Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Life in (Front of) Movies

All this month, the Cafe will celebrate "movie-watching memories." Today's guest post is by Michael Nazarewycz who writes several personal blogs about films from all eras. Click here to check out Michael's blogs. Michael is also an Editorial Contributor at His daily method of communication with his fellow film-lovers is via Twitter @ScribeHard.

James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life.
My first-ever favorite actor was Jimmy Stewart. I’ll get to why later.

Jimmy Stewart—he of It’s A Wonderful Life and The Philadelphia Story and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and more classics than I have italics—was once quoted by Peter Bogdanovich as having said the following:

"An’ that’s the thing—that’s the great thing about the movies…After you learn—and if you’re good and Gawd helps ya and you’re lucky enough to have a personality that comes across—then what you’re doing is…you’re giving people little…little, tiny pieces of time…that they never forget.”

God bless Jimmy Stewart.

And he was more right than he realized. Not only are the movies little tiny pieces of time that we never forget, the movies are little tiny pieces of time that we live through. When we watch movies, we aren’t just bearing witness to history, we’re making history of our own—through decisions and events and circumstances that take place as part of the overall moviegoing experience. In fact, many of us can probably construct a timeline of our lives using all of those Little Pieces.

My timeline begins in 1974, at the Route 202 Drive-in theater in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I’m in my jammies and in the back seat of a gigantic Ford Thunderbird (and really, were there any small Thunderbirds in the early '70s?). The night’s double feature begins with Herbie Rides Again. I fall asleep during intermission and never get to see what the grown-ups watch.

Crowds lined up for Star Wars.
Fast-forward to 1977 and the Eric Theater at Tri-State Mall in Claymont, Delaware. The film is Star Wars, and in all of my visits to that mall—whether to see a movie or to get a brand new pair of Buster Browns (from the Shoe Boat, of course)—I’ve never seen a line at the mall’s theater so long. It’s my first event movie before such a phrase even existed.

Now, sometimes the memories of childhood are like the closets of childhood: messy to the point that you know what you are looking for is there, but you simply can’t find it and really wish you could.

Montgomery and Loy in
Petticoat Fever.
The next few years of my life are joyfully cluttered with Little Pieces, including Saturday horror on Creature Double Feature; some new-fangled television system called “cable,” which has entire channels that show nothing but movies (perhaps you’ve heard of it); and the Million Dollar Movie, where I watch my first old movie (if you don’t include those annual, network prime-time airings of such greats as The Wizard of Oz and The Ten Commandments). It’s a forgettable 1936 effort called Petticoat Fever, starring Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy. Only it isn’t forgettable. I remember it. Well, at least I remember having watched it. It has since played on TCM, and I’ve recorded it, but I’m too attached to the perfection of the memory of watching my first old movie to risk spoiling that memory’s perfection with the film’s potential mediocrity.

Now it’s 1982, and I’m an 8th-grader at Holy Rosary Catholic Elementary School. I’m in the auditorium for what will be the last time my friends wheel in a projector and play Free to Be, You and Me for the entire school. I’ve seen the thing a half-dozen times, but never with the weight of an era’s end hanging around my neck. I’m devastated to have to say goodbye to the babies one last time.

It’s 1984, and I watch my first ... hmm. Let’s just say that for as much as my memory fails me about Petticoat Fever, it fails me not when it comes to my first adult film. That night could be a column unto itself.

The Little Pieces Timeline continues to build and build, and behind every movie is a story of what happens around seeing the movie. And for every memory I share here, there are dozens I keep to myself not to horde them, but because I have to stop typing at some point. But please know I want to share them all.

An engagement ring
hiding place!
They range from the Little Piece about my first VHS purchase (Lethal Weapon) to the Little Piece about hiding my wife’s engagement ring under a VHS copy of the first movie we saw together in the theater (Sleepless in Seattle), to the Little Piece about working at a video store, to the Little Piece about being an online film critic, to the Little Piece about crying with my kids at the end of certain films.

To the Little Piece. To the Little Piece. To the Little Piece. Until finally I have a fully-developed (yet far from complete) Little Pieces Timeline that rests with this Little Piece right now, my revisitation with you of some of my Little Pieces of Time.

Which brings us back to Jimmy Stewart, and the promise I made in the open that I would explain why he was my first-ever favorite actor.

It’s the Little Piece about my grandfather.

At some point in that big messy closet of my memory, my grandfather introduced me to and schooled me on the music of the Big Bands of his youth; in particular, the sounds of Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. With that education came repeated viewings of The Glenn Miller Story, starring Jimmy Stewart. It was through Stewart as Miller that my grandfather and I began a movie-based bond that ended not when he died, but when he was buried.

The VHS cover for The
Glenn Miller Story.
You see, the Little Piece about my grandfather is not about watching the movie with him, but about the VHS copy of The Glenn Miller Story that I bought him one year for his birthday, that we would revisit on occasion, and that I placed in his casket the day he was buried.

Between you and me, that’s a big Little Piece.

So, with one clever phrase, my first-ever favorite actor summarized my movie-going life in a way 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 words never could.

God bless Jimmy Stewart and his Little Pieces of Time.


  1. Michael, thank you for sharing. I don't know right now if I'm more grateful for the laughs or the tears, but I am grateful.

    When my future husband and I began dating he had one of those all movie networks and knowing I was a fan of big band music, he taped "The Glenn Miller Story" for me. I knew he was a keeper. I was later shocked to discover he had never seen "Shane", but that has since been remedied.

  2. Michael, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your captivating recollection of how "little pieces of time" surround significant moments in your life. Film and music have played a similar role among my memories. WATERSHIP DOWN was the first film I saw with my future wife. One of my favorite memories of my Dad was staying up until 4 a.m. on a school night to watch Errol Flynn in THE EDGE OF DARKNESS. My sister convincing the theater boxoffice that she was my adult guardian when we saw the R-rated THE YOUNG GRADUATES (the newspaper showed its rating as "M"). Showing GARGOYLES to my movie-loving nephew. I was especially touched by your memory of your grandfather and THE GLENN MILLER STORY. That film also impacted my life, inspiring me to take up the trumpet (I never played well, but enjoyed playing in school bands for seven years). Thanks for a delightful, poignant post!

  3. What a heartfelt and thought-provoking post, Michael. I loved hearing Stewart's words become your mantra, as "little pieces of time" connect us all because that is what memories are made of. I have thought a lot about "The Court Jester" lately as it was a film my family shared on vacation with my parents. We laughed with delight and those memories are priceless to me. Wonderful post! - toto2

  4. Michael, you wrote that "many of us can probably construct a timeline of our lives using all of those Little Pieces [of movie-watching experiences]." I'm sure that's true not only for me but more any movie lover reading this fine reflective post. That was a great thought you concluded with that sharing movies from other generations with people of those generations can create a bond between one generation and another. A nice thought.

  5. Michael, this is such a wonderful, heartfelt piece that every movie lover can relate to. But you are not the only person on whom "Petticoat Fever" has had a strange effect upon. I have heard from more than one person that this was an early favorite.

  6. Well written piece! It also brought back memories because I too grew up with The Million Dollar Movie on WOR and the Creature Double Feature on WNEW.

  7. Thanks everyone! It's so nice to hear such a warm response!

    Caftan: My wife-to-be had never seen CASABLANCA. Seriously. I took care of that, too.

    Rick: I love to hear that MILLER gave you that kind of inspiration. The closest I got to that kind of inspiration was looking into Naval service after seeing TOP GUN. It didn't happen.

    R.D.: We're lost without some kind of bridge between generations, whether it's movies, sports, music, whatever. We need these bridges, as do our kids and their kids and so on.

    Flick: Really?!?!?! Other people have mentioned PETTICOAT FEVER?!?!?! That's so funny. For the decades that have passed since I saw that as a kid, I have NEVER heard a reference to it. Thanks!

    Gilby: I know those call letters; I don't live too far from there. For me, CREATURE was on WKBS (on UHF - remember UHF?) and MILLION was on WPVI, the local ABC affiliate. (Both in the Philly market.)

  8. Michael,

    As always, a heartfelt and heart-tugging essay. Not sure if we have so much in common or if you have a knack for connecting with what makes me, and so many others, true film lovers.

    My one little piece for today:
    I am 5 years old & newly arrived in NYC from Cuba. Dont know much but that I
    have SOMEHOW landed in the center of the entire world. I know this to be absolutely true because three guys in white uniforms singing "WHAT A WONDERFUL TOWN" say so and they are fabulous! I look around to be sure my parents are not within earshot. Surely, had they known where they'd brought me they'd take me away again. My parents, you see, are not interested in interesting things. God how those movie stars loved my new home town! How lucky was I to hit dirt at 5!? And it was my secret till now.


  9. Wow. Just, wow.

    Michael, this is a lovely post. I immediately began thinking about all of my Little Pieces. So many good memories. And I can't wait to share those moments, and new ones, with my daughter.

    Thanks for sharing this.


  10. I really enjoyed this, the addition of "jammies" at the drive in was very cute and endearing to me :) lol
    I'm the same way, when I write blog memories I just think of snippets. I remember watching it, but not really how I felt about it or what was said. There are just too many films cluttered in my mind haha.
    Oddly enough, "The Glenn Miller Story' is one I actually remember vividly as well. I even remember what I was wearing! haha
    Thank you for sharing :)
    Jessica @HollywoodComet