I moved back to my native California from the Washington, D.C. area in March of 1997. By April, I had moved into my rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, at 2nd and Idaho. In the 25 and a half years since, I dated, married, moved to the other side of Santa Monica, and enjoyed about six different jobs. But never had I ever taken part in the tradition of seeing a movie at the storied Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which my mother-in-law compares to a night at the Hollywood Bowl for movie goers in Los Angeles. There is definitely a season for it, there are regulars, it is very well staffed and organized, and it is an absolute blast. And unlike my memories of the Bowl, it was a surprisingly easy in-and-out of the venue. We were invited on this particular night by my wife’s cousin Mitchell and his wife Ginger, who have become regulars this summer and even have a routine and a signature spot to camp for each week’s film.
This last Saturday night’s film was Goodfellas, the 1990 mobster hit directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro and Paul Sorvino, and essentially launching the careers of Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci. It had been probably 20 years or more since I’d seen the film from beginning to end, with no interruptions, and it was even better than I remembered. That’s not easy to say for a film already considered a masterwork. But there was Liotta, his narration pitch-perfect, and that signature, almost comically eerie laugh come to life. Pesci’s character Tommy DeVito was even more the psychopath than I remembered, easily offended and always ready to off somebody that he perceived had wronged him (including a young Michael Imperioli as “Spider.”)
All the signature moments lit the night up for me, from seeing the young Henry Hill (Liotta’s character) growing up in the mob culture and soaking in its benefits, to coming into young adulthood as an established mobster who other lieutenants wanted to do favors for. His courtship of Karen, played beautifully by future Tony Soprano psychotherapist Lorraine Bracco, starts off so awkwardly and then descends into a relationship of betrayal and mistrust, but also co-dependency. The “scores” these mobsters would pull off, usually at historic Idyllwild airport, and hits they would perform on other wise guys weren’t as grizzly as I remember. But this desensitization may be the result of my watching far more gruesome and sensationalized content in the 32 years since the release of the film.
Sitting by my side in our low-to-the-ground lawn chars was my wonderful wife, Erin, who had really prepped our palate’s for the night with food and drink to add to Mitchell’s bounty of provisions. She sits to my right because my left ear is my bad ear. We hold hands like we do in movies, and I am just grateful once again to be with her on such an occasion.
But we are but one romantic story among hundreds, I’m sure. The “reel” story unfolding was the cemetery itself and masses therein. Being a rookie, I asked the young man working the gate about how many hundreds of people attend each week. He said the crowds could grow upwards of 4,800 people! Wow, that’s one big piece of real estate. Once inside, I could see the sprawling field that would soon be occupied by those few thousand people, each let in at 6:15 to picnic to congregate until the movie begins at 8:00. The preparation attendees put into the event was also impressive. Several parties rolled in Radio Flyer wagons full of food, drink, and makeshift card tables to put together. Others grabbed several pies of pizza from a nearby Little Caesar’s. Blankets and beach chairs were everywhere. People were dressed largely for the heat, with others dressed up only slightly more as if to indicate they knew they were there for a signature event. And while an entirely outdoor venue with people largely bringing their own food and drink, the cemetery included a popcorn and candy concession stand near the back, complete with a popcorn smell pumped out into the air. There was also a bar and even a photo booth to the side of the large field that hosted attendees.
Prior to the start of the film, the President of Cinespia, the company that puts on these weekly events, spoke to the audience and made a few announcements. The projector then took over to show us the original trailer for Goodfellas, followed by the trailers for a few of the movies coming to the cemetery in the weeks ahead (which include Ghostbusters and the latest, Bradly Cooper / Gaga version of A Star is Born). And then a slight hush glides over the crowd as the opening credits begin to roll, the crowd then applauding for each actor’s name framed white on black on screen. Audience participation is at a minimum, but there are a few moments of common applause and laughter throughout.
As I would wade through a designated aisle to leave the large quad of grass, I looked out over the crowd on my way to the fancy port-a-potties lined up passed the concession stand. I remember being surprised not to see at least one person I knew personally given just how vast an audience I was sharing the night with. Even L.A. can have small-town moments. In fact, they happen all the time.
After the two-hour, 25-minute runtime, and witnessing Henry Hill’s quick demise from top mobster into witness protection, the audience applauded with great appreciation for a night of delicious food, good company, and a great film. It was definitely an experience I waited too long to enjoy, and one I will want to revisit again, possibly a couple of times next summer. And the summer after that…And the summer after that.
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