Joe Baltake, a son of Camden and a longtime movie critic for the Philadelphia Daily News and later the Sacramento Bee, died as he lived much of his life, in a darkened room, which is exactly how he would have wanted it.
It was just after midnight Thursday morning at his Haddonfield home. Susan, his wife of 35 years, and their four cats were nearby. The cause was multiple myeloma. He was 74, both a gentleman and a gentle man.
He would have wanted you to know that the last movie he saw in its entirety was Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning social satire about income inequality, and that he loved loved loved it. Appropriately for the author of a biography of actor Jack Lemmon, one of the last movies he saw on TV was Some Like It Hot, the Billy Wilder farce starring Lemmon and Tony Curtis as musicians who witness a mob hit and dress as women to avoid being killed themselves.
Like his felines, Mr. Baltake himself was catlike and observant. Barbara Beck, who was his editor at the Daily News from 1981 to 1987, remembered that they had seen the Lemmon comedy The Apartment together “about 100 times, and each time Joe showed me something I had never seen before.”
That was a service he regularly performed for people. Before social media existed, “Joe was a genius at branding and connecting with his readers,” former Daily News features editor Debi Licklider recalled. “He copyrighted ‘The Passionate Moviegoer’ column name. He would host movie screenings that drew massive crowds at a time when to enter a contest you had to clip a coupon, fill it out, and mail it to the paper. Then wait to get a phone call invitation.” Mr. Baltake estimated that he had reviewed more than 10,000 films and seen countless more.
One of the lifelong friends he made at those screenings was Phil Checchia, a Philadelphia police homicide detective. Memorably, Mr. Baltake arranged for Checchia and his coworkers to attend a screening of Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City, starring Treat Williams as an NYPD cop investigating fellow officers for corruption.
He was born in Camden, where his parents owned Baltake’s Bakery. Because they worked long hours and the Liberty movie theater was nearby, the Baltakes arranged a deal with the theater manager: He got free baked goods in exchange for their son’s getting into the theater free anytime. First the movies became his caregiver, then his vocation. After he got a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University, he started writing about movies and never stopped.
Apart from his reviewing positions and his Lemmon books — The Films of Jack Lemmon and Jack Lemmon, His Films and Career — he was an associate editor of Screen World Anthology from 1973 to 1993 and wrote an afterword for The Films of Burt Reynolds. He contributed commentaries for many DVD sets, including one for the collector’s edition of The Apartment.
In Mr. Baltake’s final post on his blog — also called The Passionate Moviegoer — he wrote Feb. 3 about the movies in general and The Apartment in particular: “In my case, movies are more than a profession or avocation. I will be frank: They have been my life, I dream about them, the way I do about people.”
Irv Slifkin, author of Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, who teaches a course at Temple University in how movies portray journalism, wrote that Mr. Baltake’s persistent “championing of neglected movies” had been an education for him.
In fact, Mr. Baltake was a rescuer both of neglected films and felines. “Once on the beach in Cape Ann [Mass.] with his niece they found a kitten on the rocks, took it back to their hotel, and then put it in a duffel bag to the movies and fed it popcorn,” his wife recalled. Many of his rescues had movie-related names, including Brubaker, Sweeney, Woody, Pyewacket.
Let Pete Dexter, the novelist and columnist — who worked with Mr. Baltake at the Daily News and lured him to the Bee with promises of better weather — have the last word on his colleague. In a 1987 column introducing Baltake to Bee readers, Dexter wrote, “He is, first of all, dead honest. He is also as knowledgeable about movies as anyone who does this for a living anywhere.”
In addition to his wife, a retired marketing consultant, Mr. Baltake is survived by a sister, Rose Brazier; niece Cindi Frese; and his beloved rescue cats Plouf, Trixie, Pixie, and Peanut.
Contributions in his memory may be made to Samaritan Hospice, 5 Eves Drive, Marlton, N.J. 08053, www.samaritannj.org, or to a no-kill animal shelter of your choice.
Editor’s note: Carrie Rickey, producer of the film “Before Hollywood: Philadelphia and the Birth of the Movies,” was The Inquirer’s movie critic from 1986 to 2011.