Back in 1985, when what would become the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival began, the films were unspooled on a 16-mm projector on a pull-down screen at the local library. Four years later, the Broward County Film Society began sharing space in a vacant church with Vinnette Carroll, whose repertory theater performed there. In 2000, the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival – or FLiFF- took over the entire space, converting it into the non-profit year-round movie house, Cinema Paradiso. Membership Director Irwin Levenstein has been a familiar face to crowds at past FLiFF events – and will be again at the current festival, Nov. 7-23 at locations now throughout Broward. We talked with him about the magic of movies, his turn as an actor, the future of the festival and finding love again.
Q: When did you become involved?
A: Well, I retired [from the hardware business] in 1992, came down here, sat on the beach for three months, turned to my wife and said, ‘I can’t do this. I’m already bored out of my mind.’ So, driving around one day, I hear a radio spot, asking for volunteers and that was it. I started taking pictures of the events and was made staff photographer, volunteer coordinator and then membership director in 2003. I ended up with a second career that was a lot more exciting than the hardware business!
Q: What don’t people know about Cinema Paradiso?
A: You know, this woman came up to me one day and said, ‘This place saved my life.’ She was lonely and depressed and when she found us, it changed her life. Not only do we show great films that you’d never get to see, Cinema Paradiso is a wonderful place to meet warm, interesting people that go on to create relationships outside of the theater. As corny as it may sound, it is really like a family. After becoming a widower, I met my girlfriend here.
Q: Why do you think more people don’t take advantage of the festival?
A: Because a lot of people have stopped going to the theater to watch movies. But what they don’t realize is that it’s just not the same. Movies are meant to be a shared experience. It’s what I call an audience vibe. Watching films with other people definitely enhances the enjoyment of that experience in ways they may not even realize, especially here. Like I said before, it goes beyond just watching a movie to being part of a social scene.
A: Who got you started as an actor?
Q: Lou Pappas, a local filmmaker, asked me to read for a five-minute short he was doing, called The Split, and from there another local film maker, Todd Bruno, who saw my performance, asked me to read for the part of a white-collar criminal in his full-length featured, Callous. The last thing I did was with Lou again – he actually wrote a part for me, as a hit man in his most recent film, The Last Hit, which won the Best of Florida award last year. So I guess I’m ready for my close-up!
Q: Where do you see the future of Cinema Paradiso going?
A: Well recently, we opened up a second location in downtown Hollywood, which has been attracting a local audience. In fact, last week, we screened Gone Girl, followed by a pre-taped interview with the author, Gillian Flynn, and both Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale had a full house. So, hopefully, that’s the future.