Friday, January 13, 2012

For Film Buffs of Syracuse: Cinefest

The Genesis of the Syracuse Cinephile Society itself is somewhat obscured in the mists of yore, but according to John Weber, sometime in the spring of 1967 Phil Serling 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. 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.” The Syracuse Cinephile became a going concern, at first monthly, and later going weekly when both interest and attendance bloomed. Sam Goldsman, who passed away in the spring of 2009, continued to be a stalwart supporter of the Society, and an ardent advocate of Cinefest. 

As to Cinefest, it all began circa 1980 during one of the regular Monday evening Syracuse Cinephile Society screenings at the Civic Center,” John continued. 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 Civic Center; George Read, projectionist; Russ Thomas, public relations coordinator; and John Weber, general nuisance. The 'Boys (and Girls) From Syracuse' had recently successfully hosted 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 50 to 75 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.

Cinefest 1 kicked off at 1 p.m. on Friday March 13, 1981, with a screening of John Ford’s 1935 classic Steamboat Round the Bend, starring Will Rogers. They hoped to attract around 75 attendees and to their amazement, over 200 guests turned up. That number more than doubled over time and since then, Cinefest has offered cinephiles an opportunity to sit in a dark room and watch old movies.

Colleen Moore
In the second year, cinephiles 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,” John recalled. She held a superb Q&A session at the Civic Center, 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). Perhaps my most vivid memory of Miss Moore is an incident which occurred on the one-block walk from the hotel to the Civic Center. 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 Civic Center 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).
"Any film that we screen at Cinefest is considered 'rare and special,' and the rarity is our main criteria for booking film titles," explained Gerry Orlando. "Some other conventions/festivals show a combination of rare and more common titles, but Cinefest will only show rare, long-unseen titles. Many times we have plans to screen something in March, but if it shows up on TCM or on commercially-released, studio-authorized DVD before then, it's scratched off the list.... usually painfully."

The convention has seen outstanding film presentations over the years; titles that have not been seen since their original release and on occasion, they were 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. Films originate from film archives such as the Library of Congress, the George Eastman House, Brigham Young University, UCLA Film & Television Archive, the American Film Institute, the British Film Institute, Cinémathèque Luxembourg, NYU Film School, 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 and David Shepard. John Weber also offered special acknowledgment to the late Mr. Gene Autry, who provided new prints of his films for the Saturday afternoon enjoyment for many years.

As the author of Information, Please, I found it quite pleasing to view the RKO film shorts of the same name, which were screened in 2010 and 2011. Based on the popular radio program of the same name, the quiz program remained popular to this day. The one from 1940 with Boris Karloff featured a packed house and standing-room-only.

In 2000, the long-lost Keaton/Arbuckle short, Oh, Doctor! was screened. Roscoe is a doctor who falls in love with a pretty woman whose boyfriend, in turn, falls in love with Roscoe's wife's jewelry. Fans of the recent 3-D revival might be surprised to find the 1921 Anatlyp Test of interest, since it is historically known as the first 3-D test film. Attendees were given the rare treat of viewing this bit of celluloid history on the big screen. In 2001, the 2-Strip Technicolor test of Mary Pickford from 1926 was screened, followed by Scarlet Letter (1913), an early Kinemacolor film recently restored. In 2006, the uncut version of Silver Spurs was presented for all the cowboy fans. Sadly, that movie has never been available uncut on the home viewing market and thousands of Roy Rogers fans who attend Western Film Festivals still wish the owner of that print arrange for a DVD transfer. Only attendees at Cinefest was able to watch what is considered by Western fans as one of the Holy Grails of Roy Rogers movies.

"Something that we have started over the past couple of years, and which may be of interest is having 'East Coast Premieres' of recently-restored films," remarked Orlando. "Last year we had The Story of Temple Drake (1933), and this year we'll have another big 'East Coast Premiere' of a newly-restored silent film."

As with most silent film festivals, musical accompaniment was performed live. Such talented pianists as Jon Mirsalis, Phil Carli, Gabriel Thibaudeau, Ben Model, Makia Matsumara, Jon Mirsalis and Donald Sosin have assisted.
"Then there was the year of the blackout," recalled John Weber. "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."

One of the other benefits of attending Cinefest is wandering the vendor room. There, movie posters, lobby cards, 16mm movies, photographs, books, videos and DVDs are available for sale. Serious collectors of 16mm prints examine the film (as seen in the photo on the right) before making their purchase.
In short, if you live within driving distance of Syracuse, New York, I recommend you check it out. Cinefest offers a list of movies they plan to screen, on their web-site, as soon as everything is finalized. Information about the hotel, directions and dates of the March 2012 event can all be found at