It's unlikely that anywhere else in the United States - or the world - does there exist such a collection of vintage film and TV reels, topicals and industrials, stag movies and silents, found footage and old Hollywood cartoons, quite as eclectic, eccentric, and wonderfully obscure as the one Jay Schwartz maintains in this gritty neighborhood a few miles northeast of City Hall. It's the basis of Secret Cinema - the floating repertory film program that has become part of Philadelphia's cultural landscape and is going into its third decade.
"I have no idea how many films are here," says the soft-spoken fellow who lords over this celluloid domain - and keeps more in his parents' basement, and "some more stuff" in a friend's apartment. There is no computer database with title, year, running time, subject, and notes on the film's condition. Schwartz does all that with pencil and paper. If he wants to watch a new acquisition, he threads it through one of his portable projectors and screens it on a blank wall.
And around once a month, Schwartz, 53, grabs his projectors and a batch of amusingly or edifyingly linked titles and shares them with the public. Secret Cinema began in 1992, upstairs at the Khyber Pass, at the time a divey rock venue in Old City.
Nowadays, the auditorium at Moore College of Art and Design hosts his shows, which often draw a capacity crowd of 300. On Friday, Schwartz's "Famous Films III" program assembled better-known but not necessarily better-seen reels, including a selection of 1890s shorts from cinema's founding father, Louis Lumiere; a 1934 Our Gang installment; and "The River," a 1930 New Deal documentary about the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Unlike many repertory series that have resorted to DVD and Blu-ray, Schwartz is determined to exhibit his collection in its original format - through the lens and flickering lamps of one of his trusty Bell & Howells. His guarantee: "Shown in 16mm on a Giant Screen."
"Increasingly, the study of film is actually the study of video," laments Oliver Gaycken, an assistant professor of English at Temple University. "Jay's commitment to film on film is laudatory and rare."
Gaycken, who shares Schwartz's passion for decades-old science films, high school hygiene films, promotional films, and newsreels, says these celluloid artifacts offer a window into the way people lived, worked, and played, bringing history alive in vivid images.
"On the one hand, you could look at the kind of films that Jay collects and think of them as ephemeral," Gaycken says. "But on the other hand, they are as important as Hollywood films in terms of the roles they play in our cultural life. . . .
"Jay has an amazing range of stuff, and a lot of it is Philly-centered."
Indeed, Schwartz owned an original nitrate print of a believed-to-be-lost 1907 one-reeler by Philadelphia's silent-film mogul, Siegmund Lubin. The Silver King features a cameo appearance by Lubin himself. Schwartz donated the film to the Library of Congress' preservation archives. Another of Schwartz's rarities, The Jungle, a 1967 short about Philadelphia street gangs, was added to the National Film Registry in 2009, cited as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically" significant.
"One of my favorite genres is silent-era nontheatrical film," says Schwartz, who has been passionate about this stuff since high school, when he used to recommend Charlie Chaplin silents to his pals. His eyes light up when he talks about the day he found Granite Silk Stockings, an hour-long film from the 1920s documenting the manufacture of silk stockings at a Philadelphia factory. "On the very last frames of the film, it said, 'Produced by News Reel Laboratory, 1707 Sansom St., Phila., Pa.' And I knew who they were. They became Louis Kellman Productions, who made The Burglar" - a Philly-shot '57 noir starring Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield - "and a couple of other theatrical films. But they were the leading industrial film studio in Philadelphia for decades."
Schwartz grew up in Rhawnhurst, the same section of the Northeast he now resides in. His father was a salesman and owned some small gift shops, his mother a housewife. Schwartz made his first film acquisition in his early teens. "The very first reel of celluloid I possessed was a Castle Films three-minute edition of a silent 8mm clip of a W.C. Fields film called The Old-Fashioned Way . . .. It's him juggling some cigar boxes."
Schwartz and his brother watched the film on their parents' Kodak Brownie projector, and shared the $4 expense to buy other clips. "But the real start," Schwartz recalls, "was when I discovered a company called Blackhawk Films, which catered to collectors of films before there was video. They had this sampler reel advertised in the back of Popular Science, which I happened to see: for $3, you could get a 50-minute silent 8mm reel of clips of things they had, which was Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith. . . . I discovered silent films that way."
Schwartz, who went to Northeast High School ("importantly, the subject of Frederick Wiseman's National Film Registry-honored documentary") and then Temple University (in the radio, TV, and film department), was hooked. More shorts followed, cheap 8mm and 16mm stuff. His first feature film acquisition: My Man Godfrey, the 1936 screwball comedy starring William Powell. He paid $125.
He started prowling collectors' swap meets, and poring through the ads in the back of magazines and catalogs. At the same time, he was immersed in the Philly music scene - and he remains an avid collector of music, particularly - of course - music pressed on good old vinyl.
"Jay was really one of the important people at the beginning of the whole punk-rock movement in Philly," says Irv Slifkin, a friend from high school and fellow movie buff (and film historian) who writes and edits Philadelphia's Movies Unlimited's encyclopedic catalogs. "He was the publicist at the Hot Club, which was the punk-rock venue in Philly. . . . Before anybody else, he knew about the bands. . . . He spread the word and got people interested in all these early bands - Talking Heads and the Ramones and the Plasmatics and the B-52s. He came across as being eccentric or different, but he was on the mark."
And then, in 1992, Schwartz launched Secret Cinema, and his film collection surpassed his record collection. After a while, people started giving him films.
"Some people have been very generous over the years, and it still happens every once in a while," he says. "Sometimes it will be one reel, sometimes it will be something that I really don't have any possible use for, but they don't either, so I take it so it doesn't get thrown away. . . .
"I'm at the point where I don't necessarily want a whole lot more - which is something I still can't believe I'd ever say."
Although Schwartz stays busy with his Secret Cinema gigs, and with occasional screenings at universities, archival confabs and film festivals (including several annual forays to the International Film Festival in Gijón, Spain), he hasn't been able to make a go of it without a day job.
For the last few years he's been a paralegal in a small firm specializing in Social Security and disability cases. His wife, Silvia, whom he met on one of his trips to Spain - she was a physical education instructor and a diehard music fan, and they first saw each other in a record store - now works as a secretary in the same office.
"I like it," Schwartz says of his part-time employment, "but I don't like that it takes me away from Secret Cinema.
"I have so many undone tasks."
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at email@example.com or 215-854-5629. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www. philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/