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You must remember this…

The Zeiterion Theatre lobby last Saturday afternoon. The crowd was all inside grabbing good seats for “Casablanca”!

If Mayor Mitchell’s Classic Movie Series at the Zeiterion Theatre has proven anything, it’s that New Bedford’s romance with the movies hasn’t lost its ardor – despite the fact that the city currently hasn’t a single cinema dedicated to showing films within city limits. (Which I wrote about in my Standard-TimesState of the Arts column.)

This past Saturday, a big crowd turned out – on a bright, sunny, warm day, no less – to catch a screening of the Hollywood classic, “Casablanca.”

Here’s looking at you, kid

The size of the crowd was a pleasant surprise. And, after all these years and multiple viewings, “Casablanca” was still as fresh as it was in the 1940s. If anything, thanks to the Z’s state-of-the-art digital projector, Bergman looked more luscious than ever and Bogart more world-weary – but still natty in a double-breasted white tuxedo jacket.

Guests arriving at the Z on Saturday were asked to fill out a questionnaire asking what further three classic films should be screened. I chose “The African Queen,” “The Maltese Falcon,” and “Stagecoach.”

“EXCELLENT!” shrieked the woman beside me. “I forgot about ‘The African Queen’,” she said, returning to her own list with enthusiasm.

Another question on the form was “How much would you pay to watch a classic film at the Z?” – and hopefully everybody was generous. That’s important – because while it’s all well and good to test the waters with free screenings, we can’t expect the Mayor to pick up the tab forever.

I think New Bedford is ready for an all-out independent cinema in the city – or, perhaps a savvy entrepreneur who cuts a deal to put the Z’s projector to good use more often. Film is an art form that’s woefully underrepresented or enjoyed in New Bedford – but the seven-year itch is there; it was barely scratched this past Saturday.

The Showroom

Usually, I hesitate before applying the experiences of one place to another. I don’t do it often, yet in this case believe it’s instructive. 

Back on the Jersey Shore where I lived and reported for years, a couple named Mike and Nancy had an idea – to open an independent cinema in a slightly shop-worn city called Asbury Park.

They started small – a storefront cinema. A decent size screen. A carefully-curated selection of art house films and select revivals (the category classic films like “Casablanca” would fall under.)

Money was tight; the seating was literally lawn chairs to begin with. Mike and Nancy relentlessly promoted The Showroom and personally greeted patrons at each and every screening. They also asked them  to help spread the word about The Showroom to friends, family and social media.

Into year three, screenings at The Showroom frequently began to sell out. Then, Mike and Nancy bought a building across the street and renovated it into a real cinema – with three screens, actual theater seating and a lobby.

Today, selling out is an almost an everyday occurrence at The Showroom. It took several years, a lot of hard work, and day jobs to sustain themselves along the way. But in a city that a lot of people had left for dead not so many years ago, a flourishing independent, art house cinema is now an anchor of its downtown.

It can happen here. The appetite is there for it. And, people will buy a ticket for a magical experience.

Movies in the Park

A few summers back in New Bedford, Colleen Dawicki – now a member of the school committee – her husband, Jeremy, family and friends launched “Movies in the Park” at Buttonwood. I was happy to lend a hand on opening night.

To help defray costs, Colleen put a jar out on a concession table and let folks know that, while it wasn’t required, if they wanted to make a donation toward the next screening, it would be appreciated.

People got up off their blankets and actually stood in line to stuff the jar. It was a pretty inspiring sight.

And, a great shared experience when the sun went down and the screen came up and the projector broke through the dark to tell a story to all of us gathered together.

You must remember this: That’s a fundamental human experience that never changes as time goes by.

And New Bedford is ready for more of them.

Steven Froias