This Philly film fan has 4,000 (weird) movies in his workshop. His Secret Cinema series turns 30.
Tuesday's program will include vintage cartoons, a two-reel 1930s musical comedy, industrial films, TV commercials, and surprises typical of the Secret Cinema’s penchant for the offbeat and obscure.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Jay Schwartz has accumulated so many films that he’s tripping over them. Navigating the Secret Cinema founder’s 1,000-square-foot workshop in Kensington means climbing over stacks of film canisters on the floor or shimmying through the narrow space between a tarp-covered 35mm projector and the floor-to-ceiling shelves housing Schwartz’s more than 4,000 titles.
Not even Schwartz has viewed every reel of film that lines those walls, but for three decades he’s been sharing the gems of his collection with audiences in Philadelphia and beyond. On Tuesday he’ll kick off the 30th anniversary season of the Secret Cinema at Bryn Mawr Film Institute with a collection of short films first screened during the series’ inaugural year in 1992.
The program — projected on film, as Schwartz always emphasizes, not digital or video — will include vintage cartoons (one with animal characters, called The Morning After, deals with Prohibition), a two-reel musical comedy from the 1930s (Play, Girls!), industrial films, and TV commercials (a ’50s commercial for Pro Kleen), among other surprises typical of the Secret Cinema’s penchant for the offbeat and obscure.
Tuesday’s event will be the fourth time Schwartz has held in-person screenings since the pandemic began.
Much has changed in the world of film exhibition since Schwartz started projecting his eccentric collection at Khyber Pass Pub in Old City. Movie theaters and multiplexes still showed new movies on 35mm film, while local audiences had a few choices for repertory cinema including regular screenings at International House, the Roxy, and Chestnut Hill Film Group. Home viewing was limited to dreary-looking, usually pan-and-scanned VHS tapes, with DVD a few years in the future and the internet in its infancy.
These days digital screening is the norm, while viewers have an almost limitless choice of material at their fingertips via streaming services, YouTube and the like. With so much competition, why does Schwartz continue to carry armloads of film cans, heavy projectors, and a tangle of equipment to makeshift venues around the city?
“Probably this room,” Schwartz said with a glance around the towering shelves. “The fact that I have this stuff and I might as well use it. I haven’t given up yet, but I could see why people would in my position. It does get harder and harder to convince people that they should come and watch stuff. But I guess there are two things that I bring: a chance to see what real film looks like and a chance to see films with other people. It’s really a different experience watching weird stuff with a like-minded audience.”
Schwartz is still mapping out the remainder of his 30th anniversary season (not to mention next week’s program, for which he was still hunting through his stacks earlier this week), but there will no doubt be plenty of “weird stuff” on offer. While he’s careful not to repeat films, insisting on at least five years between screenings of a particular title, he’ll celebrate by bringing back several of his most popular programs over the coming months.
That includes the locally oriented “From Philadelphia With Love,” potentially in two parts — one featuring all new discoveries, the other reprising favorites; at least one animation program, which in the past has ranged from surrealist shorts to politically incorrect cartoons; a “Stag Movie Night,” which accompanies silent-era pornography with entendre-laden blues songs and romantic ballads; and the “Saturday Morning Sugar-Charged Super Show,” a tribute to the psychedelic kids’ shows of Sid and Marty Krofft. Beyond Tuesday’s anniversary show, there will be an evening of Oscar-winning shorts on March 25 at the Old Pine Community Center in Center City. Swarthmore College will host a Best of Secret Cinema Screening and Talk on April 3, and there will be a Secret Cinema program at The Rotunda on May 12.
Projecting actual film (primarily 16mm, which makes up the vast majority of his collection) is central to Schwartz’s mission. When he started the Secret Cinema in 1992, many independent movie presenters were simply wheeling out a TV and pressing play on a VHS player. While the quality of home video alternatives has vastly improved over the intervening years, Schwartz remains committed to the ephemeral magic of real celluloid.
“I will confess that the difference between film and digital video is smaller than I would have [predicted],” Schwartz admitted, somewhat begrudgingly. “When I started, people would assume that since I was showing films in a bar it was probably just VHS tape, and it never was. I spent many hours and carried hundreds of pounds of equipment up stairs because I didn’t believe in doing that.”
The catch is that film has a finite life span, and most if not all of Schwartz’s collection has already exceeded it. Acetate prints are prone to shrinkage, which renders it difficult to project, and “vinegar syndrome,” a chemical deterioration that results in a pungent vinegar odor. Schwartz does his best to combat the decay, cranking the space’s air-conditioning throughout the summer months to keep temperatures relatively cool, but optimal conditions are beyond his self-funded needs.
What began as an idle hobby nearly 50 years ago has grown into a significant film archive, and Schwartz is turning his thoughts to its future. He’s started exploring the idea of the Secret Cinema becoming a nonprofit institution, with the ultimate goal of constructing a climate-controlled facility to house his collection as well as others.
“These films are all on borrowed time,” Schwartz said. “A true state-of-the-art film storage facility would be useful not only to me but to other institutions which have some kind of film collection — colleges, museums. I don’t know of any facility like that in Philadelphia, so it would be great to build such a thing.”
7:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 15, Bryn Mawr Film Institute, 824 W. Lancaster Ave., $12.50, children/members: $8, seniors/students: $10, 610-527-9898, thesecretcinema.com, brynmawrfilm.org For more information on future Secret Cinema events: thesecretcinema.com