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This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the June 23, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Recreating the Drive-in, without the Cars
One of my all-time best New York experiences was watching "To Kill a
Mockingbird" on a gigantic screen at the free outdoor movie series in
Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library. How could that not be
Watching one of the best movies ever made outdoors in the best city in
the world? The screen was so huge it seemed a block wide. Everyone’s
blankets on the grass touched without a blade of grass popping through
in between. Gourmet picnic baskets bulging with Dean & DeLuca
delicacies co-existed happily side-by-side with hot dogs from the
sidewalk vendor. Some people sipped Chardonnay; others guzzled Bud
Lite. Everybody was nice to one another, even if someone stepped on
their blanket. Because everybody was happy. You kicked off your shoes
and wiggled your toes, you stretched out and stared at the night sky,
then you drowned in real eye candy – Gregory Peck.
As soon as little Scout, with her scruffy hair and raspy voice,
uttered "Atticus!," the skyscrapers fell away, my ears tuned out the
sirens, and I wallowed in a simpler time, when kids rode their bikes,
the worst kind of mischief was sneaking onto someone’s property, and
the end of a summer’s day was always punctuated with a thick slice of
Even if you’ve never been to Bryant Park, you can’t be old enough to
read this newspaper and not have some memory of seeing a movie
outdoors, maybe a drive-in movie. Can that kind of heaven be found
outside of New York City? Yes! Yes! Yes! Thomas Grim, co-owner of
Thomas Sweet Ice Cream, has been working for 10 years to bring an
outdoor cinema series to Princeton – for purely nostalgic reasons –
and it debuts this summer.
Grim was born in a house in Appalachia with no outdoor plumbing –
"three bedrooms and a path," he says – in southwestern Pennsylvania
two miles from the West Virginia border. One of his earliest memories
is of his father, who drove a dump truck for a living, piling Grim and
his four siblings into the truck and driving 20 miles to the nearest
drive-in. "We hopped out of the back, sat on top of the cab-over, and
watched ‘Old Yeller’ and ‘Flubber,’ says Grim. "When I was eight, we
moved to Buffalo and lived near a drive-in. We would sneak in with
friends. I broke my arm one night jumping a fence."
Ever since those halcyon days in the 1950s, Grim has harbored a secret
dream to recreate that iconic American experience – watching movies
outdoors. "I wanted to give people a fun experience to see a movie
outdoors under the stars like we used to when we were kids," says
Grim. "Kids have no idea these days what it’s like to go to an outside
movie. I think it’s bad that kids don’t know that. For adults, it’s a
throwback to their childhood; they can show their kids what it was
After graduating from the University of Buffalo in 1974 with a B.A. in
philosophy, Grim did what you’d expect someone with a liberal arts
degree in philosophy to do – absolutely nothing. But he had a plan. He
and a pal, Tom Block – whom Grim had met in 1967 when he was a lowly
dishwasher in a motel in Blasdell, New York, and Block was the
bartender – started making fudge. They sold it at fairs in upstate New
York, where they cooked up 50-pound batches in big copper kettles.
Then they started making chocolate. In 1976, Block came to New Hope
and opened the first Thomas Sweet. Then Grim joined him. When
Princeton University asked them to open a store near campus, they
opened the Nassau Street location in 1980. Then, five years later,
Palmer Square asked them to open a location on the Square.
But all along, after hours, Grim was cooking up a different sort of
concoction, scouring the Internet, talking to people, doing his
homework, strategizing about how to make his outdoor film series a
reality in Princeton. Two big obstacles were location and equipment.
"We approached David Newton (of Palmer Square management) several
times. He was sometimes for it, sometimes not, but usually not really
because he said they were no longer event-oriented. There were noise
issues with the residents on the Square, and he was also worried about
wear and tear on the green." Grim then thought about using the grassy
area beside the Nassau Street store but nixed that idea – it was
university property, and it just seemed too complicated.
Finally, last year, he lit on a solution. Thomas Sweet had, for many
years, been a sponsor of the Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival,
making Shakespeare-shaped chocolate, running a shuttle from its store
to the performance space at Pettoranello Gardens Amphiteather at
Community Park North, selling tickets for the shows. Grim spoke to
Victoria Libertori and Anne Reiss of the Festival, and they suggested
Grim air movies on the Festival’s off nights. They made an agreement
that any profits made after expenses were recouped would be donated
back to the Festival.
Meanwhile, Grim kept researching the type of equipment he would need.
"I’ve always had an interest in home theater, so I had the background
knowledge," he says, adding that even four years ago the prices of the
equipment he would need would have been formidable, but have dropped
dramatically of late. He consulted with Dave Reipe, who runs an
outdoor cinema series in Boulder, Colorado, who gave him a wealth of
information on equipment as well as on logistics and licensing DVDs
for screening purposes through Swank Motion Pictures. Grim purchased a
wide-screen LCD projector, a 21 by 12-foot screen, a 5-channel Dolby
Digital SurroundSound system, and four DVD players. He hired Hopewell
contractor Henry Meunter to erect two big poles from which to hang the
screen, which can be removed at the end of the summer.
Total capital output? "About $25,000," says Grim. "We’re trying to do
a good job, not just dragging out a 16mm projector on a wall."
Then came the fun assignment – picking the movies. "It was kind of
organic," says Grim. "For months, we bounced around titles." By "we"
he meant himself; Block; Liberatori, a former film major at Rutgers;
and Kate Elliott, a film major at Princeton who is the book buyer for
Jazam’s. (Jazam’s owner Joanne Farrugia is Grim’s significant other.)
"Finally we had to come up with a list, so we had lunch at Zorba’s
Grill and agreed on 12 titles. I didn’t want to get too high brow and
snobbish, just good movies. We wanted it to be fun." (See complete
Grim is nothing if not thorough. "To me going to the movies is more
than movies; it’s the whole experience." And of course that means
concessions. "They will be very drive-in-like," says Grim. "Movies are
just to keep you entertained while you eat the popcorn." He’s got
popcorn with real butter – a medium bucket will only set you back
three bucks. Hot dogs are just a dollar, Thomas Sweet ice cream for
two bucks, gourmet jelly beans and gummy worms are just three bucks
for a generous half-bag. (Maybe Grim will read this and add malted
milk balls, my candy of choice since second grade).
On opening night of the series, Wednesday, June 9, I arrived at about
8:30 p.m., just as dusk began to fall. The parking lot was already
packed despite the 87-degree early summer heat wave. Apparently I’m
not the only one who thinks "Cinema Paradiso," the opening night film,
is one of the greatest movies ever made. All the seating was filled
and people were now sitting on the hillside. (Tip: Arrive earlier than
I did; due to the speakers and poles, there are a few visual
obstructions, but if you get there early you’ll be fine. And bring a
blanket or a cushion. And bug spray.)
I happily plunked myself down beside a lamppost, the base of which
made a perfect tray for my popcorn. Grim’s done it right – right down
to the last detail. A friend supplied him with a DVD of retro animated
shorts from the drive-in era – dancing popcorn, ice cream bars on a
trapeze, a stern teacher saying, "Kids, adults don’t want to hear you
screaming, so stay quiet or we’ll never let you in this theater
again." Everybody laughed. Just like in Bryant Park, everybody was
happy. Everybody. You could see it in their faces and hear it in their
Grim couldn’t have picked a better movie to open the series. "Cinema
Paradiso," a movie about escaping to the movies, takes place in the
1950s in a poverty-stricken little town in Sicily. It tells the
bittersweet story of Salvatore, a young boy who falls in love with the
movies and befriends Alfredo, the projectionist in the town theater,
an older man with no children of his own. It captures vintage 1950s
Italy perfectly, where all the women wear Sophia Loren-style dresses,
boys go to school in short pants and get rapped on the knuckles when
they don’t know their multiplication tables, the local priest has the
projectionist cut all the kissing scenes out of the movies before they
can be shown to the village’s own remarkable cast of small-town
characters, and the pain of a first crush on a beautiful girl is
almost too much to bear.
As young Salvatore’s raspy, feisty little voice filled the air, just
as Scout’s had so many years ago in Bryant Park, the traffic from
Route 206 behind me fell away. As life in the little town piazza
filled the screen, the traffic in my own mind quieted. My fingers deep
in the popcorn bucket, my bare toes wiggling in the grass, I settled
in for what I knew was coming – a good cry. I inhaled deeply, glanced
upward at the night sky, dotted with just a few lights from airplanes,
and was suddenly seduced by a symphony of scents that I hadn’t smelled
in years – the distinct pungent fragrance of Off bug spray, the earthy
perfume of cut grass, the sweet bouquet of honeysuckle, and the
irresistible aroma of melted butter. This, I thought, is the way
summer should be.
Thomas Sweet Outdoor Cinema, now through August 25. For information
and directions call 609-924-7222 or visit www.thomassweet.com. $3
donation; children under 12 free. Movies begin at approximately 8:30
p.m. or dusk. At Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater at Community Park
North, Mountain Avenue & Route 206, unless stated otherwise..
Caddyshack, (R), Wednesday, June 23.
On the Waterfront, (G), Wednesday, June 30.
Matilda, (PG), Wednesday, July 7.
Grease, (PG), Wednesday, July 21.
The Philadelphia Story, (PG), Wednesday, July 28.
Vertigo, (NR), Wednesday, August 4.
Henry V, (PG), Wednesday, August 11.
Tootsie, (PG), Wednesday, August 18. D&R Greenway Meadows.
Field of Dreams, (PG), Wednesday, August 25. D&R Greenway Meadows.
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