Story by Jake Blumgart
Photos by Dan Papa
Ralph S. Hirshorn is sitting in his personal movie theater and laughing about Purple Rain. The septuagenarian resident of one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest neighborhoods is a founder of the Chestnut Hill Film Group, a decades-old institution that screens an eclectic variety of films at the stately Woodmere Art Museum near the city line.
Last season they opened with Purple Rain – Prince’s 1984 cinematic vehicle. Musicals are generally among the most popular of the group’s selections, a metric that is judged by the number of donations received after the show. This one didn’t bring in the big bucks; only $81, while the usual haul is closer to $200.
Perhaps the soulful rocking of the recently deceased rock star would never have been a huge hit among the largely elderly audience that turns out for the Chestnut Hill Film Group’s screenings. But Hirshorn sealed Purple Rain’s fate by turning the sound up far louder than usual, a move that he felt befit the material.
“Purple Rain is a musical as far as I‘m concerned, it’s nothing but music practically,” says Hirshorn, impishly. “But about a third of them hadn’t seen it, which is astonishing. Then we had two or three walk out because they just couldn’t stand the music.”
Chestnut Hill is known as the territory of the bluest of blue bloods in Philadelphia. It’s always felt a bit removed from the rest of the city, and even the rest of the mansion-riddled Northwest. There was even a secessionist movement in the 1980s that proposed breaking from the city to join Montgomery County.
But Hirshorn is perhaps not your typical wealthy 78-year-old Philadelphia patrician. His DVD library contains the classics—there’s a Bogart and Bacall boxset—but also more recent favorites like the Big Lebowski and Daniel Craig’s British gangster debut Layer Cake. Currently Ridley Scott’s 2005 medieval epic Kingdom of Heaven is in his DVD player. (“It gives the lie to the story of the Crusades, the invasion of Jerusalem, and shows what thugs the Christians were!”) Arrayed among the movie offerings are a large box of Peanut Chew candies and a bowl filled with carrot-shaped bags of caramel popcorn.
Despite the stifling heat outside, Hirshorn is dressed in a suit and bowtie because there’s an icy breeze cooling the theater. When he bought the house in 2011, he added on this 800 square foot movie theater, which can accommodate 24 visitors in stadium-style seating. This is his second home in Chestnut Hill; the first had a theater in the old stables next to the main house, but he lost both buildings in a divorce.
Hirshorn is a native-born Philadelphian and lived in the leafy Northwestern neighborhoods of the city for much of his life. Although he was born and raised just to the south in West Mt. Airy, he attended the posh Chestnut Hill Academy for grade school. Along with the private schools that educated him, Hirshorn also expresses great appreciation for Chestnut Hill’s quaint commercial corridor along Germantown Avenue—although his house is far removed from the walkable, row house-dominated blocks that surround it.
“I’ve been familiar with Chestnut Hill most of my life and I think it’s ideal,” says Hirshorn. “There’s a very substantial number of trees, so the temperature is more agreeable than in other places in the city. I’ve served on an awful lot of boards—Chestnut Hill Academy, Chestnut Hill Hospital, the Woodmere. You get involved in the texture of the place, and the overall web of it, and that becomes your life.”
Hirshorn’s two longest sojourns away from Northwest Philadelphia were his four years at Yale and his four years in Hollywood with Columbia Pictures from 1961 to 1964. There he worked on movies like Gidget Goes Hawaiian, an entry in the now-forgotten surfer girl series, and Sail A Crooked Ship, which is largely distinguished by being midcentury comic legend Ernie Kovacs’ last film (and where Hirshorn befriended Carl Reiner, a collaborator of Steve Martin and director of The Jerk).
“It wasn’t a long time, but it feels like a totally different lifetime,” says Hirshorn, nostalgically. “I got to be the assistant to the head of the studio, but they used to really love titles a lot so I had a vice president title even though I was honestly the assistant to the assistant.”
But after that brief spell in Hollywood, Hirhshorn returned to Philadelphia. After his father’s death he played odds and evens with his brother to decide who would have to return and take over the family business. “I either lost or won, depending on how you look at it.”
Hirshorn’s enthusiasm for movies is infectious and it brought him together with several other likeminded residents of Chestnut Hill, including librarian Martha Rapmen who screened Bonnie and Clyde at the neighborhood’s handsome, limestone-embossed library in the early 1970s. Soon they would screen their features twice a night, packing the room to bursting. The projectors would be placed between stacks of books at first, until the city built an auditorium in the back of the library with an automatic screen that could be pulled down.
The group’s original Selection Committee came together around the idea of holding such screenings on a set schedule every year and relied on Hirshorn’s extensive film collection in the pre-VHS era. They even managed to show such rarities as Deadline USA, a 1952 movie filmed in the New York Daily News press room that features Bogart as a crusading newspaper editor. For a long time Hirshorn had the only extant copy.
As the years have worn on, many of the original members of the Selection Committee are gone. For a while attendance at the film group’s screenings seemed to be on the wane, with audiences occasionally dropping down to 18 when they used to attract as many as 100 people. The number of screenings each night was reduced to one. Hirshorn says that many of their regular members have relocated to the Cathedral Village retirement community in Roxborough and the trek over became too difficult.
But he says attendance is on the rise two years after moving the film club’s operations down Germantown Avenue from the library to the Woodmere Art Museum. These days as many as 50 people regularly attend each screening. The movies range from the beloved classics that usually open the season, like Casablanca or High Noon, to arthouse movies and little known foreign gems like Il Sorpasso, an Italian ode to the automobile, or the Jean-Pierre Melville French noir classic Le Cercle Rouge.
Their 2016 season began on September 27 with The Graduate and then ranges over the 1999 British musical Topsy-Turvy, Orson Welles’ The Lady of Shanghai and the aforementioned Deadline USA, among many others.
Asked if he thinks the film society could have emerged in any other neighborhood, Hirshorn pauses to reflect on his sylvan corner of the city and its network of interconnected establishments that lace together the lives of his compatriots.
“Well yes, but it sure wouldn’t be the same and it wouldn’t have lasted 43 years,” says Hirshorn. “That’s another part of the strength of Chestnut Hill’s institutions. In a community like this you find the right people, the right circumstances, the longevity. Look how long we’ve been at it. In order to get off the selection committee you have to die or get really, really old.”
The Chestnut Hill Film Group’s free screenings occur every Tuesday night at 7:30 at the Woodmere Art Museum. More information here: http://www.armcinema25.com/chestnut-hill-film-group