Plaza Classic Film Festival: A Cinephile’s Dream

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Marilyn Monroe’s iconic film Seven Year Itch opens the 2014 Plaza Classic Film Festival, featuring more than 80 classic films in ten days. Image: Public Domain.

Each year thousands of movie lovers, critics, filmmakers, and celebrity guests flood El Paso’s historic Plaza Theatre downtown for the Plaza Classic Film Festival.

Listed as “the world’s largest classic film festival,” the ten-day event features celebrity appearances, film talks, concerts, movie-based art exhibits, parties, and receptions, not to mention the most eclectic and varied collection of more than 80 classic, semi-classic, regional, foreign, cult, and indie films, cartoons, and short features.

The festival was created by the El Paso Community Foundation in 2008 as a way to bring movies back to Plaza after its multi-million dollar restoration in 2006. The now-celebrated performance hall and movie theater was once on the verge of being torn down.

“The Plaza Theatre opened in 1930 as an ‘atmospheric movie palace,’ designed to recreate the look and feel of a Spanish courtyard, complete with stars twinkling overhead,” Festival Program Director Doug Pullen explained. “It was known as The Showcase of the Southwest, considered by many as the finest movie theater between Dallas and Los Angeles.”

By the 1950s, attendance had dropped off considerably, and The Plaza eventually fell into disrepair. It sat abandoned and on the verge of being destroyed to make room for a parking lot in the 1980s, when it was rescued by the foundation. In partnership with the City of El Paso, the foundation restored the theater to its original glory. It immediately became the in-demand venue for touring acts, Broadway productions, and local performance arts groups, with the film festival one of its most visible draws.

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In honor of the 100th birthday of Charlie Chaplin’s alter-ego, The Tramp, patrons are invited to do some classic film cosplay of the character for the festival’s showing of The Kid. Image: Public Domain.

Today, the festival attracts around 40,000 attendees each year from the border region of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, with more and more film lovers from outside the region are discovering it.

Pullen said the event has evolved to include a variety of other events, but its primary focus remains pure–movies!

“The first festival offered a mix of classic movies that had been shown in the Plaza Theatre in its first-run movie days, and others that might have played there had it stayed open as a movie theater in the 1980s and ’90s,” he said. “We typically offer a wide variety of older classics, newer classics, and movies from several genres, including Westerns, war movies, film noir, sci-fi, children’s, musicals, romance, and comedies.”

He said the formula varies a little each year, but festival organizers try to stay consistent with their mission offering a communal setting and presentations at affordable prices everyone can enjoy, from the hardcore cinephile to the casual moviegoer.

Pullen said the festival’s appeal is multi-generational, and has been an opportunity for movie-loving parents and their kids and grandkids to see classic films together outside of the home and in a full theater. One of the highlights this year is the 75th anniversary digitally restored screening of The Wizard of Oz, among others.

“We are bringing the Little Tramp to this year’s festival, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the debut of the beloved Charlie Chaplin character,” Pullen said. “We’ll show the first movie in which he appeared, Kid Auto Races at Venice, a six-minute silent from 1914, with The Kid, the 1921 silent with Jackie Coogan as an orphan.”

Pullen said organizers are encouraging a little classic film cosplay, and invite moviegoers to dress like the Tramp.

Other family classics will feature golden age stars like Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, and silent film star Harold Lloyd, the later accompanied by a live organist. Free Plaza Days events will run classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons from Warner Bros, and newer “semi-classics” for families including Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, Labyrinth, The Great Muppet Caper, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

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One of the festival’s highlights is a 75th anniversary screening of the MGM classic, The Wizard of Oz. Image: Public Domain

Pullen said there are also events geared for young adults and the college set, including outdoor “walk-up” movies like the comedy Office Space on the roof of the Plaza area’s parking garage.

Free music-related movies, including the annual screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, are set for Saturdays in the Plaza’s courtyard with live concerts by local bands.

“We also have some late night offerings on Fridays and Saturdays, which typically attract a college-aged crowd,” Pullen said. “This year’s we’ve lined up Fargo, The Matrix, and Blue Velvet.”

Pullen said there will also be a People’s Choice night using social media votes to determine which of three pre-selected movies will be featured. There will also be a handful of foreign classics, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre.

Guests for this year’s event include actress Shirley Jones speaking about her movie experiences with screenings of Oklahoma and Elmer Gantry for classic film purists.

Pullen noted sci-fi junkies will enjoy both classic and recent science fiction features including The Matrix, the 60th anniversary screening of Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Alan Resnais’ French time-travel romance Je t’aime Je t’aime. Robert Wagner will also make a guest appearance for a screening of The Towering Inferno.

As a former music critic, Pullen said he is personally excited about the screening of The Beatles’ feature film, A Hard Day’s Night, but added he is looking forward to seeing audience’s participate in some of the screenings.

“There are other moments I want to see, such as little kids dressed up as Charlie Chaplin for The Kid, families decked out in their ’50s finest for our free outdoor showing of Grease, and kids young and old giggling to the antics of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last,” Pullen said. “The Plaza Classic Film Festival provides special memorable moments each year. They come from a variety of events and guests. We just hope to create as many of them as possible this year.”

The 2014 Plaza Classic Film Festival runs Aug. 7-17.

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Lisa Kay Tate is a veteran feature writer with 20 years experience in newspaper, magazine and freelance writing. In addition to serving as Associate Editor for her local arts and entertainment guide, El Paso Scene, she has been a regular contributor to the site ihogeek.com and maintains her own blogsite at lisathegeekmom.wordpress.com. She and her husband, writer/photographer Rick, live on the edge of "New Texico" where they keep busy raising their two geeklings and sharing space with their dog, Sirius Black, and cat, Loki.