Cinema Paradiso

 

Richard Paradise, at the Film Center


And several things you probably didn’t know about Richard Paradise.

 

After Richard Paradise’s father finished his day job at the Alcoa factory, he drove a cab into the early morning hours. Young Richard, the oldest of four children, would stay up late with his mom in their Hoboken, N.J., apartment and watch old movies and the Late, Late Show. She’d describe to him how she’d seen the films in the movie theater when they first came out.

Now, Paradise — as many of us know — is the founder and executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society. He oversees a nonprofit with more than 2,300 members and an annual budget of a million dollars, 80 percent of which comes from ticket sales, concessions, sponsorships, and memberships, with the remainder coming from donations and grants. You could say that’s a big leap from the little boy who kept his mother company late at night.

“My parents were older parents,” Paradise explained one damp and chilly April afternoon at the Film Center. “My dad was 45 years old when he had me, late in life for his generation. My parents were married 11 years before they had children, and then my mother had all these children in a short period of time.”

Paradise had what he called a middle-class upbringing, growing up in apartment buildings outside New York City. That’s why when it came time to go to college, he chose a place far away from the big city — Northland College in Ashland, Wis., five hours north of Madison, “in the middle of nowhere,” Paradise said. It was, he said, like a breath of fresh air.

“I’d been scouting my whole boyhood,” Paradise said. “Cub Scout to Explorer and Eagle Scout — all of that. It was really the only way I could touch nature; having grown up in apartment buildings in Hoboken and Jersey City, there wasn’t a lot of outdoor space.”

Paradise said he loved summer camp and getting all of his badges and achievements in Scouts. In fact, it was scouting that led to his keen interest in studying life sciences in college. Paradise was involved in student council — and even headed the movie operation at the student union — and looked forward to a career in wildlife biology. After graduation, he worked in the admissions office, then got a position as a Chicago-based representative for the college, meeting with high school students in Indiana, Ohio, and other Midwestern states.

After a few years, Paradise figured he should come up with a strategy. “There wasn’t much I could do with a biology degree back then,” he laughed. So he headed to American University in Washington, D.C., to pursue an M.B.A.

“I studied finance and marketing, school government, and school case-study programs. There were a lot of interesting things in the capitol.”

He took courses with students from all around the world, and met his wife, Brenda Horrigan, at the School of International Studies. She was working on a master’s degree in Soviet studies. They married in D.C. 30 years ago, and Paradise ended up working in magazine publishing.

“I went out to Boulder and I fell in love with it,” Paradise said. “So I convinced my wife to move to Boulder.”

The couple lived in Boulder for eight years; their child was born after five years, and then they decided they’d move back East to be near family, and since they could both telecommute for work, they thought they’d rent a house in Vermont.

“About three months later, we came to the Vineyard, in the summer of 1997, for the first time ever, and we knew nothing about it. I read an article in Travel and Leisure magazine, and I think that’s when the Clintons were coming. We came for a one-week vacation, and at the end of the week, we looked at each other and said, Why not move here?”

He was working as a publisher’s rep at the time, selling advertising and strategic marketing for magazines and working from home. By 1999 they had moved to the Vineyard, and it was during one of the Island’s long winters that he got the idea to start showing movies at the Grange Hall, which had just been taken over by the Preservation Trust.

“I was working at home on the phone all day, and had no interaction with the community,” he said. “I was focused on internal sales, so I started volunteering at church, school, and I looked around and thought I’d like to show some movies in the summer. I had just read that the Grange Hall was bought and renovated by the Preservation Trust and they were going to reopen it.”

That’s when Paradise’s love of movies and his business sense, along with his old college experience of showing those films at the student union, all began to coalesce.

In 1999, Paradise and a small group of other film lovers started showing classic movies once a week in the summer at the Grange Hall. “It was highly successful,” he says. “A hundred people would show up on a Thursday night in the summer to see a 1930s film or an Alfred Hitchcock movie. That’s how I started to introduce the films.”

His enthusiasm added velocity to the project. In the early 2000s, Paradise made the decision to incorporate the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society as a nonprofit. He continued to screen films at the Katharine Cornell Theater, the Tabernacle, Union Chapel, the M.V. Playhouse, the Hebrew Center, and other Island venues.

“As we got to 2005, those old movie programs started to fade, as channels like cable’s TCM and DVDs came along,” he said. “If you wanted to see an old movie you didn’t have to come sit on a folding chair at the Grange Hall.

“My dream was to be able to have an actual real theater to run year-round, day in and day out. It just didn’t look possible,” Paradise said. “Martha’s Vineyard does not have a huge infrastructure of old buildings, old warehouses or buildings, to carve out a cinema, and parking is always an issue. It did not look like there were would ever be a Cinema Paradiso.”

Enter Sam Dunn, architect and developer of the Tisbury Marketplace, who offered Paradise an opportunity for a permanent home for the M.V. Film Society, a place where they could screen films using digital technology. The opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time. Paradise said he and his wife were considering leaving the Island; his day job in publishing was on the fade because of the growing popularity of web publishing.

“I always had a day job,” he said. “The Film Society was always a volunteer thing because I had a love of doing it. No one took a salary. Even after creating the International Film Festival in 2006, even after raising the profile of the Film Society, there wasn’t enough revenue to support my family.”

Dunn approached Paradise in 2010, telling him that he liked what he did and that he thought the Tisbury Marketplace would be a great location for his film center.

“I almost immediately said yes. Well, probably I talked to my wife a bit. It was a big leap,” he said. “The budget in 2010 was about $70,000 a year, and we had never fundraised. We were a 501(c)(3), and we had 200 to 300 members. I had a few grants here and there, and I had done a little bit to broaden the base.”

His business sense kicked in, and after going through the permitting process, the Film Society was able to raise the capital needed. In 2012 the M.V. Film Center opened with “Searching for Sugar Man.”

“It was such a special film,” Paradise said. “It was very gratifying to open this theater on time and on budget, and that was five and a half years ago.”

Three years ago, the M.V. Theater Foundation proposed a collaboration with the Film Society to raise funding needed to renovate two Island theaters — the Capawock, originally built in Vineyard Haven in 1913, and the Strand in Oak Bluffs, built in 1915. That plan also came together successfully, and Paradise now shows more mainstream movies at both of those theaters, saving most of the art film screenings for the Film Center.

“I never thought it would come to this,” he said. Even though he loved watching those old movies as a kid, he said he never dreamed that he would end up making a living at something he “absolutely loves.”

“Watching movies was escapism for me, you know?” he said. “You see people in other parts of the world and in different socioeconomic areas, you think you want to aspire to that. Movies were always an escape for me. Escapism and entertainment.”

He grew up watching Tarzan movies and the Million Dollar Movies that played every night on Channel 9 WWOR, Paradise said. Today he still loves all movie genres, Paradise said, except horror films.

“I like films that are original and are creative and unique for their genre,” he said. “One I do not like is horror, but when ‘Get Out’ came out, it was so creative on multiple levels; there was a horror film I really like. If you do something original, you can break barriers.”

His wife isn’t as enamored of films as he is, Paradise admitted. “She’s a book reader. She comes to the movies two to four times a month. It’s not very often. She loved ‘Three Billboards’ and ‘Ladybird,’” he said. “She’s got a stack of books by the bed. The last thing I read was a biography about Benjamin Franklin about 15 years ago. I do not have the patience for reading books. She’s the writer and book reader, and I’m the visual one.”

Does he have a big screen at home? “Sixty inches,” he said, “But I prefer our Film Center screen of 26 feet. I always prefer to watch a new film with an audience at the Film Center, or at one of the historic theaters we operate.”

His favorite seat at the Film Center? “I like to be up in the higher rows, in the middle of the aisle. Because we have stadium seating, there really is no poor seat at the center. However, I like to be eye level with the middle of the screen, looking straight at the middle.”

He said he doesn’t eat popcorn, or anything, while he watches — it destroys the mood for him. When asked if it bugs him if people talk to him during a film, he answered, “Yes, unless it’s me talking. My wife says I talk to her in the theater.”

What does Paradise do at the end of the day after he turns out the lights at the Film Center and heads home for the night? He said he gets home around 10 pm and turns on Turner Classic Movies, and watches for an hour or more alone before he heads to bed.

“There are probably a hundred films that I’ve watched over and over again over the years from my childhood. The one thing they hold in common is that they are mostly Hollywood classics from the 1930s, ’40s, and some 1950s. Frank Capra, John Ford, Preston Sturges, Elia Kazan, Ernst Lubitsch, or Vincente Minnelli firms of that era are the ones I return to.”

“It relaxes me,” he said.

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