On Nov. 18, the night after we screened "Casablanca," Tina Ritter, a friend of UPCA, was waiting tables at Coogan's Restaurant. She overheard a conversation at one of the tables about how much fun it was to see "Casablanca" on the Palace's big screen. One of the guests noted that it would be great to see "It's A Wonderful Life" there as well. Another guest said she was friends with Mary Owen – the daughter of Donna Reed – and was sure that she would introduce her mother's most famous film at the Palace if she was asked.
Even though we hadn't planned to show another film this year, by the end of that week we had booked "It's A Wonderful Life" for December 22 with the distributor and signed up Mary to present it. The event came together so effortlessly it was like Clarence the angel was watching over us.
In keeping with our goal to not just show a movie but to create a cinematic event we also recruited neighborhood residents to sing carols in the foyer and lead the audience in a sing-a-long. Xavier Eikerenkoetter (UPCA President and Rev. Ike's son) agreed to sing "Buffalo Gals" on stage with Kelvyn Bell (from the United Palace Church house band) accompanying him on guitar. To complete the scene the front of house was decked out in full holiday glory. With dozens of guests wearing tuxedos and gowns the foyer was so beautiful that Xavier – who has seen hundreds of events at the Palace – was moved to document it on his smart phone.
None of our guests looked more dashing than Jeff and Luke Hoppa. They were last seen together at the Palace over the summer while filming their cameos in the video to promote the campaign to Return Film to the Palace, expressing Jeff's wish to be able to take his son to the movies in the neighborhood. (Mission accomplished.)
About 850 people attended "It's a Wonderful Life," a tremendous number considering that it is playing all over television in the weeks leading up to Christmas. When Mary took the stage she asked how many audience members had never seen the movie before – about 100 people raised their hands. Also keeping with our tradition we showed the movie with Spanish subtitles so language wouldn't be an obstacle to reaching out to local residents. That is UPCA's ultimate mission, to use the arts to bridge the different parts of the community.
An email from neighborhood resident Jane LeCroy summed up the evening for hundreds of audience members.
"It is just dreamy to see the audience full of neighbors and friends! I can't believe how lucky we are to have this treasure in our special neighborhood . . . 'It's a Wonderful Life' was my father's favorite movie and I literally have watched it over 100 times. He died in 2007 and we watched it together for the last time the month he died. Sunday 12/22/13 was my first time watching it since his death and my first time seeing it on the big screen - and it was the first time my three children got to experience it and my husband's cousins from France. We were all crying by the end, tears of joy and sadness, sweet and bittersweet. Love hurts."