Seymour’s Strand Theatre: Cult Classic Viewings a Hit

Seymour’s Strand Theatre recently hosted Bloody Summer Camp, a double feature hosted by Connecticut Cult Classics. The sold-out event featured 1980s slasher films, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Friday the 13th.” Cult Classics does a double feature at the Strand every other month, often coinciding with the season; “Halloween 1” and “Halloween 3” are slated for October. Tickets for all Strand events, organized by the Knights of Columbus, may be purchased at the box office or Guitar Fixer Bob’s, next door. (Jelenik photo)

SEYMOUR — Around 10 moviegoers lined up on Main Street’s red and black brick sidewalk just before 6 p.m. Saturday evening, August 17, some sitting, some standing, all waiting patiently (or not) for the doors of the Strand Theatre to open a night of ‘80s slasher flicks, one-of-a-kind prizes and hilarious trailers.

The classic marquee advertised the night’s sold-out event—a Connecticut Cult Classics 7 p.m. double feature dubbed Bloody Summer Camp—framed by the sign’s retro red and green neon.

Head Knight John Fanotto of the Knights of Columbus, Aurora Council #53, parked his dark green Chevy Silverado in front of the theater. He hopped out.

“The doors will be open shortly,” he said. Each tick of the clock added another eager participant to the line before Mr. Fanotto opened the doors around 6:30 p.m.

“Sometimes, they’ll be all the way down the street; they want the same seats,” said Mr. Fanotto in the soon-to-be-filled, 276-seat theater.

The scent of popcorn, made by his son Zach Fanotto, lingered throughout the venue, and Mr. Fanotto admitted that preparing the snack was his and Zach’s only real task that night.

That’s because the double feature of “Friday the 13th” and “Sleepaway Camp” was a Larry Dwyer production, the creator of CT Cult Classics and head of a team of local horror fanatics who bring beloved and bizarre films to the Strand’s big screen.

Mr. Dwyer’s double features began as a promotion for Connecticut Horror Fest, an annual convention for horror fans featuring movie stars, vendors and costume contests that completed its sixth run this September.

Three years ago, Mr. Dwyer suggested a movie night to the organizers of Horror Fest to help spread the word. He booked a double feature at the Strand for July—“The Lost Boys” and “Fright Night”—and drew a huge crowd. After the positive turnout, they kept it going.

They charge just $10 for a double feature, so the group doesn’t make much profit. They have to rent out the venue, buy the movie rights, purchase the raffle gifts and make posters. But profit’s not the goal, said Mr. Dwyer.

A Bridgeport native, Mr. Dwyer watched horror movies at the now-closed Candlelite-Pix Drive-In theater at just five years old. His passion for viewing classics on the big-screen is what drives him.

“These movies should be seen with a crowd, everybody reacting together,” said Mr. Dwyer. “A lot of people are getting to see them for the first time, and that’s really what it’s all about,” he said, “bringing something really cool to local people and having a good time.”

It wasn’t until Mr. Dwyer met Mr. Fanotto, though, that his vision became a reality.

The Knights of Columbus has owned the 70-year-old Strand Theater for 55 years, but up until about five years ago, the town or various private entities leased it out. The town previously denied Mr. Dwyer’s request to show horror films, saying it wasn’t in the repertoire. That changed with Mr. Fanotto.

When the theater’s classic marquee sign started to fall off, the town called upon Mr. Fanotto, an engineer, to fix it. It was around the same time the Knights took over operating the Strand, and after seeing Mr. Fanotto’s work, they asked him to become a member.

One thing led to another, and Mr. Fanotto is now Head Knight, running the theater’s productions with his son, Zach, and wife, Anna Fanotto.

“As soon as the town gave [the theater] up, I said, ‘The town is missing opportunities for specialized movies.’ So instead of doing first-run movies, we decided to do event movies and classic movies,” he said.

With some apprehension, Mr. Fanotto approved Mr. Dwyer’s idea. Thus established camaraderie between the head of a Catholic men’s organization and a horror guru.

Now, Mr. Dwyer and his crew host a double feature at the Strand every other month.

“They get a kick out of it,” said a pierced and tattooed Mr. Dwyer, referring to a boat-attire-clad Mr. Fanotto and the ten-or-so Knights who are faithfully involved in the Strand’s operation. “Especially the trailers, because I show some pretty nutty trailers.” Among Mr. Dwyer’s go-tos are trailers for old cult films, Blaxploitation films and, of course, cult horror classics.

Some films coincide with the season, like August’s Bloody Summer Camp event and the “Halloween 2” and “Halloween 3” double feature slated for October. Most of the time, though, Mr. Dwyer said ideas just come to him, or he decides what films to show with the rest of his group.

One such colleague is Matt Wilson, a blue-haired graphic designer who creates a custom silkscreen movie poster for each event to raffle off. Every event’s intermission has a raffle and giveaways of things like cozies, toys and other “weird stuff,” said Mr. Wilson

“We started trying to find ways to make it a little different,” said Mr. Wilson. “The goal is that everyone leaves with something besides the movies.”

Their goal is not unlike the humble Mr. Fanotto’s, who said he and volunteers strive to make every event a unique experience.

“Every movie has something beyond what’s going on,” said Mr. Fanotto. The Knights have dressed up as characters like the Grinch, Santa Clause, Godzilla and the Blues Brothers. One Knight, stage name Inspector Mike, MCs at various shows. There are often raffles and giveaways, stage shows and opportunities for audience participation.

On a regular night, Mr. and Mrs. Fannotto would have prepared months in advance to present whichever classic film they decided to show. Annual screenings include “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Christmastime, when Mrs. Fanotto plays Mrs. Claus and hands out candy canes to guests, “Quiet Man” at St. Patrick’s Day and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” in November; the rest of the year is a toss-up.

Past movies include “The Godfather,” “The Sound of Music,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Grease” and “Annie.” Most movies are audience-chosen; Mrs. Fanotto posts a poll on Facebook and chooses a film based on the results. Last Christmas, voters chose “Die Hard” for the theater’s Christmas special. The show sold out.

“Rocky Horror Picture Show” is the theater’s most anticipated screening, always complete with a fully stocked prop bag.

“We have a big sellout, we sell all the prop bags, its full audience participation,” said Mr. Fanotto. “Throwing the toast, squirt guns, newspapers, all the yelling at the screen, dancing on stage,” he continued, “we have costume contests, we have all sorts of events, it’s a full night.” After the show, he said, they clean the theater out with a leaf blower.

Besides “Rocky Horror,” most screenings cost only $5. Volunteers sell tickets at the Strand’s box office; the theater’s neighbor, Guitar Fixer Bob, sells them out of his shop. Mr. Fanotto said he only reserves a few tickets for night-of-show, and encourages everyone to buy their tickets ahead of time.

Mrs. Fanotto is the woman behind the wonder. She does all the bookings, advertises events on the theater’s Facebook page, creates souvenir tickets, obtains the movie rights, creates the previews and picks up the popcorn and soda, among other technical tasks to keep everything running smoothly.

In a Facebook correspondence, Mrs. Fanotto admitted that people don’t always recognize her and the Knights’ hard work.

“Rarely are we given any acknowledgment,” she wrote. “A lot of effort goes into running the theater and we are all volunteers.”

Michael J. McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization, in the state’s very own New Haven in 1882. The 160 members of the Seymour Council utilize the Strand to raise money for charity. The theater hosts around 30 events per year including movies and comedy shows, plus private events, like birthday parties. They also have a banquet hall above the theater with seating for 199 guests.

The Knights disperse proceeds to various town organizations at the year’s end. They donate money to local animal shelters, buy groceries for food banks and send monetary Christmas gifts to the town’s active duty military personnel, among other charitable projects.

“We were doing a lot of other things for charity,” said Mr. Fanotto, referencing things like bingo nights and Tootsie Roll sales. “Then we decided it was easier to use the theater as our charity base. And we have a good time doing it,” he said.

National and international disasters warrant special events. After the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, the Knights screened ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” both the 1930s version and the Disney production, and sent the proceeds to France. After Hurricane Harvey hit Port Arthur, Texas, they showed “Animal House” to raise funds for the city’s relief.

When disasters occur, Mr. Fanotto calls the affected area’s local Knights directly and asks where to send money; he never goes through a secondhand organization. His charity is acknowledged in several thank-you letters from Knights nationwide, displayed in a glass case at the theater’s entrance.

It’s not hard to see the theater means a lot to the Fanottos, the Knights, and most notably, the community. It supports the organization’s mission of philanthropy while bringing unforgettable events to enthusiastic locals year-round.

“A lot of these movies that people see on TV all the time, when you see it on a big screen with a full audience, you appreciate it a lot more,” said Mr. Fanotto. “There’s a lot to be said for it.” 

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