BY CORY BILICKO
When, 14 years ago, Max Fraley, the director of Adult Education for the Long Beach Unified School District, hired former actor and stunt man Ray Sharp to teach a film-analysis class for the district’s School for Adults, he may not have realized he would soon be fulfilling a lifelong ambition. After word got out about the superb projection system and a film series through which people could see classic movies on a big screen with other film enthusiasts, the class quickly gained distinction as a revival house with consistently satisfying programs. “One thing led to another and a longtime dream of mine of having a film forum or society seemed possible with a partner like [Sharp] to lead the program,” Fraley said. “I obtained a license to show the films on the school site. We planned our first series of films to test the waters and relied on word of mouth and free publicity to bring in our patrons.”
Their opening film in April of 1995 was The Great Dictator with Charlie Chaplin, which was followed by The Quiet Man with John Wayne. “It took a while, but before long, our numbers started to increase, and we have developed a loyal following that seems to be ever evolving,” Fraley said.
Sharp says the 14-foot-wide screen presents a vivid image that marks a contrast to his childhood movie-going experiences. “As someone who grew up in revival movie houses with grainy 16mm films, I feel very satisfied with our projection and sound,” he said. “Our auditorium is somewhat intimate, and we max out at about 60 people. So it’s the best of both worlds because we are pretty full every week, although we can always handle a few more. But everyone has lots of elbow room.”
Fraley and Sharp make up one half of the four-person board of directors that selects the films, which are centered on a different theme each semester. However, Sharp points out that a theme can sometimes overwhelm the quality of the films when a less-than-wonderful choice is included just because it fits that particular theme and, perhaps as a result, better movies have been excluded. “This semester’s theme is a lighthearted excuse to show some great films that have somehow not been shown before in our previous 13 years,” he said. “It’s called ‘no stinkin’ films’ as a salute to our first feature, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
The John Huston-directed film with Humphrey Bogart, based on the 1927 novel, became an obvious choice to usher in the forum after the panel had made a collective epiphany. “We looked at each other in the planning session and no one could believe we hadn’t shown it before. Since it was restored a while back, we knew it had to be first on the list,” he said. “Of course, the quality of that picture qualifies it to be first on any list. Everyone knows about the father-son connection with director John Huston and actor Walter Huston, but co-star Tim Holt’s father Jack Holt also makes a dynamic cameo in the picture.”
This profound appreciation and abstruse knowledge that shape the film forum seem fueled by the combination of the four men behind it; there’s the sense that their individual cinematic admiration and scholarship inform and feed off each other’s. Fraley, the director of the forum, is a self-described “longtime film fanatic” who says being principal and then director of the School for Adults allowed him a door to explore school curriculum opportunities with acceptable standards and format in the use of commercial movies. But he credits Sharp as the catalyst for the forum’s success. “His enthusiasm, personality and subject knowledge have blended with our original intent to have a good time with a good thing that we both enjoyed and to share it with the general public,” Fraley says. Rob Ray is the lead programmer. He has been a member of the Society for Cinephiles since 1992, wrote laserdisc and DVD reviews for Past Times newsletter for five years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and has amassed a laserdisc, DVD and VHS collection of tens of thousands of features, shorts and cartoons from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Randy Skretvedt, the resource specialist, wrote the book Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies.
To those who might dismiss the forum as pointless in today’s world of Netflix, Turner Classic Movies and Tivo, Sharp has some very specific reasons why folks should attend. “Well, few people have 14-foot screens at home, but more than that, film is meant to be a communal experience,” he said. “It’s an even better experience with commentary from experts and stimulating discussion. I briefly introduce the films with elements of film study that they are about to experience. For instance, we will be talking about mise-en-scene before we view Treasure. Afterward, all four of us congregate on the stage, dissect the art we’re just experienced, and then hold a discussion with the audience.”
Ray agrees that the program offers an experience that watching at home cannot. “It’s a great way for those who love the old classics to meet others who share their enthusiasm for solid, old-fashioned entertainment,” he said.
Aside from the discussion, they present a film program every week that is similar to those of that Golden Age of which each of them speaks so fondly. “We always present short subjects and cartoons along with trailers before the feature, so it’s not just a movie– it’s a cinematic experience,” Sharp said. Special guests occasionally highlight the evening. In the past, they’ve included historian Miles Kruger, Detour star Ann Savage and MGM star Betty Garrett.
“Unless you’re pretty well connected, you won’t see them at your house,” Sharp said.
Although the forum is technically still a class that students take for credit, it is open to the public.
“I feel safe in saying that the Friday Film Forum is educating and entertaining the Long Beach area in a very unique way,” Sharp said. “We’re like a neighborhood movie theater, a classic film series, and a movie club where you know people and have a great time discussing historical film artists.”
The forum begins Friday, Sept. 5 with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and continues through Jan. 23 with Gunga Din. There is a $1 materials fee, but parking is free. Long Beach School for Adults auditorium is located at 3701 E. Willow St. Each program begins at 7 p.m.
For more information, contact Ray Sharp at (562) 997-8000, ext. 7198.