by Barbara Sherf
Timing is a funny thing. When the Hill Theater was demolished in 1973 to make way for a building that would house Bell Telephone offices, Martha Repman, who was newly assigned to the Chestnut Hill Branch of the Free Library, jumped on the opportunity to bring movie lovers to the institution, and that’s how the Chestnut Hill Film Group, celebrating its 40th anniversary on Tuesday, Oct. 1, got its start.
Repman, 70, long retired but still recognized as the “lady from the library,” remembered those early years in a recent interview conducted in the Kuch Gallery at the Woodmere Art Museum, the new home for CHFG as of last season.
“The idea came about over dinner with some friends. I didn’t know a lot about movies, but I did know there was a void, and I also knew how to connect with people, and fingers started pointing to Ralph Hirshorn and David Mallery,” she said. “They both had home theaters and were film buffs, and the timing was right to start a film group somewhere, so why not the library?”
While Mallery has passed away, Hirshorn, 75, and a dedicated group of some two dozen film enthusiasts making up the Chestnut Hill Film Group (CHFG) continue to show weekly Tuesday night films.
Repman, of Chestnut Hill, remembered the days when the library had two showings each Tuesday night among the stacks of books before there was even a meeting room and a projection booth.
“You have to remember,” she said, “that this was all in the days before VHS and VCRs. Now you can get movies on demand, but then unless you had a private screening room, you had to go to a theater, and there weren’t big chains around like there are today,” she noted, sharing a copy of the program from the first screening on Oct. 1, 1974. The first movie shown was “African Queen” with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.
Hirshorn and Mallery were joined by a small steering committee that included Mel Ehrlich (who was co-editor of the Chestnut Hill Local), Harriet Pattison, Betty Nancarrow and Eleanor Rosner. Current members of the group include Margaret Brunton, David & Judith Buten, Rosemary Collins, Marianne & Paul Dodge, John & Carolyn Friedman, Jace Gaffney, Natalie & Ralph Hirshorn, Judith Mallery, Andrew Repasky McElhinney & Nicole Cook, Steven Rea, Martha Repman, Carrie Rickey, Jay Schwartz & Silvia Hortelano Peláez, Harold & Emmy Starr, Ella Torrey, George & Diana Woodward.
Repman points to the Mallery/Hirshorn team as leaders of the small group.
“If it weren’t for them, this thing would have died after a year or so. To this day Ralph continues to make it happen,” said Repman.
Hirshorn, who has run the Hirshorn Company on Highland Avenue for 50 years, settled back behind his desk with a trademark rosebud in his lapel and spent more than an hour taking a trip down memory lane regarding the CHFG and how film has shaped his life.
The first movie he watched was “Christmas in Connecticut” at the age of three; however, the big payoff came when he discovered whimsical films. “I remember watching ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and it really gave me that feeling of wonder. I still love, love, love fantasy films of any kind.”
As a kid he would go to Germantown and watch movies at the 2500-seat Colonial Theatre, demolished in 1960 and now a parking lot, as well as the Sedgwick Theater in Mt. Airy. “The Colonial held yo-yo contests with comic book giveaways where you could win a bike if you were really good,” he said. “ I did learn to ‘walk the dog’ (a yo-yo maneuver), but I was never very good.”
As a teenager, he started showing Friday night movies in the basement of his parents’ home and carried that tradition on while attending Yale University, where he majored in history with a minor in drama and held twice nightly film screenings at the school. Hirshorn even met actor Gary Cooper at a ceremony where Hirshorn was receiving a gold medallion from the Screen Producers Guild, which gave him a contract as a result of the award, which was for a short subject he made while at Yale.
His first job out of college was as a script doctor for Columbia Pictures in Los Angeles, working there in a variety of roles and making his way into an executive position after four years. Timing came into play as his father passed away, and his brother was on his way to Turkey. Somebody had to run the third-generation family business, and it fell on Ralph.
Back in Chestnut Hill, Hirshorn was a regular customer at the Hill Theater, along with hosting movie nights in his 25-seat home theater just steps from Morris Arboretum. He remembered moving from the main part of the library to the new meeting room, complete with a projection booth. But the biggest change occurred in 2012. Again, timing came into play.
With budget cuts affecting the library and the group now needing to pay to keep the security guard on into the evening, Hirshorn, a longtime member of the board of Woodmere, started planting seeds with William Valerio, who took over as CEO and Director at the art gallery in the fall of 2010. With over 20 years of museum experience, and having just come from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Valerio was looking for opportunities to make his mark by attracting new audiences to the institution.
“I think he wanted it from the start. He may have wanted it before we wanted to leave the library,” said Repman of the relatively smooth transition from the Chestnut Hill Library to Woodmere. So on Oct. 9, 2012, the move was made with the showing of the 1942 Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman classic, “Casablanca.”
Standing in the gallery with Hirshorn and Repman for a photo and toast marking the upcoming milestone, Valerio talked about the community response to the new venue. “This will be our second year, and we’ve seen enormous traction and momentum and great enthusiasm from the core group and others to watch the films here. We look at museums at social places, which is why we have the hay maze and the jazz concerts. When you think about it, film is really moving art.”
The youngest member of the CHFG is Andrew Repasky McElhinney, Ph.D., 35, director of five feature films; his first shot in Chestnut Hill, and author of the soon to be released book, “Second Takes: Remaking Film, Remaking America.” The book is dedicated to Ralph Hirshorn and Jace Gaffney, along with longtime film editor, Ron Kalish, who has introduced movies at the CHFG.
McElhinney, a Rutgers University professor, reminisced about watching movies at the library in his formative years: “I used to live down the street from the library as a kid, and it was where you went. There was no Internet. I liked that there was an audience experience, and it was a community event with cookies and tea. The beauty of this group is that the films are carefully selected, and many of them are pretty rare. Afterwards we socialize and talk about the films.
“We are losing literacy, including visual literacy, and I’m pleased to see the films being shown now at the museum. I miss the library, but Woodmere is bringing a new audience in to see these films, and that’s important too.”
For a complete listing of films for the 2013 season, visit woodmereartmuseum.org.
Barbara Sherf is a personal historian and publicist who lives in Flourtown. She can be reached at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com or 215-233-8022.