to Phil that a society of like-minded individuals might prove to be a sustainable venture. Phil was intrigued, and ultimately he and Sam pooled their resources and rented a silent film and a projector from an agency. Sadly, the film title is unknown. (No, not the 1927 Lon Chaney film.) They secured the back room of the old Regent restaurant next door to the Regent Theatre on East Genesee Street. A small crowd turned up for the event, and at show time, Phil said “Okay, Sam” and Sam said “Okay, Phil”. Then “All set?” “Yep.” “Let’s roll.” “Okay.” This went on for about a full minute until they both realized that neither of them knew how to either thread or run a 16mm projector! It could have been a complete and utter disaster, but one of the attendees, Herb Kantor, saved the day. After the screening Phil always maintained that the last he saw of Sam that evening, Sam was running down Genesee Street yelling “You’re on your own!” Such were the auspicious seeds of the Syracuse Cinephile Society, and I have always looked upon Sam as a Founding Father, so to speak, or perhaps the overused (and oft misinterpreted) term Godfather might be more apt. After a few more hesitant starts in various restaurants, Syracuse Cinephile became a going concern, at first monthly, and later going weekly when both interest and attendance bloomed. Sam Goldsman continued to be a stalwart supporter of the Society, and an ardent advocate of Cinefest. He passed away in the spring of 2009, and the best I way that I can commemorate him is to quote his favorite line from the 1930 sound (as fate would ironically decree it) version of The Unholy Three as delivered by one of his heroes, Lon Chaney: “That’s all there is to life…just a little laugh, a little tear”.
As to Cinefest, it all began circa 1980 during one of the regular Monday evening Syracuse Cinephile Society screenings at the CivicCenter, date unknown (or possibly subconsciously suppressed). Whilst the patrons were enjoying the feature presentation, a small coterie was in the lobby having an earnest discussion. The conspirators were: Phil Serling, president of Syracuse Cinephile and general mover-and-shaker in many local arts organizations; Bob Oliver, booking manager for the CivicCenter; George Read, projectionist; Russ Thomas, public relations coordinator; and John Weber, general nuisance. The “Boys (and Girls) From Syracuse” had recently successfully hosted the Cinecon, the annual convention for the national Society for Cinephiles, on the 1978 Labor Day weekend. Phil wondered about the feasibility of holding a regional film convention on a regular basis. We were all amenable to the idea and all thought that if we could get about fifty to seventy-five attendees it could make for a most pleasant and diverting weekend. First, however, we would have to have a name. Various suggestions were floated about until Bob Oliver suggested “Cinefest”. Certainly brief, unpretentious and to the point. Next came the all-agonizing decision about when to hold the festivities. If anyone needs to kick someone in Syracuse about gathering in March, you may direct your pedal extremities in the direction of my tail feathers. My rationale was that we shouldn’t assemble in the late spring as that would be cutting into the time frame of Cinevent in Columbus, summer would be disastrous as that is the heavy vacation season when most families are traveling, at the beach, or simply enjoying the good weather, and Labor Day weekend is the bailiwick of the Cinecon. (Any misguided thoughts of convening in Syracuse during the winter months would ensure a one-way ticket to the madhouse.) The only option seemed to be March, and I reasoned (?) that by that time everyone would be suffering from “cabin fever”, having been confined to whatever circle of Dante Alighieri’s Hell one chooses to reside in during the bleak season, and we would be the first film convention out of the box. Incredibly, after some initial hesitation (and spirited debate), everyone agreed. Thus, mea maxima culpa.
The backbone of any convention lies in the quality of the volunteer staff. In this respect, Cinefest was, and remains, exceedingly fortunate. The core of the Cinecon 14 crew was comprised of Syracuse Cinephile Society members, and all were drafted (willingly, believe it or not) for various duties regarding Cinefest 1. Lois Eggers and Margaret Hoover led the registration team, Andy Eggers, Bob Hodge, Mark Philp, and George Read were the projection squad, Dick Kowell lent invaluable support on projector maintenance, Garry Canino managed the dealer’s room, Terry Hoover saw to it that the scheduled films were at the ready, and various other duties were carried out by Fritz Kucinski, Barbara Omisinski, Art and Joan Kucinski, and Gilda Adams (later Ayer). Eventually, we made a presentation to the Hotel Syracuse, which was the site of Cinecon 14, and the thought of a guaranteed thirty to fifty rooms in the middle of March in Syracuse met with their approval, and we made plans to hold Cinefest 1 in March 1981. All we needed now were films.
In the months previous to the first convention, Phil Serling and I took part, during a long holiday weekend, in a marathon screening of several films in the comfortable basement home screening room of great friend and premier Kodascope collector Gordon Berkow (now sadly missed) in Metuchen, New Jersey. Several friends from the New York City area also attended, including (if I remember correctly; I may be conflating gatherings) Herb Graff, John Cocchi, Rick Scheckman, Ed Hulse, and Al Greenberg. Consultation and advice were solicited from other friends including Howard Kolodny, Leonard Maltin, Ron Hall, Jon Mirsalis, Ted Larson, and Rusty Casselton. A superb cross-section of films was selected for the initial program, and after much juggling, shuffling, and agonized soul-searching (not to mention an exhaustion of almost everyone’s profanum vulgus) a reasonable schedule was assembled. Finally, with a breathtaking audacity bordering on dementia in selecting as portentous a date as possible, (mainly to avoid conflicts with the Syracuse University basketball tournament, truth be told) Cinefest 1 kicked off at 1 PM on Friday March 13, 1981, with a screening of John Ford’s 1935 classic Steamboat Round the Bend starring Will Rogers.
We had hoped to attract around seventy-five attendees in order to be financially successful. To our complete amazement over two hundred guests turned up. That number has more than doubled over time, and we do seem to be getting some young blood involved lately. Whether this “infusion” will be able to sustain what we “dinosaurs” have wrought remains to be seen, and it is up to us to ensure that the enthusiasm of any and all newcomers remains ever green.
For the first few years Cinefest began on Friday afternoon, but due to the incredible response from film donors, we had little choice but to back up to Friday morning for Cinefest 4, then backing up another day to Thursday evening for Cinefest 8, Thursday afternoon for Cinefest 9, Thursday morning at 10 AM for Cinefest 16, and finally Thursday morning at 9 AM for Cinefest 19, at which point it will stay, as several spouses of some attendees have threatened violent physical manifestations to Cinefest staff should Cinefest stray into Wednesday. Besides, the staff itself would mutiny if such an extension came to pass. (As it is, we now chain Andy Eggers to the projection platform on Thursday morning at 4 AM and unchain him at 10 PM Sunday evening, allowing him only three ten-minute breaks for the entire weekend. He gets to choose when he takes those three breaks…we’re not completely heartless.)
Our first four years were at the Hotel Syracuse, and all was fairly smooth sailing until some rather surprising financial charges from the hotel for the 1984 convention caused us to look for an alternative site. An intensive reconnaissance was promptly initiated to find a suitable new base. We were able to secure the Syracuse Hilton Inn for Cinefest 5, which changed its name to the Syracuse Country House for Cinefest 6, and then the Quality Inn for Cinefest 7, at which point the annual appellation alteration ceased. After an eleven year run, and with a certain degree of irony, some quality issues had arisen at the hotel (Jon Mirsalis has always referred to it as the “oxymoronically named Quality Inn”). We were fortuitous in the fact that one of the sales reps from the Sheraton Inn, just one mile down the road from the QI, really wanted our custom, and had been actively trying to woo us for a couple of years. We initially resisted these advances as we were unaware that the Sheraton had recently had a major refit, adding an entire suite of rooms exclusively for the convention trade. A thorough investigation was made of the premises and found to our utter delight that it could almost have been purpose-built for our needs. The name changed to the Holiday Inn when it became a part of that chain, and everyone who has been on staff at the hotel through the years has been outstanding in working with the Cinefest staff, and in their commitment to making Cinefest a success. It has been our home since 1996, and we are pleased to say that our harmonious relationship with the hotel remained solid.
There have been several memorable events through the years and were I to try and list them all, then the length of this documentum illiteratus would become even more intolerable than it is already. A few exploits do, however, merit particular attention. In our second year, we were graced with the presence of one of the great stars of the silent and early sound era, Colleen Moore. She was petite and pert, with a vigor that belied her 81 years. She held a superb Q&A session at the CivicCenter, after a screening of her 1926 film Irene. Three more of her films were run that weekend, Twinkletoes (1926), Success at any Price (1934), and Orchids and Ermine (1927), which we are reprising at this year’s Cinefest. Perhaps my most vivid memory of Miss Moore is an incident which occurred on the one-block walk from the hotel to the CivicCenter. The weather was turbulent that particular weekend, and the wind was exceptionally tempestuous. One fully expected to see a small girl in a gingham dress running across the way screaming “Auntie Em! Auntie Em!” Just as our group was about to cross the street to the CivicCenter entrance, a ferocious gust wailed against us and I heard Colleen yell “I can’t move!” Indeed, the gale force blast was so intense that she could barely keep standing. Ted Larson and Rusty Casselton quickly went on either side of her, proceeded to pick her up, and carried her across the street. It just doesn’t get any more adventurous than that (at least by Cinefest standards).
Then there was the year of the blackout. During one of the evening screenings, the projector suddenly slowed down and ground to a halt. Immediate blame was directed on the electrical system of the hotel, but we quickly found out that the blackout was much more extensive than initially thought. A rather large power grid had failed, knocking out service for a wide area. Almost everyone repaired to the bar, where the bartender, Laura, more than earned her salary that night, and hopefully received some substantial tips, as she certainly provided yeoman service. Another year, I came back from dinner to find that the hotel was undergoing a fire alarm! I could see some lights in hotel rooms going on and off, and the fire department was at the ready. It was another electrical failure, and the event was over in a comparatively short time. And you thought that film conventions were placid and pedestrian affairs.
We have had many outstanding film presentations over the years; titles that have not been seen since their original release as we were often able to secure the sole surviving prints, such as the 1933 Fox production of Face in the Sky with Spencer Tracy; prints that existed in abbreviated form but had been restored to their original length, as with the 1925 classic The Lost World; and films that actually had their American premières, such as Jean Renoir’s 1924 French classic Catherine, or A Joyless Life. As an added bonus, several films have been screened in 35mm at such venues as the CivicCenter, the historic Landmark Theater, and the newly refurbished Palace Theater. We have an excellent relationship with several of the film archives; the George Eastman House in Rochester NY, the Library of Congress, the American Film Institute, the British Film Institute, Cinémathèque Luxembourg, NYU Film School, Brigham Young University, UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Walt Disney Organization, Turner Entertainment, the Vitaphone Project; the personal collections of such film archivists as William K. Everson, Herb Graff, James Card, Richard Gordon, Alex Gordon, Kevin Brownlow, Ted Larson, Rusty Casselton, David Shepard; and a special acknowledgment to the late Mr. Gene Autry, who provided new prints of his films for our Saturday afternoon enjoyment for so many years. I do not believe that there has been a more congenial group of silent film accompanists than could be found at Cinefest. It has been a privilege indeed to have such talented pianists as Jon Mirsalis, Phil Carli, Gabriel Thibaudeau, Ben Model, Makia Matsumara, Donald Sosin, Jeff Rapsis, Andrew Simpson and Judith Rosenberg. A special oak-leaf cluster must be awarded to Jon Mirsalis who, in 1983 during our excursion to the Eastman House, played for many silent films in a row, and probably wore his fingers right down to the stumps – an incredible feat. Immeasurable thanks must also go to those private individuals, too numerous to mention (and many who wish to remain anonymous), who have lent many treasures from their own collections. Deepest apologies are tendered to anyone or any organization that may have been overlooked. All have been instrumental to our success.
It is astounding to realize that the same group who were on staff of Cinefest 1 is pretty much the same as the staff of today. What is even more amazing is the fact that we still talk to one another! I have seen so many organizations that start with a group of like-minded friends that later self-destruct due to internecine problems. We have been unusually fortunate that everyone in our group has always had a selfless attitude, with no ego clashes or petty jealousies, and ever keeping the greater good of Cinefest in mind. Bob Oliver, who became president on Phil Serling’s passing, Rick Scheckman continues to provide invaluable service on film scheduling, and in recent years both Mary Philp and Sue Stinson have generously given of their time to assist Lois Eggers, Margaret Hoover, and Barbara Omicinscki with registration. The two most noticeable additions to our core have been; Gerry Orlando, our president since 2007, who has done more than his share of planning and execution in order to ensure that our Monday evening series stays fresh and vibrant, and especially that Cinefest remains a Pantheon of Cinema Yesteryear; and Paul Doherty, who has contributed much in the way of assistance, especially in projection and the dealer room. A special appreciation to George Read who works tirelessly every year to produce our program book.
We are especially proud of our long association with the aforementioned George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Just ninety miles from Syracuse, they have been good neighbors, to borrow a phrase, and there have been numerous occasions when several members of the staff have attended our regular Monday evening screenings. One of the vital facets of the Eastman House is the L. Jeffrey Selznick School, a diversified program for the training and education of film archivists and curators. Over 100 SelznickSchool graduates are now working in film archives the world over. For the past several years the SelznickSchool has brought many of their interns to Cinefest, and we have had them assist with film preparation and projection, as well as registration duties. In return, they get some “hands on” experience with presentation aspects, as well as learning how to deal with that most unpredictable and recalcitrant of beasts, the film collector.
A special note of appreciation goes to old friend Leonard Maltin for being wholly supportive and enthusiastic of our efforts from their very inception. He has remained a staunch advocate of Cinefest, and has done us service far above and beyond the call of duty in being our auctioneer on Sunday mornings these many years. Save for the two years in which there was no auction, Len has presided over all but one, in 1986. That year the proceedings were co-hosted by Herb Graff and Bill Everson. Herb made the introductory statements, saying that “I will be making factual, erudite, and insightful commentary on the films, and Bill Everson will crack jokes”. Actually, there was a great deal of truth in that remark. I remember one film being presented for consideration, and Bill saying “We have next up for bid a 16mm print of Fritz Lang’s “M” …and on the label of the film canister, someone has misspelled the title.”
Several friends have sadly departed through the years, and their absence is acutely felt. Our founder, Phil Serling, passed in 2002, leaving a void that can never be filled. His was the vision from which Cinefest began and we are the beneficiaries. It became his raison dêtre and for that we are most grateful. Others who have left us too soon include Sam Goldsman, Bill Everson, Herb Graff, Gordy Berkow, Ted Larson, Rusty Casselton, Lou Fazzari, Sam Rubin, Alex Gordon, David Gill, Fred Junck, Jim Card, Artie Kucinski, and Gilda Ayer. Somehow, I have the feeling that they are always with us during our special weekend, watching from the best seats in the house, and planning one hell of a film show for us when we all meet again at some future date in the best of all imaginable screening rooms. I recall Arthur Lennig asking Bill Everson what he believed to be his idea of heaven. Bill’s reply: “Pristine 35mm tinted and toned nitrate prints.” And hell? “No projector.”
“Thirty” or more properly -30- means “end of story” in newspaper parlance, but it is merely one more anniversary in the ongoing Cinefest saga. Sometime after the passing of Phil Serling, about three or four years ago, it seemed as though the life had been sucked out of the party, and we seriously considered packing in the whole shebang. As we decided to go one more year and call it quits, there came an unexpected vitality to the proceeding, one which to this day I cannot explain. There was a sudden renewed spirit to every aspect of the weekend, a reawakened essence as though we had drawn a “second wind”, so to speak. What had seemed like a listless affair the previous year now appeared to be miraculously rejuvenated and the excitement level of not only of the staff but that of the attendees reached such a point that any thoughts of a grand finale were terminated. We will endeavour to maintain the quality film programs that you have come to expect from us. It is our privilege to provide this weekend, and we think of it, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, as a “family gathering”, for many of you have become as a second family to us. We are obviously not in this for personal gain or glory. (You may have noticed that we are not driving Jaguars, nor do we spend our winters in an elegant chalet on the French Riviera.) It is a labor of love, one that we do willingly. Bill Everson once remarked, only half in jest (I think) that “Film is the only true religion”. Phil Serling was certainly a true believer, a “High Priest” if you will, and we shall maintain his vision by continuing to spread the gospel of preservation, restoration, and exhibition of silent and early sound film. On behalf of the entire Syracuse Cinefest staff I wish everyone a congenial weekend of viewing pleasure, the personal delight of renewing special acquaintances, and the unbridled joy in our gathering.
It is now 2015 and Cinefest 35 is our Grand Finale. Attendance, programming and dealer room offerings couldn’t be better. As we retire from the film convention scene we can proudly say that we have achieved the goal set by Bill Everson and embraced by Phil Serling to bring together film archivists and amateur collectors, industry professionals, academics and students with an interest in film.
We also are proud to announce our all new, all digital film screening system at the Spaghetti Warehouse. All of our Monday Night Series movies will have a sharper image and the clearest sound possible, all sourced directly to us from studio vaults. See you at the “Monday Night” movies.