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”

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