Michael McGonigle, filmmaker and movie buff, 53

Michael McGonigle
Michael McGonigle
Posted: November 19, 2012

Michael McGonigle, 53, of South Philadelphia, a filmmaker and film lecturer, died Friday, Nov. 9, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital after suffering a heart attack and strokes. He had struggled with heart disease for several years.

"I'm absolutely in love with movies. It's a passion," Mr. McGonigle told Examiner.com in 2010.

Growing up in Mount Airy, he and his older brother, John, made movies in which G.I. Joe action figures parachuted out of second-story windows and toy soldiers blew up on the front lawn.

After serving in the Air Force, Mr. McGonigle drove an ambulance and then worked at Spruce Street Video for 10 years.

He joined the audiovisual department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art 21 years ago and became a certified technical specialist. He recently completed a film on the renovation of the Rodin Museum, said Steve Keever, the department's production manager.

Early on, museum colleagues recognized Mr. McGonigle's knowledge of movies and asked him to introduce films that were shown to complement ongoing exhibits. In 1996, he persuaded the museum to host a series of films that were interesting in and of themselves. His eclectic choices included The Brady Bunch Movie, Big, and two French Canadian movies not widely seen in the United States.

The occasional screenings evolved into the Philadelphia Museum of Art Film Club. The bimonthly events, hosted by Mr. McMonigle, attracted audiences of 250 or more.

"Michael was a caring, dedicated colleague with a deep love of film," said Gail Harrity, Art Museum president and chief operating officer. "His popular members' Film Club lectures showcased his unique intelligence, wit, and authenticity."

Ruth Herd, who has been attending movies at the museum for four years, said: "The success of the Film Club was in my mind totally due to Michael. He was very positive in his thoughts, extremely knowledgeable about movies, and a delightful speaker who delivered his lectures with enthusiasm and original, unusual humor."

Mr. McGonigle was active with the Cinema Salon, a weekly film discussion group, and at Theatre N at Nemours in Wilmington. He participated in panels sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Film Office and One Book, One Philadelphia, an initiative of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

"Each year I'd issue him a challenge - to come up with a film lecture connected to our One Book, One Philadelphia pick - and every year it was spectacular," said Sara Strickland, the program's former coordinator. "He covered documentaries, Native Americans in films, American immigrant stories, and more."

As well as going to the movies and lecturing on them, Mr. McGonigle wrote, directed, and produced dozens of films starring friends and family members. He also acted in productions at the Allens Lane Art Center and at Stagecrafters in Chestnut Hill.

A member of the Screen Actors Guild, he was an extra in several movies, including Philadelphia, one of the Rocky films, and Taps. That movie, about a fictional military academy, has a scene in which a cadet, played by Tom Cruise, assembles a rifle. "It's Michael's hands doing the actual work," his brother said.

Mr. McGonigle would often refer to his personal experiences - driving an ambulance, playing softball, serving in the military - to explain when a film was doing something right or wrong, said Gary Kramer, a film critic and friend.

Mr. McGonigle began making movies as an 8-year-old, his brother said. "I remember when he ordered his first film splicer from an ad on the back of a comic book."

When he was 12, he went into extensive detail to explain to his brother why the dark comedy Harold and Maude was a great film.

Mr. McGonigle graduated from W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences. He wasn't interested in animals or plants, but he thought his education at the magnet school would be better than at the local public high school, his brother said.

"Michael's knowledge of movies was rivaled only by his enthusiasm for them," said Steven Rea, The Inquirer's movie critic. "He leaves a big empty space at the heart of the Philadelphia film - and film-loving - community."

In addition to his brother, Mr. McGonigle is survived by sisters Christine Hunt and Patricia, and nephews and nieces.

A memorial celebration will be from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia, 1906 S. Rittenhouse Square.

Donations may be made to Philadelphia Museum of Art, Development Department, Box 7646, Philadelphia 19101.

Contact Sally A. Downey

at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.

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