Watching Hollywood movies never gets old for Raj Tawney, the young director of publicity for the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, especially if the films are classics from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
“They call it the Golden Age for a reason,” says the 29-year-old with a broad smile. “It was an era in which you had almost 60 to 90 million people attending a film all at once. It really reached a mass cultural moment.”
Gone are the days when everybody in America routinely flocked to their neighborhood movie palaces to see the same flick the moment it premiered. But Tawney, who grew up on Long Island, is devoted to recreating that experience as best he can by hosting special events and screenings at Huntington’s premier film facility, where the usual fare is primarily foreign and independent movies, as opposed to commercial blockbusters.
Recently, he introduced an anniversary screening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which he says is “a great example of a movie that bridges generations.” The turnout was very gratifying. “To watch a 50-plus-year-old movie and see so many young people in the audience was really encouraging. We know we’re going in the right direction.”
A graduate of Farmingdale State, where he was a communications major, Tawney got exposed to Hollywood’s heyday by watching Turner Classic Movies with his Puerto Rican grandmother at her place in the Bronx.
“My family is from all over the place,” he explains, noting that his father emigrated from India in the 1970s. “I grew up in a Puerto Rican, Indian and Italian household. I had the best food!”
He learned early on that films could enable him to bridge the generations. His Italian grandfather, who died when Tawney was an infant, used to play Sinatra “all the time.” One day while he and his grandmother were watching Doris Day and Frank Sinatra in the 1955 film Young at Heart, he says it struck a chord.
“It was a way for me to connect with my grandparents through a film they had watched when they were teenagers,” he recalls. That passion has become his mission at Cinema Arts, where he’s been since 2015.
“I’m always looking for new ideas to reach audiences with different types of genres,” says Tawney, who fittingly is also a member of the Suffolk County Legislature’s Next Generation Advisory Council.
On Nov. 6 at the Cinema Arts, Tawney will be hosting an in-depth discussion and multi-media presentation with the legendary Hollywood agent Budd Burton Moss, who’s a living connection to a world that most young people have only read about. The 86-year-old Moss hung out with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, to name a few stars. Sidney Poitier was the best man at one of Moss’s weddings. Every week in Los Angeles, Moss still goes out for bagels with his pal Larry King, who wrote the foreword to Moss’ new book, Hollywood: Sometimes the Reality Is Better Than the Dream. When Moss was a talent agent, he represented Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, and, most importantly, Rita Hayworth, with whom he became very close friends, as well as her manager. Currently, Moss is on a crusade to get the underrated actress, who died in 1987, honored with her own U.S. Postal Service stamp.
Moss had a fabled childhood growing up on the back lots of Hollywood. His father was a film editor at Fox, and his uncle was Sam Zimbalist, who produced the Oscar-winning Ben-Hur (1960) along with the Oscar-nominees Quo Vadis (1952) and King Solomon’s Mines (1951). First wanting to become an actor himself, Moss was an extra on the set of Sidney Poitier’s breakout film, Blackboard Jungle. Later, after he’d switched careers, they became long-lasting friends.
“He’s a fascinating man,” says Tawney, who’s never met Moss, although they talk “almost every day.” It all began one day while his Cinema Arts colleagues were at the Toronto Film Festival. Tawney took a call from a woman who said she knew Moss well, and insisted that he should invite Moss to Huntington. He did. The rest is history: film history.
Following the special event in Huntington, Tawney will be hosting Moss at The Amsterdam at Harborside in Port Washington on Nov. 10 to moderate another conversation and book signing, under the auspices of the Gold Coast International Film Festival—the first time the two groups have partnered together on a project.
“Raj is amazing!” says Regina Gil, executive director of the Gold Coast International Film Festival. “He’s got the energy and the enthusiasm befitting a young person but he’s also got what they call an alte kopf, a Yiddish expression that means ‘old soul.’ He really knows how to connect to young people, old people, everybody in between.”
Gil first met Moss a few years ago at the film festival when he was promoting his first memoir. This time, she connected with Tawney through a mutual friend, and suggested that he host Moss at the festival venue as well as at the Cinema Arts.
“Budd has become an activist for the Golden Age of Hollywood,” Gil says. “He is coming back because he’s written another book, and he wants to honor Rita Hayworth. She was one of the great stars of the Golden Era. She started out as an amazing singer and dancer—and she was Hispanic. Hollywood plucked her out of the cantina circuit. You didn’t become a star in those days without having a ton of talent.”
Gil has similar regard for Tawney.
“Raj is young; he’s talented,” she says. “I’m delighted that our two entities in Nassau County and Suffolk County can partner together.”
Budd Burton Moss gushed about working with Tawney.
“Since I was introduced to Raj Tawney at the Cinema Arts Centre,” says Moss, “I have found a new excitement due to his unique understanding of many of my clients and his understanding of our motion picture and TV industry.”
Tawney does bear an uncanny resemblance to a younger version of Budd Burton Moss, so it will certainly be entertaining to see the two film aficionados on the same stage.
Just don’t ask Tawney to name his favorite films.
“I hate that question!” he says, laughing. But if Tawney could go back in time for one movie premiere, it would be when Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho came out in 1960.
“Can you imagine how scary that might have been to anybody?” Tawney asks. “Hitchcock forced you to use your imagination!”
One of the first classic films Tawney helped bring to Huntington was Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, starring Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten, which came out in 1943 and was nominated for an Oscar. He screened the film on one evening in the middle of the work week but it still found its audience.
“I couldn’t believe how packed it was!” Tawney exclaims.
In March, the Cinema Arts presented a 70 mm version of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood. The original celluloid film stock is always Tawney’s favorite format, because he believes it makes the cinematic experience much more authentic than a slick, remastered digital version.
“We’re an art house cinema,” he explains. “We’ve been around for 43 years. We’ve outlived the VCR, the DVD, the Blu-ray…
“We want the reel,” says Tawney emphatically. “There’s something about those little chips and cracks in the film stock that make you feel like you’re watching it as an audience watched it when it first came out. Maybe it’s our romanticized vision, but I think there’s something to it.”
Recently, Tawney arranged an event featuring film historian Irene P. Eckert, an octogenarian whom he calls “a Renaissance lady,” for a special presentation of Divorce Italian Style, starring Marcello Mastroianni, which won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1962. It was another successful evening that brought different demographics together.
“For me, it’s about the emotional connection,” Tawney says. “We have film historians, event hosts, to lead the discussion. How did you feel about the film afterwards? Not just to psychoanalyze it. That’s what my grandma always asked me, too. Right away, as soon as the film’s done, what do you feel about it?”
Tawney knows that someone streaming a movie at home alone won’t have that kind of dialogue.
“At the end of the day, the reason people still come to watch movies, is because you’re looking for an experience to share with a group,” Tawney says. “That’s why movies exist. They bring people together.”
Main Art: Raj Tawney, director of publicity at Cinema Arts Centre, proudly displaying one of the many original celluloid film reels showcased at the Huntington venue (Spencer Rumsey / Long Island Press
Cinema Arts Centre is located at 432 Park Ave., Huntington, NY. cinemaartscentre.org The Gold Coast International Film Festival runs Nov. 10 to Nov. 15 at various theaters and venues throughout the Town of North Hempstead. For a complete list of films and showtimes, check out goldcoastfilmfestival.org