Sunday in the Park
January 23, 2009
See, already I have a problem with this letter After all the years we’ve spent time together I can’t even figure out a proper salutation. Bob sounds entirely too casual. RR, too "in crowd." Mr. Redford, too formal. I always liked the story that, after you won an Oscar for directing "Ordinary People," your staff called you Ordinary Bob. I’m gonna err on the side of formality though, Mr. Redford. For a long time a very, very long time I’ve been meaning to write you.
For all the years I have lived in Park City (since 1979) the state has had a film festival. Like a lot of facts about beginnings, there is myth and legend and a fair amount of misinformation. As my memory serves me, the festival started in Salt Lake City and moved to Park City in 1981. I helped with publicity and press in 1981 and 1982 years when we begged reporters to come to town and watch films and offered them free ski passes and lodging in our homes if they would just consider the story. The local Rotary Club helped put down a fake floor so the closing night party at the Racquet Club could happen. And the old War Memorial Building (now Harry O’s) served as party central and we wrapped crepe paper around basketball hoops and all wore old high school uniforms to add atmosphere to the after party for the film, "Hoosiers." The premieres included "On Golden Pond" and "Chariots of Fire" and one of yours, "Out of Africa." We would watch the films and barely fill the Egyptian Theatre and then wander down the street in a kind of parade-like fashion to the party (sometimes at the Elks Building) where everyone was welcome. Films like "Heartland" and "The Life of Harvey Milk" (the first one, the documentary) played and we would watch them at the Holiday Village Cinemas and then wander over to the shiny new Yarrow Hotel and buy our own drinks and sit around the fire in the lobby and ask questions of, say, Jonathan Demme about how he created "Melvin and Howard."
By 1985 it was apparent that what Utah Film Commission staffers Lory Smith and John Earle had created, along with BYU film professor Sterling Van Wagenen, was about to go under. Their small nonprofit couldn’t keep afloat in challenging economic times. You said your Institute, already flourishing down at Sundance, would absorb that failing 501(c) 3. Truth be told, I suspect that at that point few people, maybe even yourself included, knew the depth of what you had committed to do.
In town we just kept on looking forward to January and seeing films and meeting their creators and actors and then soon musicians and technicians and even the folks who placed products in films. It was easy to do. You could arrive at the Mt Air Café in the early morning (or, say, the Alamo bar at night) and catch half of the festival attendees at breakfast, from Al Pacino to William Macy to, well, a bunch of folks. We let them eat in peace and only ventured into a conversation before or after their meal. There was civility and respect.
And all along the way, the most sophisticated consistent audience for independent film was being created. You could probably find more than 100 people still living here who have been part of that core audience for nearly 30 years. Somebody should do a film about them. About that. About a town that grew up and eventually hosted the Olympics and was ready to do so, in no small part, due to decades of hosting what had/has become the most important festival in the world for independent film.
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In the mid-90s there was much talk about the festival moving. It was outgrowing the limited theater facilities available. I know your conversation with the George S. and Delores Doré Eccles Foundation was key to the grant we received to help build what is now our community’s Performing Arts Center. I also remember yours was one of the first checks we received toward our efforts. And that very first year we opened, your staff agreed to help produce an extraordinary program of student outreach that continues today. Where filmmakers go into classrooms during the festival (and now year round) and talk to middle and high school students about the process of filmmaking. There is no other high school in the world that has those priceless opportunities.
And yes, I have been a fan of your films, and your environmental activism, and your love of including the literate with the visual, and your attention to international filmmaking and causes. We have met a handful of times in situations that would not memorable for you.
But this week, of this year, I keep thinking about a comment you made years ago about us all being at the "belle époque." I had no idea what you meant and I had to go home and look it up to understand it was an era from the late 1800s to the mid teens of the 1900s, when the arts and literature and even technology, such as it was, flourished. And we have stood witness to all that, in the past few years especially. But right now, this very minute, it feels like that era of developing all those strong creative forces are threatened in way they have never been in our lifetimes. That the arts and even creativity are in danger of slipping away amid an economic pandemic of biblical proportions.
And it occurs to me that, whether it was a smart business choice or a passionate expensive indulgence (or a combination of both), your absorbing that fledging festival was a gift that few of us appreciated and probably less of us thanked you for at the time.
So "thank you" from one grateful filmgoer and lover of new ideas, for the decades of rich experiences you have provided for a small, formerly rather rural town, in the middle of the Intermountain West, very far from where such rich cultural experiences are generally based. You have given us unbelievable opportunities for growth. And I wonder if in these challenging times there aren’t other women and men who have the energy and resources and imagination to embrace struggling nonprofits of all stripes and have the vision to see the value of such a gift? We can only hope that social portfolios will become as important as financial ones in this powerful moment of shifting paradigms.
For the next few days, as locals, we can appreciate the ongoing student outreach programs our young people experience for free, the opportunity to see great stories told on the screen and around town. And the influx of creative people wanting to connect. There are tickets for the curious to be had and panel discussions and music still to be heard. We will nourish ourselves and await the next chapter in creativity. And I hope more than one person remembers to thank you, on any day, even this very Sunday in the Park
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Delores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and the Big Stars Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at Deer Valley. She is also a former editor of The Park Record.