For many years, Kathy Majewska, a native of Pine Bluff, had been watching the decline of the city's downtown area. The Saenger Theater had been a major showplace designed not only for film, but for stage presentations as well. But the theater had been been closed for nearly twenty years and was disintegrating rapidly. Something needed to be done. Ms. Majewska met Bob Curry, who shared her love for the Saenger and had a dream that one day, films would be shown again in its wonderful auditorium. By 1994, the thought of trying to raise money to repair the rapidly deteriorating theater, by holding a film festival had become a reality. She contacted Prof. John Beatty, with whom she worked in New York, and his colleague Prof. Foster Hirsch, a well-known film historian and author. Because of Ms. Majewska’s artistic background in ballet and in music the idea of having a film festival that would involve both films and music was born, and silent films became the focus of the film festival.
The Pine Bluff Silent Film Festival has been held annually since its inception in 1994. It is thought by some to be the oldest silent film festival in the United States in which the silent films are shown with full orchestral accompaniment. From inauspicious beginnings, the festival has grown to have an international reputation and has been recognized at major film festivals in New York City; London, England and Portanome Italy as a world-class festival and the only one, which regularly presents silent films with, live orchestral accompaniment and guest stars.
In the early years, the festival was held only at the Saenger Theater, which was then managed by the not-for-profit Heckatoo Foundation, which ultimately deeded the theater to the Festival. This assured the festival a venue for its performances. Hence, unlike other festivals, like Hot Springs, where a number of theaters were available, this was not the case in Pine Bluff. The Saenger, which by then had become a landmark building, was an ideal location – the convention center being too large and the Arts and Science Center too small.
Shortly after, Mr. William Bettwy, who owned the Community Theater, another remarkable theater notable for its history entered the picture. His theater, like the Arts and Science Center was simply too small to handle the Pine Bluff Symphony orchestra which, under the direction of Charles Evans, was now a regular part of the festival, playing the scores for the “silent” films. However, the theater was just the right size for interviews with stars about their careers, giving the intimacy that was not possible in the 1,600 seat Saenger across the street from it. In addition, it historical background made the Community Theater equally interesting to people with interests in historical theaters. This and its proximity to the Saenger gave additional impetus to the use of the Community over the modern Arts and Science Center.
For several years the festival struggled along establishing itself as a creditable “not for profit” organization, and managed to hold festival after festival, breaking even financially, but never being able to raise enough money to bring the major repairs to the Saenger that it was hoped would happen.
Several projects had been suggested to try to use the festival to increase the number of people coming to Pine Bluff. Since there had been a number of guest stars appearing, a “Walk of Fame” was started. Each guest – Van Johnson, Fay Wray, Tippi Hedren, Geraldine Chaplin, Ruth Warrick, and The Zoppe Circus – has literally left their handprints behind in blocks of concrete. In addition, they have signed posters, photographs, playbills and other programs. All of these things taken together began to make an interesting collection in the theater, and the idea of a small theater museum on the premises was born. It was hoped that such a museum would be an attraction at times when the film festival was not in operation.
Because of the fact that the festival itself owns the theater, it is obligatory that it be used at other times to try to raise funds. To that end, a number of other productions have taken place in the theater. These include a highly successful Armed Forces Day Celebration done in conjunction with the United States Military; a Polish Ethnic Heritage Festival which was a success and resulted in the Governor of Arkansas getting a letter of commendation from the Polish cultural attaché.
Hence, the film festival and the theater are completely intertwined. Unlike other festivals that rent theater space, the Pine Bluff Film Festival is also obliged to care for the theater in which the festival is held. No other solution presented itself at the time, nor has any since then.
The festival continues to produce headlines in the newspapers across Arkansas and some of the neighboring states. Plans are under way to have a spring festival focusing on contemporary films and the performers in them, while the fall festival continues focusing on the silent films of the past.
A newly created Douglas Fairbanks Jr. “Composer in Residence” has been developed and in 2000, Mr. Robert Israel appeared to conduct his new score for Student Prince in Old Heidelberg. We are planning to continue to invite more composers to the festival, and have made important connections with Turner Classic Movies. Their annual contest for a young composer to write a score for a silent film fits nicely into the Pine Bluff Film Festival and there are plans for more composers will appear at the Saenger.
Although often accused to tackling too much, the Pine Bluff Film Festival plans to continue the silent films each year and having a guest star at each festival. The second film festival in the spring mentioned above is an option that is being pursued.
We hope to continue our “Walk of Fame” and to be able to exhibit the concrete slabs in which our guest stars have “left their mark”! We hope to make this a part of a small theatrical museum that will become a part of the theater.
Several productions are being organized for the downtown theaters – so watch this web site for future notification of these productions!