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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Labor of Love

A passion for classic movies

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It's a Milwaukee version of the challenge "Build and They Shall Come." The passion that's driving it? Classic films. "I love to show old films to appreciative audiences," says Henry C. Landa, whose lifetime love affair with movies continues today with his Saturday night series Focus Films.

After the North Division High youth entered the old UW-Extension on Fifth and State, he studied mechanical engineering and went on to earn a master's in industrial engineering. He remains an engineering instructor at UW-Milwaukee.

Like many students, he ran out of money during his undergrad period. He joined the Army, saved his money and finished his degree. Then came a three-year stint with Sohio Oil in Cleveland, graduate study in Madison and a job at Wisconsin Gas. He began to teach ("I loved it!"). He met Mary Ann and married her. And ultimately: "She was agreeable, so we bought a piece of land on the South Side and we built a theater on it."

After a contractor defaulted, Landa tore down the partial construction. "I was short of money and so I built the place myself," he says. "Took about eight and a half years." Talk about a labor of love. The Gallery Cinema took shape in Bay View, showing classic films at classic prices.

"We started in 1981 with what we called 'Nostalgic Prices,' 50 cents for adults and 15 cents for kids," he recalls. One of those early movie-loving bargain hunters, Daniel Guenzel, would become important to Landa later on, but that's getting ahead of the story.

The theater had no popcorn, "so we installed a popcorn machine," Landa says. "We started out with standard cup sizes but we graduated to tubs. ... You could wash up with something that size"-and at 25 cents!

"We offered the lowest concession prices in the city, maybe the state, maybe even the country!" he adds.

Prices had to be raised gradually and were met, but ultimately an economic business cycle began to take form. "Spring and summer were strong; in fall, business dropped off, and winter was just nothing," Landa says. Based upon a record crowd (770 people for a weekend offering of the 1944 wartime thrillerMinistry of Fear), Landa could have been paid a salary and made a reasonable profit. But normally less than half that number, maybe 300 people, showed up.

There was local competition for classic films and the onset of renting movies at the video store. The end was in sight long before Gallery Cinema's final screening in April 1990. A dream once realized ("I love showing old films") was forfeited to reality.

But love is a strong emotion and after a nearly two-decade hibernation, Landa is back on the scene. That's where Guenzel enters the picture. The Wisconsin native's affection for classic films has proven to be as great as Landa's. He even learned to operate a 35 mm projector.

Around two years ago the two men formed Focus Films, which presents two classic films per month, on the second and fourth Saturdays at 7 p.m. This Saturday, March 28, they offerHis Girl Friday(1940), a zany, sophisticated comedy with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in a newspaper milieu.

A salesman by profession, Guenzel is also writing a biography on British cinematographer Wilkie Cooper, whoseThe Long Dark Hall(1951) has been shown by Focus Films.

While not as ideal as owning one's own theater, Focus' current venue, the Church in the City (2648 N. Hackett Ave.), near the Downer Theatre, gives Landa another chance to "show old films to an appreciative audience." And, yes: The Gallery Cinema, hand-built at 2901 S. Delaware Ave., still stands today as a testament to his great love for the cinematic classics.

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