Neighborhood "pop-up" outdoor movies help create community

Thursday, June 11, 2015

"Sumer is icumen in" which, in at least two Rockridge neighborhoods, means the resumption of outdoor movie nights.

Residents of the 5300 block of Shafter and the Colby Park area host several films each summer as a way to create a sense of community.

"Thea"s a real community builder," says Sue Emmons, who has lived in her Shafter home for nearly 40 years. She means Thea Gray who, with her spouse Jeanine Mattson, moved across the street from Emmons only three years ago.

Gray transported the idea of a neighborhood open-air movie from "my very foggy neighborhood in San Francisco." This will be the "Shafter Summer Cinema"s" second year. "The movies we"ve done are family-friendly," she says, on a block where younger families are moving in, but are still a minority.

Last year, "The Princess Bride," "Big" and "Up" were shown on a screen hung in the middle of the street or on the lengthy shared driveway between Emmons and her neighbor, Patricia Muscatelli. However, they projected "The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" on a sheet turned mainsail, one of three sails and a Jolly Roger (which Gray sewed) wafting from their house to make it resemble a pirate ship.

The evenings usually draw 20 or so neighbors, Gray told me. Two films planned for this summer, no dates yet, are "The Lego Movie" and "Maleficent."

"I may have started it, but with the exception of Jeanine and me, all the neighbors pitching in for movie night are old-timers - in terms of how long they"ve lived here - as are many of the diehard folks who show up at the screenings," Gray says.

That includes Tony Kay, whom Gray calls "The Mayor of Shafter - the 5300 block at least," who provides the screen, and Maureen Alano and husband George Zolinsky who bring the popcorn popper. Gray"s brother-in-law lent the digital projector the first couple of times. Now she borrows it from work, where she is a medical editor.

A friend from their old San Francisco neighborhood sometimes comes to help with setup, popcorn making, trivia games (they give out candy bars for answering trivia questions correctly), and assorted tech help, Gray says.

"Movie night should be seen in the context of the bigger picture on our block," says "Mayor" Kay. "We have made an effort over the years (28 for him) to create an old-style neighborhood. This means getting to know as many neighbors as possible so that we can enjoy that two-minute conversation with each other as we walk down the block.

"Thea and Jeanine provided some new energy when they moved in," Kay noted. "Many of the activities are planned by a core group of long-time residents, so it"s great (and rare) when people move in and immediately get involved. Thea and Jeanine are exceptional because they not only volunteer for existing tasks, but also launch new things - like the movie nights."

"It doesn"t take much," says Gray. "Any neighborhood can do it. You borrow a projector and you borrow a screen and you have a community event."

The more established "Colby Park Cinema" draws a larger, younger audience as befits an area near Peralta Elementary.

Begun by two sets of parents, Ben Riddell and Star Lightner, and their neighbors, Keith Beattie and Shelli Strand, this summer"s screenings mark the fourth year of what Lightner likes to call "pop-up movies."

"Our two families live directly across from Colby Park and wanted to utilize this great community resource for everyone"s benefit," Lightner told me. A nearby neighborhood used to hold an annual outdoor movie fundraiser for Peralta, but took some flak for blocking off the street.

When the couples took it over, they dropped the fundraising aspect in favor of a free neighborhood gathering. "I feel like Colby Park is kind of a hidden gem, and somewhat underutilized," Lightner says. (That"s why she also started the Colby Park Easter Egg Hunt, which just celebrated its 11th year.)

It happens randomly, she explains, "when the four of us have a free Friday or Saturday night." A few days ahead, they email the Lower Rockridge Parents Group (LRPG). "We do at least three over the summer. We try to find adult-friendly kids films. It can be challenging since the kids range from about two to 12, but it"s always a good time."

Past films have included "How to Train Your Dragon," "Frozen," "Cars," "Tangled," "Despicable Me," "The Spy Next Door" and "Princess Bride."

"It"s a great neighborhood occasional event," Lightner confirmed, although she also invites friends whose children attend Chabot Elementary. "We usually get from 50 to 75 people."

Picture a large movie screen hanging from one of the bigger trees, a projector and tarps spread on the ground for kids to sit and lie on. "Adults bring camp chairs and snacks and, more recently, we started doing a potluck dinner beforehand, for anyone interested in joining," Lightner says. "It"s a big kids" fest: They have their popcorn; we have our garage bar."

Her children, Ethan, 12, and Alyssa, 7, enjoy it in different ways. Ethan, now in middle school, is apt to be running around, while Alyssa is still enraptured by the films.

"The kids are all snuggled up in their sleeping bags with their pillows and their blankets," my daughter Debbie Berne, a Peralta parent, described to me. Sometimes the adults watch too, she says, but they also can be seen socializing on the edges of the pocket park.

"It"s pretty much what your daughter describes," Keith Beattie says. "I drag out the equipment (some borrowed from neighbors) and set up everything well before sundown: tables; chairs; projector; screen; computer or DVD player; and speakers.

"It"s a lot of work to drag all that gear out, then back, including my usually sleeping child at the end of night," Beattie acknowledges. "But I love doing it. It creates a truly wonderful feeling of community around the park."

How does your neighborhood create community? Who is/are the sparkplug(s) on your block? To answer these questions (with an eye to future stories) and/or to comment on this column, email