By Annette Hinkle
In recent years, it’s become something of an off-season mainstay for Sag Harborites — a night at the movies. This night out, however, doesn’t involve first run foreign releases or the most recent Hollywood blockbusters, but rather, old film classics that we’re more accustomed to seeing on TV — and more often than not in black and white.
“Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — these are the much loved movies that are bringing back memories and in some cases finding the next generation of fans in Sag Harbor every weekend in the winter.
The Picture Show at Bay Street, as it is officially known, began as an off-season experiment back in the fall of 2004. At the time, Bay Street Theatre producer Gary Hygom and associate producer Mike DeSanti thought showing classic old movies was a great way to bring some life to the theater during the quiet months.
“It was developed as a program just to make sure the theater was not dark,” explained Hygom earlier this week. Hygom notes that he and DeSanti (who has since moved from the East End) initially weren’t sure who the audience would be for the Picture Show. But in the years since it’s founding, the series has found firm footing among a loyal following of mature film lovers who can’t get seem to get enough of their favorite classics on the big screen.
“It’s an older generation. The majority of them are retired folks – people who just love coming and reminiscing,” says Hygom, who now produces the series with company manager John Sullivan. “They miss seeing them in the theatres and are coming with friends.”
“The thing we have learned is that there definitely is a market for older films. But that ends in the 1960s,” he adds. “ We’ve tried again and again to show later films — from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s — but there’s no interest.”
“The films need to be old enough so the audience has either not seen them on the big screen or remembers them so fondly they want to come back and see them again,” says Hygom. “I guess not enough time has passed for those newer films.”
One exception, he notes, was “Harold and Maude” the 1971 cult classic about the May-December romance between a macabre young man (Bud Cort) who falls in love with a life-loving octogenarian (Ruth Gordon).
“We did surprisingly well with it for what it was,” acknowledges Hygom. “It’s kind of outside our typical market.”
These days, due to the theater’s successful “Literature Live” production in the fall, the film series doesn’t begin until after the holidays. Which means the 2012 Picture Show kicks off this weekend with a pair of films to celebrate Elvis Presley’s birthday on January 8 (“King Creole” on Friday and “Jailhouse Rock” on Saturday). While Hygom admits Elvis is not his cup of tea, he acknowledges that his movies strike a chord near and far.
“They are awful, but people come from all over,” he says. “Last year they came from Huntington, and Center Moriches in a blizzard — driving hours to see the Elvis stuff. I get emails at Bay Street from across the country – at least three or four a year, saying thanks for keeping Elvis alive.”
If Hygom has learned anything about movie tastes in the last seven years, it’s that big names sell — whether it’s the name of the directors, the actors or the films themselves.
“It’s kind of what you would imagine – Fred and Ginger, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant,” says Hygom. “We’ve shown tons of Hitchcock — probably most of his library.”
“When Mike and I started this, we used the AFI top-100 movie list for inspiration,” he explains. “By now we’ve shown 300 films, and virtually everything on the list.”
Except “The Godfather” which Hygom, a big Brando fan, has scheduled to be screened during the weekend of January 13, along with “On The Waterfront.”
While most of the Picture Show’s fans are of an older generation, Hygom says there are still some younger parents who come regularly, off-spring in tow, to introduce their kids to old films that they love.
“As far as really packing families in – we haven’t found anything that’s really done that,” concedes Hygom. “When a parent is a huge fan of the Marx Brothers, they’re bringing their kids for the first time. And when we started, there were also a few teenage couples who came, which I loved. But those have disappeared.”
Hygom would like to see more teenagers take advantage of the film education they could get through the series, and envisions a Pierson teacher offering film history in conjunction with the screenings. But as the father of a young daughter, he also understands the challenges of coaxing the next generation to sit through old movies given today’s fast paced editing and flashy imagery.
“You have to break down the black and white barrier,” he says. “To watch a movie that is not in color — for some kids the thought is torturous. But once they’re into it, they’re fine.”
There’s also something about watching an old film on a big screen in a darkened room that seems to keep kids focused in a way that’s practically impossible in a home viewing situation with it’s many distractions.
“But to be fair our main target is not families,” says Hygom. “We’ve settled into a niche and have built a nice solid audience. We average about 70 people at each screening and often, it’s the same people over and over.”
“It’s still surprising to me – probably one night a weekend when we’re showing films someone comes in and says ‘This is fantastic! When did you start this?’” says Hygom. “Which is great.”
And Hygom finds that once they’re hooked on the movies, audiences are much more likely to come back in the summer and give one of Bay Street’s plays a try if they haven’t already.
“They may not come to every show, but they’re more in touch with what Bay Street’s doing,” he says. “It’s like cross marketing,”
Another form of cross marketing that has worked wonders is the prix fixe dinner offered at The American Hotel in conjunction with the Picture Show. For $25, movie goers get a three course dinner at the hotel, a ticket to the movie and a bag of popcorn — not bad in today’s dollars.
The Picture Show selections have been scheduled through early February, but Hygom admits that beyond that, the season, which runs through early spring, is still not set in stone. He is planning on bringing the “Roots” mini-series in for one weekend in observance of Black History Month in February.
“But outside that I don’t have any idea,” says Hygom, who’s considering bringing back the film suggestion box that sat in the lobby in past years so viewers can weigh in with their picks.
While Hygom is cagey about naming his own favorite movie of all time (“I have so many,” he says diplomatically) to get a strong inkling about his cinematic leanings and what may be coming down the pike at Bay Street, perhaps just knowing the names of his three cats is enough — Fellini, Kubrick and Scorsese.
The Picture Show at Bay Street 2012
All films start at 8 p.m. and are $5 at the door.
Elvis Presley Weekend
Jan. 6 King Creole
Jan. 7 Jailhouse Rock
Marlon Brando Weekend
Jan. 13 On The Waterfront
Jan. 14 The Godfather
William Powell & Myrna Loy Weekend
Jan. 20 Love Crazy
Jan. 21 The Thin Man
Walter Pidgeon Weekend
Jan. 27 How Green Was My Valley
Jan. 28 Mrs. Miniver
Charles Dickens Weekend (Bicentennial of Dickens’ Birth)
Feb. 3 David Copperfield
Feb. 4 Oliver Twist
The $25 movie and prix-fixe package is available at The American Hotel by calling 725-3535.
One fine body…