Monthly Movie Club at The Garden Theater

Free “nostalgic” flicks create party atmosphere

By Aubrey Ann Parker
Current Editor

As a millennial born in the mid-1980s, I remember “the ole days” when we watched movies on VHS (​​video home system) tapes in our VCR (video cassette recorder), which was attached to our television. 

My parents had bought a 100-year-old farmhouse in the boonies of Leelanau County just a few months before I was born, thus we did not have cable television—with about 100 channels—like my grandparents, who lived in the great metropolis of Traverse City. 

So rather than television, of which we had three stations—PBS, CBS, and NBC, thanks to an antenna atop our TV—I watched a lot of movies growing up. And, of course, I watched most of them on repeat, because we only owned a few dozen VHS tapes, mostly Disney animated films. (Unlike my cousins who lived up the road and had close to a thousand movies that they had, rather illegally, “taped”: for you youngin’s out there, that was when you owned two VCRs, and you would rent a VHS movie from the local video store and play it in one VCR while recording it onto a blank VHS tape in the second VCR. Then you would return the rented VHS to the store, but you would still retain your pirated copy in perpetuity at home. This meant you could rent a movie for $4.99 and “tape it,” as opposed to buying it for $19.99 at full price and owning the cover jacket that came with it. It was total copyright infringement; but it was pretty rampant, as I recall.)

There was the odd occasion when we would rent a “new release” movie—meaning that it had been in theaters about six to 12 months prior, as that was the average amount of time that it took between the end of a theatrical release and the time that a film was available on home video.

It all seems so strange to look back on now, despite that I lived it. 

Nowadays, there are thousands of television shows and movies at my fingertips to “stream” from an online platform—Amazon Prime, Apple TV, BritBox, Disney Plus, Hulu, Paramount Plus, Peacock, (HBO) Max, Netflix, Tubi, YoutubeTV, the list seems to grow every month. I can watch these on my computer, my television, my tablet, or even my phone. I can watch from home; I can “sign in” to my accounts when I am on vacation or from an airport (as long as I’m not international, that gets tricky); and I just pay a one-a-month flat rate of $7.99 (or whatever) for everything that is available on the entire platform. (Though obviously “renting” something newer might cost me an additional $4.99, and I only have 48 hours to watch it.)

Moreover, if I make a “mistake” and choose something that I am not really liking, I can stop it at any time and switch to something else immediately. 

“Kids today” will never know the agony of going to the video store with your best friend, who had come to your house for a weekend sleepover. You would walk into the Blockbuster rental store and have to decide on one—maybe two, if you were really lucky—movies that your parents would rent for that evening. (Usually we were allowed one new release or two older movies, because the price of the new movies were about three times that of the old ones; not to mention that a new release was due back to the video store within usually one to two days, whereas you could keep the older movie for sometimes up to 10 days. This was especially important if you were renting on a Friday night, and your parents were not going back to “town” for work until Monday; it might not give them enough time to return the movie, and then they  would have to pay a “late fee.” So, your chances of getting to rent a “new release” were often better if you chose to have a Saturday night sleepover, strategically.) 

We would busy ourselves with reading the description on the back of the VHS jacket, look at all of the pictures, read the snippets of Siskel and Ebert reviews printed as quotes, and try to decide if the film was going to be any good. 

But sometimes, it was just too scary to rent something new, at least until enough of our friends had seen it to tell us if it was any good. So instead, we would opt for the low-risk, tried-and-true favorites. Movies we had seen a half-dozen times already that same year, but we knew that we were guaranteed to like it.

That is what Practical Magic was to me and my friends.

Considered a cult classic, the film came out in October 1998, which means that I was just 13 years old when it was in theaters. Practical Magic is an American fantasy/romantic drama, based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Alice Hoffman. The film stars Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman—among others, like Stockard Channing, Dianne Wiest, Aidan Quinn, and Goran Višnjić—who play sisters Sally and Gillian Owens, descended from a long line of witches. Raised by their aunts after their parents’ death from a family curse, the sisters were taught the uses of “practical magic” as they grew up. As adults, Sally and Gillian must use their magic to destroy an evil spirit before it kills them. 

I have watched this flick at least 100 times by now, because I watch it every year at least once, and when I was younger, we probably watched it at least quarterly. There were several movies like that which my gal pals and I would re-rent over and over, if we could not agree on something new: Now & Then, A League of Their Own, Hocus Pocus, The Secret of Roan Inish, Magic in the Water, 10 Things I Hate About You. (Are you seeing the theme of girl-power films? The ‘90s were great for that.) 

Well, this past fall marked the 25th anniversary of the release of Practical Magic. And as soon as the air begins to get crisp and the leaves begin to change color, I get the itch to watch it. (Hell, sometimes I get the itch on a random January evening, too.)

I had promised to watch it with my best friend, Cory Bissell—you might know him as the guy who owns Kilwins in Frankfort—but I just could not wait. Or did not want to, at least.

And understandably, Cory got a little upset.

So we were sitting around joking about how I was going to have to watch it again with him—“Oh darn,” in my most sarcastic voice, “having to watch it twice in one season!”—and Cory said something like, “So many people love this movie, we should just get The Garden Theater to show it.” 

“Uh, yeah, we should,” I responded, very seriously.

So we reached out to Katie Jones, executive director of the theater, and she was on board with the idea as a free community event. 

But we had no idea what we were in for. We had no idea—though perhaps we should have—that this movie resonated with so many other people as strongly as it did with us. 

We had hoped that maybe 25 to 50 of our friends and family would come 

Instead, 125 people—about 90 percent of whom were dressed up as witches—showed up on a random Thursday night before Halloween for a witch-themed party and a 25-year-old movie, all because we had asked the movie theater director, half as a joke.

It is so great living in a small town, right? It is truly amazing.

So this got us thinking: What if we did something like this more often? 

At that first event in October, we passed around a clipboard to gather email addresses, so that we could let people know if we decided to do more events, and we asked for suggestions for future “nostalgic” movies that we could show—movies that people would actually show up for again.

So, in January, to kick off the new year, we showed Grumpy Old Men, which is from 1993, and we had about 75 people show up, even though it was a snowy night. Then in February, for Valentine’s Day, we showed Casablanca, which is from 1942, and we had our biggest crowd yet of 135 people. In March, we showed The Big Lebowski, which is from 1998, and we had 105 people show up. 

Each time, there was a dress-up theme encouraged: “dress as your grumpiest older self” in January, “dress in your sweetest Valentine’s outfit” for February, and “dress in your best Lebowski fit” for March. (I have always said that there are just not enough “dress-up” parties in post-college adulthood, and the number of people who have participated has been extraordinary.)

Over the course of just a few months, we have had hundreds of community members show up—many in costumes—to enjoy a movie they have perhaps seen hundreds of times. 

Not only that, but we have raised hundreds of dollars for local organizations. 

Yes, like I mentioned earlier, the movies are technically free to the public, because we want anyone and everyone to be able to attend.

But back in October, when we showed Practical Magic, somebody suggested that we could do a fundraiser to go along with the free movie showing. Since that movie does have a few scenes or very real and raw domestic violence, we thought it was a great opportunity to raise awareness and a few dollars for the Women’s Resource Center in Traverse City to help those in our community—we were able to donate $300, thanks to what the “witches” gave us that night. 

When we started planning out the core parts of Monthly Movie Club—free, nostalgic/throwback films, dress-up theme, and free movie-themed treats from Kilwins for those who dress up—we really liked the idea of pairing each movie with a local group and raising funds.

So in January, we obviously paired Grumpy Old Men with Benzie Senior Resources, and we were able to raise about $100. In February, because Casablanca is a World War II-era film, we raised $125 for Mid-Michigan Honor Flight, which takes World War II, Korean, and VietNam veterans to Washington, D.C. (Read the article that we published on this subject last May in our online archives.) In March, we raised $215 for the Frankfort Area Community Land Trust, because everyone deserves a home “with a nice rug to tie the whole room together.” (To quote The Big Lebowski.)

The plan is to continue Monthly Movie Club as a free event, as long as the community keeps showing up for it. 

Ready for some nostalgia? Come join us. Somehow, a throwback film that you have seen so many times before just hits differently on a big screen, while surrounded by others—all laughing when you laugh, all crying when you cry—with the smell of fresh popcorn hanging in the air. There truly is something magical about seeing a favorite film among a community who love it just as much as you do. (Or who are sometimes experiencing it for the first time, as was the case for me and The Big Lebowski earlier this month; I had friends afterward say tat they enjoyed seeing it for the first time again through my eyes.)

Mark your calendars: A League Of Their Own, which is from 1992, is the next film in the Monthly Movie Club series, airing on Thursday, April 11, at 7pm. Attendees are encouraged to dress up. Learn more at “The Betsie Current” on Facebook, @thebetsiecurrent on Instagram, or email aubreyannparker@gmail.com to be added to the email list for future events or to give us your “nostalgic” movie suggestions.

Movie NameDateTotal AttendanceFundraiser
Practical Magic (1998)10/26/2023125$300 – Women’s Resource Center
Grumpy Old Men (1993)1/18/202475$100 – Benzie Senior Resources
Casablanca (1942)2/14/2024135$125 – Mid-Michigan Honor Flight
The Big Lebowski (1998)3/6/2024105$215 – Frankfort Area Community Land Trust
A League of Their Own (1992)4/11/2024110$316 – Frankfort-Elberta Youth Sports Boosters (summer softball team)
The Great Outdoors (1988)5/23/2024
The Goonies (1985)6/18/2024
Dirty Dancing (1987)7/18/2024
Overboard (1987)8/22/2024
Upcoming movies — check back for the updated list as time goes on!

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Aubrey Parker

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