Pothole Pictures celebrates 25 years

  • Pothole Pictures shows movies in Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls.

For the Recorder
Published: 3/12/2020 9:42:46 AM
Modified: 3/12/2020 9:42:33 AM

Pothole Pictures is celebrating 25 years as a volunteer-run community movie theater with the launch of its 2020 spring film season.

On Friday and Saturday, March 20 and 21, the season opener will be the award-winning 2018 documentary, “The Biggest Little Farm.” The film will start at 7:30 p.m. in the historic 400-seat Memorial Hall Theater, 51 Bridge St. in Shelburne Falls. Each showing will be preceded by a half-hour of music performed by local musicians starting at 7. Friday night will feature the Farley String Band. Saturday features Bob Snope & Over Easy playing traditional New Orleans jazz.

“The Biggest Little Farm” follows an ex-film industry couple on their trial-and-error journey as novice farmers to reclaim depleted soil on 200 California acres. The award-winning film tracks the highs and lows of their eight-year effort to build a successful diversified farm. After, audience members can join a discussion led by local farm educators — Just Roots director Jessica O’Neill, CISA communications manager, Claire Morenon, and Hawlemont Elementary Principal, Lindsey Rodriguez, who is leading a successful farm-based curriculum, “Hawlemont, Agriculture and You.”

Pothole Pictures’ season will continue with seven additional films through June 19 and 20. Highlights include: “Fiddler on the Roof,” April 3 and 4, presented as part of the Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival. Then, April 10 and 11, local favorite “Loving Vincent,” a ground-breaking animated tribute to Vincent Van Gogh, presented by one of its producers, Nikki Justice; a presentation of the classic French musical, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, April 17 to 18, with a tribute to composer Michel Legrand by Legrand’s niece Victoria; Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in the 40s comedy classic “The Lady Eve” on May 1 and 2; and as a finale on June 19 and 20, the family favorite 1964 musical “Mary Poppins,” with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.

Over the past quarter-century, Pothole Pictures has brought nearly 400 films back to the big screen — classics, foreign films, musicals, indie favorites and documentaries. A hallmark of many film seasons is its “meet the director” presentations of films with a local New England live connection — an actor, producer, or director who can speak first-hand about the making of the film. In the current season, for example, Nikki Justice, who will introduce “Loving Vincent” on April 10, is a Frontier High School graduate.

Pothole Pictures was founded in 1995 as a volunteer project by Andrew Baker, who had been hired that year both as the first executive director of the Shelburne Falls Area Business Association and as coordinator of the Shelburne Falls Downtown Revitalization Partnership, a $1.1 million Community Development Block Grant historic preservation program of the towns of Shelburne and Buckland. Among the many projects completed was the installation of an elevator in Shelburne’s town hall, making the second floor Memorial Hall Theater handicapped accessible and re-opening it for use in September 1995 after being mothballed for 30 years.

A key figure in Pothole Pictures’ initial success was Baker’s friend, Bernie Butler, a retired local machinist. Butler had spent his career working by day at Mayhew Steel Products, and moonlighting as the projectionist in Carl Nilman’s movie theater in Memorial Hall. Nilman’s movie house began in the 1930s and operated until the mid-1960s, when the explosion of strip mall cineplexes drove most downtown single-screen commercial movie operations out of business. Butler had salvaged a pair of Nilman’s massive 1927 carbon-arc 35 millimeter movie projectors and kept them in good working order in his basement for the next 30 years.  

Baker persuaded Butler (known universally as “Bernie”) to re-install his projectors in the concrete projection room at the top of Memorial Hall Theater and to serve as Pothole Pictures’ projectionist. The inaugural 1995 season opened with Butler’s favorite Cinemascope spectacular, “Around the World in 80 Days.”

“For those who got to see Bernie in action as a projectionist, it was a kind of historical re-enactment experience,” said Baker. “He would ignite the carbon sticks that created that incredible hot arc-light for the silver screen era, and fine tune the flame while changing 35 millimeter film reels between the two ancient projectors. We would lug the 70 pound cannisters of film up the stairs for him, but Bernie kept it all running.”

During its first five years in operation, Pothole Pictures ran short eight-film seasons in the temperate months of each fall and spring, because the theater, while accessible, lacked heating and cooling. A non-profit Memorial Hall Association was formed and its first capital campaign raised $100,000 to install a new heating and cooling system, enabling the theater to stay open year-round. Other local efforts created community theatrical productions and a live music series, Hilltown Folk, filling out a diverse annual calendar of movies, plays and music.

After five years at the helm, Baker handed off the coordinator role in 2000 to local film-maker and writer Fred DeVecca, who led Pothole Pictures’ crew of volunteer popcorn makers and ticket sellers for 17 years. During that time, Pothole Pictures transitioned from the old projectors, keeping pace with film industry changes by purchasing a new digital projector and modern sound system. Butler died in 2010, having given Pothole Pictures a solid 15-year run.

The distinctive experience at Pothole Pictures is to be able to take in great movies on the big screen in a historic theater at the center of an historic arts-centered community.

DeVecca and Baker were also successful in creating one-of-a-kind special events with “meet the director” films. Vermont film-maker, Jay Craven, has presented many of his locally-made films, including “Where the Rivers Flow North, among others. Other notable productions at Pothole Pictures have included screenings of Buster Keaton’s silent film classics, “The General” and “The Navigator,” together with original music scores composed and performed live by local arch-guitarist — Peter Blanchette — and his ensemble.  

“We tripped the smoke alarm making popcorn that night and had to briefly evacuate the theater,” said Baker, of the 1997 presentation of “The General.” “It was a sold-out show with 400 people, but everyone was gracious and thought it added some local flavor. We were showing a beautiful restored print of a 1927 movie on 1927 projectors.”

When DeVecca retired as Pothole Pictures’ coordinator in 2017, the long-time crew of Pothole volunteers, with decades of experience between them, has carried on with the show as cooperative effort. The core group has included local physician Richard Warner, journalist and theater director Jackie Walsh, retired attorney Jim Kessler, redware potter Steve Earp, local documentarian Jonathan Boschen, multi-media artist Janice Sorenson, piano tuner Joseph Giandalone and Baker, who is now at the Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board, along with an ever-changing cast of newer volunteers. Professional audio and visual technicians in the community are also indispensable to Pothole Pictures’ ability to keep sound and picture together — Ken McCormick, Jim Neeley, Bill Tom Massa, among others.

Baker notes that operating the series without a single leader is often challenging: “Muscle memory, pizza nights picking films and mailing out posters, and a whole lot of emails keep Pothole Pictures going as we all get older. We’re always looking for new crew members who love movies and want to help create one-of-a-kind big screen community events that can’t be replicated at home, or on a cell phone.”  

Even though Shelburne Falls has not had a commercial movie theater in town since 1965, residents of Shelburne, Buckland and the surrounding hill towns have been able to enjoy movies on the big screen for the past 25 years thanks to Pothole Pictures. For many rural communities with small and declining populations, a do-it-yourself volunteer-run community movie theater offers a viable way to create shared cultural experiences even when their numbers aren’t big enough to support commercial venues.

“The truth of the matter is — if you live in a village of less than 2,000 people you’ve got to make your own fun on a Friday night,” Baker said. “Pothole Pictures is just one of many volunteer efforts that make Shelburne Falls a surprisingly vibrant place for arts and culture. If we want to keep small towns alive and lively in the 21st century, Pothole Pictures offers one model for that kind of community effort.”

Today, the Memorial Hall Association is gearing up for another, far more ambitious capital campaign to renovate the entire interior of the 400-seat theater, built in 1897. Pothole Pictures intends to keep showing movies there in its next quarter century, one season at a time. Although the theater seats — purchased used in the 1930s — need replacing, much remains the same.

Movie tickets at Pothole Pictures are $6 for adults and popcorn still sells for the 1995 price of $1 a bag.

“It’s an amazingly cheap night out in Shelburne Falls,” said Baker.

Pothole Pictures 2020 schedule

March 20 and 21: “The Biggest Little Farm” with after-movie discussion panel of local farm educators from Just Roots & CISA. Music Friday by the Farley String Band, Saturday, Bob Snope & Over Easy.

April 3 and 4: “Fiddler on the Roof,” co-sponsored by the Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival. Music Friday by Becky Ashenden & The Tipsy Parsnips, Saturday Sue Krantz.

April 10 and 11: “Loving Vincent.” Music Friday, Reticence, Saturday, Co-op Jazz.

April 17 and 18: “Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Music Friday and Saturday, Arctic Moth Studios featuring Stephen Wallace.

May 1 and 2: “The Lady Eve.” Music Friday, Dan Ledeerer, Saturday, Dick Moulding.

May 15 and 16: “Moonrise Kingdom.” Friday music by Jumpin’ Jersey, Saturday, Abdul Baki.

June 5 and 6: “Mystery Train.” Friday music, Dan Lederer, Saturday, frost heaves & hales.

June 19 and 20: “Mary Poppins” featuring a community sing-along. Friday music by Dave the Entertainer, Saturday, Sue Krantz.

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