And the Oscar goes to the residents of Highland Park for providing off-the-charts support to the town’s free summer outdoor movie program that has taken place every other Saturday this summer from May through August in the municipal parking lot between Second and Third Avenues. Some brag how the program may have become the most popular outdoor movie initiative in New Jersey, relative to the number of total residents in the community.
Oscars also go to: the: creative director and producer Brian Onken; executive producer Rebecca Hersh of Main Street Highland Park (MSHP); and the business underwriters —Yellow Brick Road Daycare, Jack’s Hardware, Pino’s, The Bones Brigade Dog-walking Service, LINX8 Computers, F&F Auto, Ziran Martial Arts, and Main Street Highland Park. Special Academy Award recognition goes to all the volunteers acting with such dedication and energy as though they were getting paid, such as Brian, Rebecca, their (coerced) friends and family members, and Main Street’s intern, Javier Zavaleta, who most recently recruited an army of 20-something volunteers.
The final outdoor movie night on August 27 – the showing of “Spirited Away,” combined with the inaugural Beer Garden, attracted an estimated 400 people – the biggest crowd to date since the program began three years ago. In an era of personal screens, Highland Park residents apparently crave the community screen festival of popcorn and pop culture and community bonding among people of all ages.
“What I find most compelling is how these movie nights prove the value of and the need for community space. The fact that people will sit on gravel and pebbles to have this community event rather than sit in the comfort of their own living rooms is strong evidence that the town values functional and attractive public space,” said Rebecca Hersh, executive director of Main Street Highland Park.
And this year, there is an outdoor movie bonus. Even though the official Highland Park Outdoor Movie Series has ended, the town gets one more opportunity to extend the outdoor movie-going experience on Friday night, Sept. 9, at Pino’s with a funky, fan film festival whose theme is “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
The Highland Park Outdoor Movie Theater is teaming up with Pino’s Lounge to bring to town: 1) the homemade cult sensation, The Raiders, called “hugely imaginative” by Spielberg himself; 2) the highly-acclaimed documentary Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, about the adaptation that “unearths the inner geek in all of us” (L.A. Times); 3) Eric Zala, the director/star of the adaptation and the subject of the documentary; and 4) a side show bullwhip artist, Karnevil’s Dr. J. R. Whitcomb, performing a range of slices, grabs, and cracks, including the “Throat Wrap Cut,” a trick only a handful of whip artists can do (Indy does this in Temple of Doom.)
The genesis of the Highland Park Outdoor Movie Theater sprung from the heart and mind of Brian Onken, Highland Park resident and a science professor at Centenary University.
“The really early primordial motivation came from visiting my parents in San Antonio, Texas. Years ago – maybe 10 or 11 years ago – there was a store in my parents’ neighborhood called Planet of the Tapes, which carried videotapes that they picked up at thrift stores and yard sales and then rented out to people. They occasionally would do outdoor movie events, by putting up a sheet on the side of the building to use as a screen,” said Brian.
“This later evolved into ‘Slab Cinema,’ where they would project movies onto a giant concrete slab in the middle of a parking lot. Slab Cinema was the first time I had ever heard of anyone doing outdoor movies, and I thought it was a great idea. Years later …I walked by the Main Street building and saw that it has a big open lot next to it and a big blank wall (where the Farmers Market mural is now) that almost looks like a movie screen. I just stuck my head in and asked if I could use the side of the building to screen movies….The next summer I started the first Outdoor Movie series in Highland Park,” he said.
In 2013, Brian and friends did three or four movies — now they are up to eight, which seems like a manageable number, considering the all-volunteer labor. In the beginning, they were using a sheet hanging against the side of the Main Street building as a screen. “That evolved into a giant sheet (which my wife Christine sewed together and which blew up her sewing machine) hanging parallel to Raritan Ave in 2014 — we used that again in 2015,” said Brian. This year Brian used a “professional” screen that was bought by Main Street.
The annual is about $2,500 for the summer – but that just covers the public screening licenses for the movies (each individual license averages about $250). Most of this money comes from donations and sponsors.
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