After a pandemic hiatus of more than two years, free movies finally return this Friday, July 15 at the art deco Packard Campus Theater on Mount Pony with the 1972 western “Culpeper Cattle Co.”
The National Audio Visual Conservation Center at the Library of Congress, located on 45 acres east of the town of Culpeper on Mount Pony Road off Route 3, is also personally staffed again.
The parking lot was full during a recent visit, the property intentionally dotted with plants and flowers bursting with spring.
The vast facility with its own turbulent history houses, preserves, restores and shares the world’s largest collection of moving image and sound recordings worth millions.
A large number of selected titles from this collection will again be shown on the weekends – children’s films, family-friendly titles for teens and older young people as well as musicals, silent films with live organ accompaniment, westerns, Graubart classics, comedies and more.
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It’s a kind of return to normal for those who still enjoy a theatrical experience.
people back to the theaterThe popular public film series, which first launched in September 2008, remembered Jenny Paxson, a Packard campus staffer and film buff who oversaw theatrical promotions from the start. She has retired during the pandemic.
The last film to be shown before COVID shut everything down was a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 historical epic Spartacus on March 7, 2020, she recalled.
95 people came to see the film with Kirk Douglas as a Roman slave and gladiator in the 202-seat theater. The award-winning actor passed away just a month earlier at the age of 103, Paxson said.
It’s a livelier approach to post-pandemic rebirth, with a half-month film program from Packard Campus Pot Pourri, Packard Campus Moving Image Curator Rob Stone said during the recent visit. He has taken on theatrical promotion and programming, with an open-door policy for proposed titles.
“For July, we want to do stuff that we thought would be fun,” he said. “We just wanted to get people back into the theater with the Culpepper Cattle Company – pardon the extra ‘p’. We just thought it would be fun, why not? Culpeper, Culpepper Cattle Co.”
Disney’s Pacific musical Moana for a matinee and Shark Week classic Jaws are scheduled this Saturday to round out the weekend.
Elvis and Ann Margret appear in the very attractive “Viva Las Vegas” later this month and the month concludes with another historic epic highlight, “Lawrence of Arabia”.
Shows are every Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30pm with a matinee at 2pm on Saturdays.
Since its last opening, the Packard Campus Theater has featured a brand new screen optimized for digital and film projection along with new masking to match film size.
There are new twinkling lights in the wall lining the hallways.
Projection equipment ran regularly throughout the pandemic, although few were there to see the films in the early days of the shutdown, aside from projectionist David March, along with maintenance, security and cleaning crews who never left.
The organ used for silent films has been completely refurbished during the pandemic, Stone said.
“It will be interesting to see the response,” he said of audiences returning for the films.
Stone oversees film and audio acquisitions and directs its DVD distribution program.
“We also have a film rental program, sending prints out to show in cinemas like ours around the world,” he said.
“It’s busier than any coming out now. Across the country, they are striving to do what we are preparing to do, which is to open the theaters and start showing films again. Others are a little ahead of us, but we’re looking forward to it.”
remote work, projectsIn the early days of COVID, many federal employees, including the LOC, transitioned to working from home, as in the private sector.
Stone, who just turned 65, said he was one of the first to go home on March 12, 2020 because he was over 60.
Prior to mandatory remote work, he and his colleagues had just discussed how they wanted to replace the cinema screens in the theater without disrupting too many shows.
“Well, we’re just going to have to close for a couple of weeks,” Stone said. “Well we didn’t have to do that, we closed for a couple of years.”
Nitrate Vault Manager George Willeman, responsible for 124 vaults storing burnable early film, is back in the office full-time. The oldest films in the collection are housed in the former Cold War bunker in the multi-story structure in a mountain that opened in 1969 as the Federal Reserve.
During the pandemic, Willeman worked with a colleague on a project that edited 400 short films from the silent era. He checked in to the office weekly and more frequently when cases subsided. Willeman said it was great to be back and was quick to add that he would miss nitrile film specialist Larry Smith, who recently announced he would be retiring on August 31.
“That’s my good right arm,” Willeman said of Smith, who introduced Spartacus to theaters in early 2020. Smith is married to Paxson and the two are film enthusiasts.
Willeman said his wife and school-age son weathered COVID and home school, calling it an interesting experience.
“He survived second grade, attended summer camp this week and is having a great time,” Willeman said.
The nitrate film manager is completing a project sorting and identifying pieces from a vast nitrate film collection acquired by the library in Fort Lee, NJ, at the beginning of the pandemic. Titles are entered into a database and maintained on the Packard campus.
“Mickey McGuire shorts, Lone Ranger stuff, a lot of ’30s B-movies,” Willeman said of the collection. “Only the second known copy of a film about a difficult epic, The Chosen Prince. Another print we have is in really bad shape, the one we got is near perfect.”
theater experienceWith movies returning to Mount Pony, some doubt people will stop going to the movies, Stone said.
“That’s because most of them are kind of clumsy and there’s no showmanship. Here — there it is,” Stone said. “One of the things we want to do here is try to maintain, revitalize and strengthen the theatrical experience. If someone comes here and sits down, they are in a cinema. It’s not a home theater in their basement, it’s not the local multiplex.”
The Campus Theater parking lot opens one hour before the start of a performance, the lobby opens 45 minutes before the start of a performance, and the theater opens half an hour before the start of a performance.
Guests must pass a metal detector, large bags are not allowed. Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. First come first serve. The library recommends that moviegoers wear face masks.
Since opening, the art deco theater has screened films every week and screened more than 2,500 titles, except during COVID when around 300 showings were missed.
Look for topics in the coming months. Titles from the National Film Registry are shown in August and films from the past and the future are shown in September.
Check out Monsters Among Us in October, November Noir and a Month of Snow Movies in December. Stone handles advertising, posters and slideshow previews and acquires Paxson.
“Jenny did such an amazing job of making sure we keep doing it well,” Stone said.
When Paxson was contacted on Monday, she admitted she felt out of place and like she should be doing things when she heard the theater had reopened. She recalled the time 14 years ago when she volunteered to run the reservations line and create the flyers.
Paxson served as house manager along with Smith over the years. She always enjoyed meeting the people who came, hearing their stories and answering questions.
“A movie is so much more fun when you see it on a big screen in the dark and a group of people react to what they see,” she said.
Paxson also met many interesting people who came to present films, such as Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow, former child actress Mary Badham (To Kill a Mockingbird), and Gordon Gebert (Holiday Affair, Chicago Calling).
“It was always a treat to hear the silent film accompanists and the live musical performances performed at the theater. I’m really excited that it’s reopening and Larry will be showing at least one more film in August before he retires. Besides, we will often be in the audience!”