Scenes from the Plaza Classic Film Festival

Boston's Alloy Orchestra scores Metropolis

EL PASO, TEXAS - It's the West Texas city that Whole Foods forgot, though the chain started up in Austin. Trader Joe's also has snubbed this blue-collar, poverty-socked metropolis with its majority Mexican-American population. Even All the Pretty Horses author Cormac McCarthy, a long-time citizen, has gone up the road to the fashionable environs of Santa Fe, New Mexico. "El Paso has been described as the sweatiest town in America, also the most illiterate," a local explained, standing in the 102 degree summer sun. And movie-knowledgeable?  Landmark Theatres also stay clear, and nobody can remember the last arthouse, if ever there was one.

The mood of the city? Very friendly, surprisingly upbeat, considering that just a few blocks away, across a bridge and a border crossing, lies a genuine heart of darkness: Juarez, Mexico, the most frightening and murderous city in the world, including Baghdad. Many El Pasoans have friends and close relatives who reside there amidst the killing-fields drug war, and it's a deep worry every day.

Curiously, all the factors above, negative and positive, seem to contribute to this: an unspoiled El Paso extraordinarily grateful for an offbeat city film fest, the Plaza Classic Film Festival.  In its third year, August 5-15, the Festival-- privately funded, a valiant, improbable gamble when it started up-- has positively exploded with success. How many festivals in America can make this brag? Audiences of 1200 people and more routinely show up for the movies.

"Every time I go to the grocery store, people come up and thank me," said Charles Horak, a local businessman and radio film critic who programs the festival.

Horak's passion is classic Hollywood cinema, from the 1930s through the 1970s. His obsessive mantra: "Spectacular movies should be seen only on the big screen." And this is what he has to offer El Pasoans: the elegant, bejeweled, astonishingly beautiful Plaza Theatre, a 1930 motion picture palace restored at a cost of $15 million dollars as the Plaza Theatre Performing Arts Center. 2,410 seats, blinking stars in the ceiling, a one-thousand pipe Wurlitzer organ playing before the movies, and the largest screen anyone has seen in their lifetime.

Horak's vision: this restored theatre is the idyllic place to show off restored 35mm prints of great, old-time Hollywood movies. His audience certainly agreed, as, this year, 1200 El Pasoans showed up to view big-big-screen showing of Jaws, 2,000 to watch The Godfather.  Other successful screenings:  Tarzan, the Ape Man, Forbidden Planet, Pillow Talk.  And if they have little experience with silent cinema, 2,000 were there, including many collegiates, to see Boston's Alloy Orchestra perform their original score accompanying Fritz Lang's renovated 1926 Metropolis. The standing ovation went on for many minutes, and, afterward, the Alloy trio were surrounded by awed, impressed El Pasoans.

"Alloy has never before played in Texas (one of the few states we've missed so far) and the audience clearly didn't know what to expect," said Alloy's Ken Winokur via email. "Imagine their surprise when three guys start banging on pipes and plumbing fixtures. Then imagine their disbelief when they realized that they were having a wonderful time. It's still a secret in some parts of the world -- silent films, with a good live accompaniment, are amazingly entertaining."

And it seems the feeling is mutual: "The Alloy guys told me they want to come back next year," Horak said.

Horak's other strategy for his festival is to bring to El Paso old-time movie stars and filmmakers. This year, Peter Bogdanovich came to town to screen his West Texas-set The Last Picture Show,  and Nancy Olsen, who played William Holden's abandoned girlfriend, offered her memories as the last surviving cast member of the 1950 Sunset Blvd. And there was Debbie Reynolds, frail in life, a bubbly trooper on stage, who cued interviewer Nick Clooney what to ask her about her philandering, one-time singer husband.

Clooney: "Was Eddie Fisher interested in you in Singin' in the Rain?"

Reynolds:"He was interested in Elizabeth Taylor." 

Seemingly, the whole house of 2,000 cracked up.

By the end of this year's Plaza Classic Film Festival, a  buoyant Charles Horack was planning ahead to 2011.  The original 1971 Willy Wonka on the big screen? Perhaps. More still-pumping ex-Hollywood stars? "I know I want to show the 1959 Ben-Hur," Horak said.  "I've watched it three times, and it's the most intelligent of all the 1950s studio Biblical epics."

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