By Mickey Friedman
September 7, 2011
GREAT BARRINGTON, MA — Tuesday night is poker night. How appropriate that I learned from my friend Bijan of Al Schwartz’s passing on poker night, Tuesday September 6. I only played a few times with Al. His was a higher stakes game than I was comfortable with.
Real-life history, unlike the classroom variety, is three-dimensional, messy and vibrant. For me, there is no Great Barrington history that doesn’t feature Al Schwartz. And yet nary a mention on the Mahaiwe Theater website. Very hard to believe. For more than 20 years, seven days a week, Al Schwartz was the Mahaiwe.
I’m told Al died in his sleep. Good for you, Al. Al worked hard and deserves a rest. Wherever he is, you better believe the programming just got a hell of a lot better. And the place a whole lot more interesting.
Here is a piece I wrote in 1994 about Al & The Mahaiwe. He returned for a second stint to work at the theater he loved so much. But, unfortunately, the new management laid Al off at the end of 2008 because of budget cuts. Below that is a letter I wrote to the editor of the Berkshire Eagle.
A Goodbye To Al Schwartz 1994
I was taught that we each had to do our part, and that every job was of equal value. That a healthy village needs its garbage men, its carpenters, its waitresses, its jesters as much as its doctors.
It’s a compelling truth, though it often seems a quaint notion in a world where Jack Welch makes a thousand times more than a GE worker.
Anyway, I want to say thank you to a man who has labored long and hard for those of us who have shared this village. He has too often worked without significant acknowledgment. I want to say “thank you” to Al Schwartz.
For twenty years, Al gave us movies. Not the new way, but the old way: the way of movie magic. The Mahaiwe Way. The big screen, in focus, with a commitment to making reel changes without missing a beat. With a deep and abiding love for the power of film to transport hundreds of people a million miles away.
In an era when movie theaters are phone booths, when projectionists, unaware of what’s playing, sprint from one automated box to another, Al enabled us to defy time. It was a daily, continual act of great integrity. Al worked a twelve-hour day to give us our own Cinema Paradiso.
Now, there’s a certain gruffness to Al. He’s a poker player. He knows and cares about what he’s doing and sometimes just doesn’t have the time to take the long way around things. But if you’ve cared enough about what you’re doing, and have needed a place like the Mahaiwe, Al has always been there, and brought the Mahaiwe along with him.
He brought old gems back to life like Abel Gance’s “Napoleon.” He provided a place for Bonnie Raitt to sing, Olga Dunn to dance, and our local fund-raising hams a world-class stage to perform upon.
Along the way, Al showed us previews for films that never came and offered us those tantalizing posters above the ever-present “Coming Soon.” That was Al playing poker taking a chance he’d draw that inside straight.
Most people never knew the internal politics of the movie business, never understood that Al and the Mahaiwe were so often held hostage by a few extraordinarily powerful studios and distributors. How Al had to make a six-week deal, and how many times Al would apologize for what was beyond his control. They never understood how much work it was for Al to create the time and space for the film festivals we loved so much.
Now, I know there are some people who just don’t care about movies and theater and dance and the inner life of community. Maybe they won’t miss Al. Maybe they won’t notice he’s gone.
But there are so many of us who love the Mahaiwe, who know that Al breathed back life into her, who remember how Al fought for her time and again.
It took place right before our eyes. I remember the theaters on North Street in Pittsfield. They are gone. Ghost-like ruins of another time when we sat together mesmerized by images so big, and bright, and beyond. Losing those theaters was just another part of Pittsfield’s death, the demise of one more American city.
Thanks to Al, we in South County have held on to what so many American communities have lost – a common dreamland.
You can have your plastic Disneyvilles with their white-bread sterility and compulsive cleanliness. I want the Mahaiwe, cold in winter, with some popcorn on the floor, Al taking tickets, so I can take my trip – to Casablanca, to California, anywhere Al has booked me.
For 20 years, Al has been my trusted travel agent, and it’s very hard to imagine life without him.
We give parades to fire chiefs. What do we give someone who has kept us dreaming?
Maybe Great Barrington’s first Oscar. No one deserves it like Al does.
© 1994 Mickey Friedman
Letter to the Editor:
I am unable to imagine the Mahaiwe Theater without Al Schwartz, For decades Al kept the Mahaiwe alive. It might have been cold in there, but Al’s own extraordinary persistence and indomitable energy reminded us always of the spirit of the place. I saw Napoleon Gance’s amazing film “Napoleon” there, and Bonnie Raitt. It was always a place even a struggling artist could afford. It was always a home to the community. Year after year. Olga Dunn brought the sons and daughters of the South Berkshires to dance on its stage. I showed my documentary about GE and PCBs there.
There were others over the years who made the previous owners of the Mahaiwe understand how important it was to us. Abby Shroeder reached out to the Australian conglomerate to keep the theater open. But always Al Schwartz was the guardian of the place.
I’m unable to afford most of the events at the new Mahaiwe so perhaps it’s not my place to comment, but I do know somethings about the arts and about the world of non-profits and about community.
From my perspective, as hard as times are today, the Board of Directors of the Mahaiwe are making a mistake by letting Al go. It might make sense to some in the short term world of dollars, but it’s an error of spirit.