The day Turner Classic Movies came to Buffalo

Watching classic movies in my living room with Ben Mankiewicz is one of my favorite things to do. OK, so I’m watching him on my TV which is obsessively tuned to Turner Classic Movies.

Same thing – or so I thought until one magical night when I really was in a room, a theater to be precise, with Ben and other members of the TCM family who were in my hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., after I won the “TCM in Your Hometown” contest.

That was in October and I still haven’t come down from the excitement of that prize of a lifetime. TCM Backlot has recently launched its second “TCM in Your Hometown” contest and it’s a good time to reminisce about the day TCM came to Buffalo.

A look inside the historic North Park Theatre in Buffalo before the TCM Backlot in Your Hometown event. (Photo by Jeffrey Roberts)

When the original contest was announced, TCM Backlot asked for an essay of up to 1,000 words on why TCM should visit your hometown. They wanted to learn about the city and what made it special, unique and worth spotlighting. They wanted to hear about its film history and most important, if there was a historic movie theater that would be perfect for a classic screening. They would pick a winner from what they judged to be the best essay.

With so many great writers and film bloggers out there, I never thought I would win the contest.  I entered for two reasons. I wanted to interact with TCM Backlot almost as a way to say “Hey, I’m out here and I love classic movies!” Plus I thought an essay could double as a story about the great classic movie palaces in and around Buffalo for the newspaper where I work, The Buffalo News. We are so lucky to have six of these historic theaters, all built in the 1920s, still standing and operating even if they don’t all show movies full-time anymore.

When I learned weeks later that I was one of four finalists, I was equal parts thrilled and shocked. Then Backlot threw a curveball: They wanted us to make a short video about our hometown. With the guidance of some tech- savvy friends, my iPhone and help from others (including fellow Backlot member Tracy Snyder who did the voiceover for the video), my “filmette” was done and sent off to Backlot.

See the video here:

Finally the news came that I won (I’m still pinching myself) and TCM would be in Buffalo in, oh, about a month. (Can you say “whirlwind”?).

TCM planned the perfect event, picking “The Natural,” which was filmed here in 1983, as the feature film. Ben Mankiewicz hosted the event at the North Park Theatre, our 1920 movie house, and he brought a special guest: director Barry Levinson. Neither TCM nor Levinson knew the immense love Buffalonians hold for “The Natural” (Levinson told the capacity crowd he hadn’t been here since the filming), so it was fun to watch their reactions to the excitement.

Ben Mankiewicz, left, and director Barry Levinson on stage at the North Park Theatre in Buffalo before the TCM Backlot screening of “The Natural.” (Photo by Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Everyone in Buffalo has a story about “The Natural.” They can show you the moment in the film where you can see their elbow, knee or a shadow. They brought their memories and memorabilia.

The screening was free – and so was the popcorn, thanks to the generosity of TCM. The tickets were gone within 10 minutes of being made available. Along with the folks at the North Park, I was inundated with calls, emails and social media messages from around the country and Canada – often from people I didn’t know – who were desperate to get a ticket.

I couldn’t have been more proud that a classic movie and TCM event were the hot ticket in Buffalo.

On the big day, Buffalo welcomed TCM with a warm, gorgeous fall day. A standby line formed hours early outside the North Park in the hopes that extra tickets would be released. The line of ticketholders wrapped around the block two hours before doors opened. A vintage taxi used in the film parked in front of the theater where the marquee welcomed TCM and Barry Levinson.

This was the front of the line which stretched for two long blocks outside the North Park for hours before the TCM screening of “The Natural.” (Photo by Don Nieman)

Inside, TCM hosted a wonderful meet-and-greet with “Ben and Barry.” I thought it would be for Buffalo VIPs and politicians, but I should have known better. That’s not TCM’s style. It was for TCM Backlot members who won the chance to attend. I met people from around the country who flew to my hometown to be part of the TCM Backlot event. What a thrill! I also met classic movie fans from the Buffalo area and formed new friendships. There were smiles everywhere.

I love this pic of Ben Mankiewicz in front of the Buffalo skyline from the rooftop of the Curtiss Hotel. (Photo by Jeffrey Roberts)

The North Park was packed, the excitement palpable. Ben walked out in a Buffalo Bills hat and the theater went wild. He talked with Barry Levinson for a while and some audience members spoke. One man stood wearing his “New York Knights” jersey – he was an extra in the film and left with a “souvenir.” Even Levinson was laughing.

When the movie started, applause broke out.

It was a phenomenal event – and it didn’t end there.

The next day was “Breakfast with Ben” – another TCM Backlot contest. Held on the rooftop restaurant and lounge of Buffalo’s swanky new Curtiss Hotel, it was first class. The city skyline looked great, the food was delicious and I may have had a mimosa to calm my nerves.

Ben Mankiewicz and classic movie fans from Buffalo during “Breakfast with Ben.” This was the start of the Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot. (Photo by Jeffrey Roberts)

It was fantastic to meet other TCM fans and again, everyone was excited and in good spirits. Ben patiently met every person, signing autographs and posing for pictures.

Standing back to take everything in, something came into focus that I had noticed at the theater. Everyone was together. The fans, Ben and his family and the friendly TCM staff had intermingled the entire time. There was not a separation of “the talent” and “the fans” as there usually is at “meet and greet” events.

In the North Park lobby I watched Genevieve McGillicuddy, a TCM vice president and director of the TCM Film Festival, walk up to my father and stepmother (without knowing they were related to me) and talk to them as she had done with other strangers that night. She made them feel important because they were talking to someone from TCM. Other TCM staffers mingled at both events. This made the weekend special and exemplified why TCM has such a strong relationship with its viewers.

Months later, people still talk about TCM in Buffalo and I’m equally thrilled that TCM is still talking about Buffalo. (The city knows how to throw out a red carpet of its own to welcome visitors and make an impression.) I was thanked again recently by someone who attended the event for putting the spotlight on Buffalo and that’s something I still can’t wrap my head around: the fact that I had anything to do with this marvelous weekend.

The events of those two days are still fresh in my mind and I’ll  replay them throughout my life like my favorite classic movie. That’s only fitting since this all came out of my passion for classic films, Turner Classic Movies and my hometown.

For more on TCM Backlot, go here:

Here’s more about the event:

Read: My story/essay begging TCM to come to Buffalo. 

See photos from the event

See more photos of Ben Mankiewicz, Barry Levinson and “The Natural”

Read: “The Natural brings director Levinson back to where his career took off”


Cushing and Lee: The dynamic duo of classic horror movies

Can you be excited to see someone and terrified at the same time?

Absolutely. That’s how I’ve felt most of my life about Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the iconic duo from Hammer Films.

Their movies gave me nightmares as a kid – the otherworldly creatures, the bright Hammer Films blood, the eerie woods (someone always got lost in the woods), that startling music and those faces. (If you’re wondering what I was doing watching these movies when I was very young, blame my dad. But that’s a topic for another post.)

I know Cushing often played the kindly, intelligent professor or scientist (until he went mad with power as he did as Victor Frankenstein), but there was an unsettling quality about his face despite the fact he was a good-looking man. His patrician nose, attractive widow’s peak and angular cheeks that grew sharper as he aged gave him the look of someone from another time. You can’t process that logically as a kid.

Lee was simply overpowering. Hide him under bandages as Frankenstein’s Creature or as a mummy or let him play a good guy in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959) and his towering 6’5” frame, long face, dark eyes and deep voice could still intimidate.

Each man was a commanding screen presence, a trait new to me as a kid. Put them on screen together and it was mythical. Between those faces, the characters, the stories and their overwhelming presence they freaked me out – while hypnotizing me at the same time.

Continue reading “Cushing and Lee: The dynamic duo of classic horror movies”

TCM Film Fest: Why I’m missing ‘Them!’ and other difficult choices

Here is the agony of trying to plan out a schedule for what to see at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Out of more than 80 feature films on the schedule, the runaway winner as my favorite at TCMFF is one I won’t be seeing.

I was so excited when I saw “Them!” the 1954 B-movie classic about giant insects is scheduled for opening night. It’s from my favorite film genre (thanks to watching so many of these films with my dad) and it stars Buffalo born actor James Whitmore. But I won’t be there and other TCMFF attendees understand why.

Continue reading “TCM Film Fest: Why I’m missing ‘Them!’ and other difficult choices”

How one classic movie fan embraced remakes – again

Classic movie fans are a protective bunch.

Don’t colorize our black and white films.

Don’t stretch our movies to fit modern widescreen formats.

Our classics are sacred. Hands off.

And one more thing: don’t even think about remaking my  favorites.

That’s my motto – or so I thought. Then I was reminded how I really felt just by going to the movies.

* * * * * *

On a recent Sunday morning, I was at a screening of “You’ve Got Mail” at the North Park Theatre, a grand Buffalo moviehouse that is old enough to have originally shown many of the films we now fondly call classic. I have a ridiculous soft spot for this 1998 Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-com about two people at odds with each other who fall in love through their anonymous emails. It is witty, smart, endearingly hopeful, sweetly romantic, packed with great characters and performances and, as a bonus, has a passion for the written word.

Every time I see it on TV, even if it’s just the last few minutes, I stop to watch – and usually sniffle a bit, too. There’s another reaction I have, too, as I did at the North Park that day. When Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen, repeats the “Dear Friend” salutation from her emails, I hear echoes of that same phrase from the Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, movie “The Shop Around the Corner.”

Continue reading “How one classic movie fan embraced remakes – again”

Mildred Natwick: A true character

Mildred Natwick.

It’s a strong, sturdy and dependable name that mirrors the actress who owned it. We saw those qualities time and again throughout her Hollywood career – see her as the stoic owner of “The Enchanted Cottage” and as the proper Widow Tillane in “The Quiet Man.”

Most important, you could depend on Mildred Natwick to give her character dimension that it didn’t necessarily have on the page.

But if you’re looking for her name in a film, read closely: It’s usually in small type at the bottom of the movie poster or after the word “with” in the opening credits. Such is the life of a character actor. They play in the shadow of the stars, while giving the movie everything it needs to shine.


Recognizing that character actors deserve their own spotlight, Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora at Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled, are hosting the “What a Character” blogathon for the sixth year.

Thelma Ritter, Charles Lane, John Alexander and the bit players of “Casablanca” are among the actors highlighted in Day One of the blogathon.

For Day Two, the blogathon includes entries about Edward Everett Horton, the wonderful Beulah Bondi, Henry Stephenson and this article on Mildred Natwick. I chose to write about her because of her great talent and because watching her in a movie is like visiting with an old friend.

Continue reading “Mildred Natwick: A true character”

Devotion: An appreciation of Ann Harding

“I don’t make scenes, Mrs. Page.”

When actress Ann Harding speaks that line with a refined serenity in the  1933 drama “Double Harness,” it is as a wife coming to terms with losing her husband to another woman. But that line also sums up what makes Harding special as an actress – she didn’t make scenes on film either.

There was no flailing about, no screaming or histrionics. She created all emotions – happiness, sadness, love, longing, heartbreak – with grace and elegance using a subtle quivering or deepening of her voice; a gentle touch of her delicate hands to her face; a soulful gaze that hypnotized the viewer.

Harding made 40 films – more than half in the 1930s alone. On Aug. 21, Turner Classic Movies is showing 15 Harding films in celebration of the actress during the network’s Summer Under the Stars programming. Her films aren’t often shown so it’s a great chance to become familiar with Harding and fall under her spell. Here’s how that happened to me.

Continue reading “Devotion: An appreciation of Ann Harding”

‘Till Death Us Do Part’ Blogathon: ‘Cause for Alarm!’

For every “happily ever after” movie romance, there’s one that didn’t work out quite so well. As part of her July blogathon “Till Death Us Do Part: To Love, Honor and Murder,” Theresa Brown (CineMaven) has opened the discussion on the fascinating topic of movies revolving around matrimonial murder.

You can find contributions on an impressive list of films on Theresa’s blog, CineMaven Essays from the Couch, via this link:

Some titles are very well known. Others, like my choice, “Cause for Alarm!,” may not be as familiar but are equally worth reading about and watching.

I chose “Cause for Alarm!” because of its twist on a familiar formula and a nifty surprise ending. The murder plot is dispatched quite quickly, propelling the movie into a taut edge-of-your-seat thriller about a woman frantically seeking a letter that frames her for her husband’s death.

Continue reading “‘Till Death Us Do Part’ Blogathon: ‘Cause for Alarm!’”