Pine Bluff Film Festival
The Pine Bluff Film Festival was inaugurated in 1994 by local residents who wanted to honor the legacy of the silent film era and help revitalize downtown Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). Since that time, the annual event screened silent classics (often accompanied by a symphony orchestra), hosted world-famous guest stars, expanded to two theaters, implemented a silent film competition, and encouraged film and theater restoration. It was hosted each year by two world-renowned cultural experts from New York who were with the festival since its inception. The festival was recognized internationally as one of the oldest silent film festivals in the United States and the only one that regularly presented silent films with full orchestral accompaniment.
The festival originated with Pine Bluff native Kathleen Majewska, who had studied voice and dance in New York City and was concerned about the decline of Pine Bluff’s downtown district. A centerpiece of the area was the historic Saenger Theatre on West 2nd Street. Built in 1924, the Saenger in Pine Bluff was a Renaissance-style “picture palace” designed with a size and degree of elegance usually reserved for venues in larger cities. The 1,600-seat theater had a Broadway-size stage with full orchestra pit and was designed to house live stage shows as well as silent films accompanied by what was then the largest pipe organ in the state. The Saenger closed its doors in 1975 as the downtown area deteriorated.
In 1994, Majewska and fellow local resident Bob Curry decided to raise money for the Saenger’s restoration by holding a film festival that would spotlight both movies and music. Silent movies became the focus of the festival. Majewska contacted Dr. John Beatty, professor of anthropology at Brooklyn College, with whom she had worked in New York, as well as his colleague, Dr. Foster Hirsch, professor of film at Brooklyn College, renowned author, and film historian. Beatty and Hirsch were the special guests at the first Pine Bluff Film Festival, and both have returned each year in October to host the annual festival. In its 1994 inaugural year, the D. W. Griffith film America (1924) was screened.
In 1995, the festival doubled its scope with the addition of Pine Bluff’s Community Theatre, across the street from the Saenger. The oldest surviving one-screen theater in the state, the 180-seat Community Theatre was built as a mercantile store in 1890 and converted to a silent movie theater in 1922. It closed in 1963 and was re-opened in 1985 by Pine Bluff businessman William Bettwy. The Old Town Theatre Centre, Inc. (OTTC), which oversees the film festival, took over management of both the Saenger and the Community. In 2012, the OTTC donated the Saenger to the City of Pine Bluff, which allocated city funds to repair the structure.
Since 1995, the silent films showcased at the festival were generally accompanied by the Pine Bluff Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Charles Evans, often with the original score of the movie. Silent classics that have been screened at the festival include The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The General (1927), Wedding March (1928), The Circus (1928), Sherlock Jr. (1924), Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl (1919), Foolish Wives (1922), The Lodger (1927), The Wind (1928), and Phantom of the Opera (1925), representing the work of such directors as D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Erich Von Stroheim, and Alfred Hitchcock.
Guest stars who have made personal appearances include Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Van Johnson, Jane Russell, Celeste Holm, Carol Channing, Shirley Jones, Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie Chaplin), Tippi Hedren (The Birds), Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train), and Fay Wray (leading lady in the original 1933 cast of King Kong). In 2006, the special guest star was Academy Award winner Patricia Neal. Along with that year’s silent film tribute, many of Neal’s movies were also screened, including 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, which was partly filmed in Piggott (Clay County).
The Pine Bluff Film Festival expanded to offer activities year round. In 2006, it presented the African Heritage Film Festival. Other special events have included “An Evening with Van Johnson” in conjunction with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) in 1997; the Martha Mitchell Film Festival; and the Polish Ethnic Heritage Festival, Kultura Polska, in 2000, which resulted in a letter of commendation to the governor of Arkansas from the government of Poland. The Pine Bluff Film Festival has also sponsored a silent film competition for contemporary filmmakers making their own silent movies, to be showcased at the festival, and the Douglas Fairbanks Jr. “Composer in Residence” program for musicians to write and conduct orchestral accompaniment for a classic silent film. A walk of fame offered the opportunity for visiting guest stars to leave a lasting mark on the festival by placing their handprints and footprints in concrete blocks; future plans involve including the blocks in a museum.
By 2008, the film festival had ceased operations.
For additional information:
Wolfe, Ron. “Film Festival Will Spotlight Farley Granger.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 28, 2007, p. 4W.
Arkansas State University
I just watched the history of the Saenger Theatre at 120 W. 2nd Avenue, Pine Bluff, AR, on Abandoned Engineering, series 11, episode 1, and it was both sad and enlightening.
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