With all due respect, the Plaza Theatre's 70th anniversary celebration brings to mind the idea that anything that gets old enough becomes respectable. Jonathan Rej, who co-owns the Poncey-Highland cinema with his wife, Gayle, points out that compared to the older, palatial Fox Theatre, "The Plaza was a neighborhood theater. Back then, there was no television, not everyone had cars and many people got their news from newsreels. Everyone went to the movies. It wasn't a big deal to have theaters a half mile from each other."
George Cukor's screwball comedy The Women tickled its first ticket-buyers as the Plaza's inaugural feature in 1939. If you're wondering why the Plaza celebrates its 70th birthday in 2010, Rej explains, "We really opened in December of 1939, but we thought it would be crazy to do the anniversary in the middle of the holidays. Also, we couldn't get prints of all the films we wanted. Among our first choices were some of the lesser-known classics from 1939, like Gunga Din, Dark Victory, Ninotchka and The Women. But prints weren't available for them, and I don't like to show films on DVD."
Instead, audiences for the Plaza's 1939 film festival will have to settle for three of the most iconic motion pictures of the Hollywood studio era, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and a rare 35 mm print of Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Running Jan. 15-30, the festival includes Max Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels, the second feature-length animated film in screen history. Even the Silver Scream Spook Show harks back to 1939 with the Buck Rogers space opera Planet Outlaws on Jan. 30.
Turner Classic Movies' Robert Osborne hosts the theater's gala fundraiser on Jan. 15, which includes costumed characters dressed as screen idols of the era and a variety of raffles and silent auctions for prizes from local institutions such as El Myr, Movies Worth Seeing and artist R. Land. In addition, on Jan. 23, the Plaza features a screening of The Wizard of Oz with special guest Karl Slover, who at 91 years old is one of the last surviving actors who played the Munchkins.
While the film festival and Osborne's speech on Friday might support the conventional wisdom that 1939 was the best year in film history, Rej prefers not to play favorites. "It's an amazing year, and so many films are still playing and relevant today. It's definitely the high point of the old-school Hollywood golden age. So many great movies came out of that year, but I'm not the kind of person to say that something's the best when there are so many other great years."