Hats off to Harry

"Among the many, many evenings William Weld spent in the Moran School theater, one in particular stands out.It's the night the projection booth caught fire.It was 1930 or 1931, and each weekend stars like Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino and Margaret Sullavan graced the theater1s silent screen. On this night, it was Hollywood's hottest couple, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.Weld was not yet the projectionist at the little theater on Manitou Park Boulevard, although his turn would come -- instead, as curtain boy, he had only to draw back the massive velvet drape that hung across the theater screen as the house lights went down.Up in the booth, several young Moran School students ran the twin projectors for an audience of their classmates.And as fate would have it, one of the massive reels of nitrate film stock -- prone to breaking and extremely flammable -- jumped the sprockets in mid-feature, and the film was set ablaze by the projector's arc lamp.To the horror of those in the booth and unbeknownst to those below, the fire spread to another bundle of film in a canister on the floor.Then a telltale flickering light appeared on the theater screen, and Weld and the rest of the audience looked back to see smoke and flames coming from the tiny projection windows above their heads. I dutifully closed the curtain, and (the students) all filed out, Weld said. If there hadn1t been anyone in the booth, the whole building would have gone up.But although the projectors were destroyed and the room sustained considerable damage, the fire was extinguished and the hall was saved.With a pair of newfangled sound projectors, the showings would go on -- an Al Jolsen feature being the debut -- for students at the private academy, and later for other islanders as a private venture of the college-age Weld and a partner, from 1932-34. We never made any money, recalled Weld, now 87, standing once again in the projection booth this week. 3If we made $4 or $5 or $6, it was worth noting. But it was a lot of fun. It was the only theater (on the island), before the Lynwood.The four-story building, on the grounds of what is now Messenger House Care Center, hasn't been used for decades, and its future is uncertain.But for a few weeks at least, life and art have come full circle.The theater, having been the venue for so many films, will be the setting for one of its own.* * * * *In the stairwell, in the hallways, all around the upper floors, thick plaster falls away in chips and old paint peels from the walls.It is just what Garrett Bennett was looking for -- in places, too much so. It would take an art department 20 hours to create that, said Bennett, writer/director of the feature-length independent film Farewell To Harry, surveying a wall worn naturally by the years.Bennett scouted countless locations, looking for a building that suited his vision of a decrepit hat factory that is the film's principal setting. There were big brick buildings everywhere in the country, he said. Even in Seattle. But they've all been bought up by dot-com companies.Returning to the island, the Bainbridge native found what he needed in his own back yard, on the Messenger House grounds.While a brick building on the Port Townsend waterfront will serve for exterior shots, behind the Moran School theater's quirky, Italian villa facade was the stuff of dreams. I looked inside, and it was very striking, Bennett said. Incredible windows and amazing architecture. Everything seemed to fit at that point, and we just stopped here. It's been the right idea.A 1983 graduate of Bainbridge High School, Bennett studied directing at the American Film Institute and has a variety of production credits, including End of an Icon, starring Eric Roberts. Farewell To Harry represents a story-telling vision of his own inspiration, a modern fable said to be in the vein of The Natural and The Cider House Rules.Set on an island, the story explores the sometimes strained bond of friendship between Nick, the frustrated manager of a classic cinema, and amysterious codger named Harry, who lives in a rundown hat factory once ownedby his grandfather.Together, they pursue Harry's dream of transforming the factory into a Vaudeville theater, wending through subplots of love and abandonment, even as Harry is driven by his own demons to an almost-certain tragic end. It was, in short, perfect for the Moran School theater, replete with its own romantic tales from Bainbridge Island lore.According to a history compiled by Messenger House admissions coordinator Linda Field, the facility began as the Chataquas resort community in 1906.It was later purchased by Frank Moran -- son of Robert Moran, a Northwest shipbuilder and former mayor of Seattle -- and became the Moran School in 1914. For two decades, it educated the progeny of some of Seattle1s leading families.(Living down the street -- and here1s a tale for you -- Weld was first talked into manning the projection booth by several frisky students who then, defiant of the closed-campus policy, slipped off the grounds for the evening to court neighborhood girls.)Falling into financial straits again in the late 1930s, the facility served as the Puget Sound Naval Academy, and later became the Stonehall Rehabilitative Center, advertising salt air and physical therapy for thosewith crippling diseases.Messenger House Care Center was founded in 1960, and is now one of four similar homes owned by a Tacoma concern.And while the facility has seen improvements and additions over the years, the theater building has sat abandoned and unused, moldering away in a corner of the colorful grounds overlooking Manitou Beach.Then Bennett showed up, and after negotiations with care center officials, he and his film crew were given free run of the place -- provided the work not be too disruptive for the residents in the adjacent buildings.Throughout the summer and early autumn, set designers and builders have been restoring the theater space to a more proper state of benign neglect.One feature that had already been written into the story was Harry's office, overlooking the factory floor. Made to order, Bennett found that an old administrative office and its broad window loom over the theater below.As crews bang away each day, the air is heavy with sawdust and lacquer fumes and the whine of power tools. Props from around the country have started to accumulate -- old radios, a phonograph, an adding machine, trunks, factory works -- and everywhere one looks, hats, hats, hats.This week, Bennett was busy with last-minute preparations, including negotiations with the film1s leads, yet unannounced.Shooting at island locations including Messenger House begins Oct. 12; to the delight of the care-center community, cast and crew will roam the grounds and share use of the kitchen facilities with the 95 or so residents. It's really added a lot of excitement around here for the residents and the staff, Field said.And as it does for Weld, the location forms a sort of life symmetry for the writer/director.In his youth, Bennett and several friends co-founded the Annex Theatre -- which he describes as three guys doing a play once -- by rehearsing in various abandoned buildings around the island, including the fabled Timber Lodge at Fort Ward.Most of those buildings have given way to time and a swelling Bainbridge population; the Moran School theater remains a rare symbol of an age, not that long ago, when such mysterious, crumbling landmarks dotted the island.Bennett, who says he is tired of the cynicism of contemporary American films, promises that Farewell To Harry will be uplifting to a fault. This film, if anything, is almost too romantic, he said. I almost had to rein it in a little bit. * * * * *William Weld still lives on Manitou Park Boulevard, a few doors down from the Moran School theater, on property his family has owned for most of a century.And he wonders what will become of the building once the film crew leaves. I'm hoping maybe this activity that's going on now will create some interest in someone who could use it, Weld said.Linda Field says that even if it were restored -- surely a very expensive project, given its state of decay -- various codes preclude the use of the upper floors as a nursing home.With no immediate plans to be razed or used, the building will probably go back to just sitting there. A local theater troupe has expressed interest in the space, but again, issues of code would probably have to be addressed.The arrival of Garrett Bennett and Farewell To Harry has though, however briefly, given thrilling new life to the theater.It has given Weld a chance to step back into his own past, back into Bainbridge history.And with a writer's eye for serendipity, Bennett has written Weld into a little corner of the script -- a part, one might say, about the size of a tiny projection booth.Running a small factory machine, Weld will appear as himself.* * * * *The Lynwood Pictures/Drop of a Hat Production of Farewell To Harry, written and directed by Garrett Bennett, begins shooting at locations around Bainbridge Island and Port Townsend Oct. 12."

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