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Jay Schwartz is the founder of Secret Cinema. Photo: Bryn Mawr Film Institute.
Jay Schwartz is the founder of Secret Cinema. Photo: Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

Secret Cinema creator, local film fanatic with collection exceeding 4,000 items, celebrates 30 years

This Tuesday, March 15, film collector Jay Schwartz’s Secret Cinema series is celebrating its 30th year.

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Film collector and fanatic Jay Schwartz has a film collection exceeding 4,000 titles. His collection features obscure reels, rare cartoons, and age-old commercials. 

Contained in a 1,000-square-foot Kensington workshop, Schwartz’s collection includes an ocean of film canisters. The collection is so large that even Schwartz has not seen each film in the stash.

Schwartz runs the Secret Cinema film series at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. For it, Schwartz screens films from his collection for the Philly region.

In his film presentations, Schwartz favors projecting 16mm film canisters, as these take up a majority in his collection. 

The series started as a way to shed light on “neglected” films, beginning with a bi-weekyly schedule in the often unoccupied upstairs room of a Philly punk nightclub. 

When his series began in 1992, Schwartz recalls wanting to do things differently from other independent movie presenters relying on VHS player-television setups.

This Tuesday, March 15, Schwartz will celebrate Secret Cinema’s 30th year by screening the short films that kicked off the series three decades ago.

The celebration will mark Schwartz’s fourth screening since the pandemic’s start, noting a landscape that has only accelerated the already ever-shifting subculture of analog film. 

While the days of film canisters in theaters are bygone, and with a higher percentage of obscure works reaching digital archives, Schwartz collection itself is what inspires the collector to continue screening.

“The fact that I have this stuff and I might as well use it,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Schwartz sees an inherent merit in experiencing weird, outlandish, or obscure works in the company of an audience with similar interests. 

Entering its 30th season, Schwartz is still working out the details for the series’ anniversary season. He hopes for no shortage of weird content with a mix of popular and returning programs.

The anniversary will incorporate a few short films, all of which have a description available on Secret Cinema’s website.

On the anniversary’s schedule are: The Morning After (1927, Dir. Paul Terry), Play, Girls! (1937, Dir. Walter Graham), The Sponge Divers of Tarpon (1932), Pro Kleen commercial (1950s), and The Stranger At Our Door (1940).

The lineup will include cartoons from the Terrytoons animation studio, a two-reel musical comedy, a vintage commercial, and a two-reel film among others.

Behind the scenes, within the housing of his collection, Schwartz has been combating shrinkage in his acetate prints and “vinegar syndrome,” the latter of which is a chemical deterioration resulting in a foul odor. 

Schwartz has presented a vision for Secret Cinema to become a nonprofit institution dedicated to properly housing film archives in the Philadelphia area, ultimately housing his collection and the collection’s of other film institutions.

The proposed change in Secret Cinema’s model could prolong the lifespan of the reels, and continue the preservation of analog film collections. 

Secret Cinema has a few programs coming up, including:

  • March 25: Old Pine Community Center, And the Envelope, Please (Oscar-Winning Short Films)
  • April 3: Swarthmore College, "Best of Secret Cinema" screening and discussion 
  • May 12: The Rotunda, TBA
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