With reels of film in hand, Secret Cinema celebrates 25 years

A packed Secret Cinema screening at the Institute for Contemporary Art. (Photo by Silvia Hortelano-Pelaez.)

When Jay Schwartz first hauled a film projector upstairs at the Khyber Pass Pub in 1992, the country was at the peak of a VHS boom. At home, people watched films primarily on videotape, and one could be forgiven for thinking the same would go for a small movie night at the local watering hole.

But Schwartz, who was just starting to publicly show his collection of rare and obscure films under the name Secret Cinema, wanted no part of the VHS fad.  

“I didn't want people to think I was doing that, because that stuff looked terrible,” he says. Instead, he made sure to advertise that all of his selections would be shown on 16-millimeter film.

Going strong in the age of Netflix

Twenty-five years later, Secret Cinema still regularly shows feature films, shorts, and other cinematic oddities that Schwartz has gotten his hands on. He has hosted hundreds, if not thousands, of screenings, outliving VCRs and still going strong well into the Netflix era. And he remains dedicated to the medium of film even as mainstream theaters have made the switch to digital.  

“Unfortunately, I’m just about the only person [in the Delaware Valley] who has never shown digital video,” Schwartz says.

In the meantime, his film archive has grown — it once fit in a coat closet, he says, but now he must rent warehouse space to accommodate it all — and his audience has gotten a little older. The programming, too, has changed: fewer feature-length titles in favor of shorts, many of which are newsreels, educational films, or government propaganda culled from decades past.

Bodybuilders and tea parties

On March 10, Secret Cinema will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a program of crowd favorites that Schwartz has kept in his repertoire since the early days. Selections include Whatta Build, a comedic look at mid-20th-century bodybuilders, and Let’s Give a Tea, a 1946 educational film meant to teach etiquette to young girls. (The on-screen narrator is pretty unforgiving to women who don’t know the protocol for having guests.)   

“Sometimes people just think anything old is funny, and I sure don’t think that,” Schwartz says. “But this one is pretty funny.”

From indie concerts to art museums

Secret Cinema has always venue-hopped, even when it had a 15-year residency at the Moore College of Art and Design (which ended in 2014). Schwartz often takes his archive to bars, coffee shops, art schools, and other spots around the city. He’s been known to show up at concerts, ready to provide visuals that most indie bands can only dream about. Occasionally, he has set up shop in the living rooms of strangers.

Lately Schwartz has found himself returning to the Maas Building, a former trolley works in Ludlow. That’s where he’ll have the anniversary party, but it’s hardly the only item on the agenda. Throughout the rest of March, April, and May, he has screenings scheduled at Fleisher Art Memorial, the Woodmere Art Museum, the Rotunda, and the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

“I like that I have this tradition of turning places into a movie theater for one night,” Schwartz says. “I still carry hundreds of pounds of equipment to every show I do, and I try to make it as good of a film-watching experience as possible.”  

The Best of Secret Cinema Short Films: The Early Years, Secret Cinema’s 25th anniversary screening, is coming up on Friday, March 10, at 8pm at the Maas Building, 1325 N. Randolph Street, Philadelphia. Admission costs $9.

At right: Jay Schwartz works the projectors at a screening at Fleisher Art Memorial. (Photo by Silvia Hortelano-Pelaez.)