Forty years ago a young couple and their three-year-old son relocated from Manhattan to Centerport. Vic Skolnick was a history professor at CW Post, Charlotte Sky was an aficionado of the arts and young Dylan Skolnick, was bright-eyed and curious, a film fanatic in the making. Together, they were a family of insatiable filmgoers, seeking out the latest independent films playing in Manhattan’s art house cinemas. And over the next four decades, their collective knowledge and voracious appetite for film would guide the family in building one of the most important community centers on Long Island: Cinema Arts Centre.
From the street, CAC appears to be an ordinary office building tucked away on a grassy hill at the outskirts of Huntington Village. However, within this modest structure provocative films are projected daily, day and night. There’s also a host of monthly events, including live music (jazz night, folk music, battle of the bands), appearances by renowned guest speakers (filmmakers like David Lynch and Francis Ford Coppola) and a wide range of panel discussions focused on critical contemporary issues.
“It’s our job to provide content that’s worth paying attention to. And we show all sorts of films that reflect the community’s interest. Sometimes we’ll show a film like The Act of Killing, which can be disturbing to some, or maybe we’ll present something lighter like The Sound of Music,” said Dylan, who’s now all grown up, and the co-director at CAC. (Dylan is also a Pulse contributor.)
In addition to the cinema’s diverse calendar, there’s an expansive health-minded café. Spilling out from it people, both young and old, idle in the theater’s tranquil garden patio. If you put your ear to the air, conversations usually consist of the films or events the patrons had just seen. The sense of community here is pervasive.
However, the CAC community wasn’t always this organized. Actually, when Charlotte and Vic originally conceived their vision in 1973, it was merely an idea, a simple response to the absence of art house cinemas on Long Island. Sky added, “These were the days long before VCRs, before Netflix or the internet, when the only film you could see on Long Island was a major blockbuster. But we craved those independent films. And we wanted to give those independent filmmakers an opportunity to show their work because they certainly weren’t going to get it on television or in the multiplexes.”
On a whim, they took a chance and started a theater that would show the sort of films they were accustomed to seeing in the city cinemas.
“Initially, we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Sky. “We just wanted to watch the films we liked. And we wanted other people to see these films too, because we knew how much they enriched our own lives.” Yet it was only after a generous friend agreed to loan them a room at her dance studio that this idea had a home. “We weren’t even sure if anyone would show up. We just drew up some flyers and spread them all across the town. Well, it turned out there was a whole lot of interest.”
That first night, the studio filled to capacity with 50 eager moviegoers. A small donation was requested at the door and everyone brought his own chair or just sat on the floor, hovering around the whir of a library-rented 16mm projector.
The lights were turned off and the flicker began to shine its magic on a bed sheet that hung from the studio wall. “We didn’t have a lot of money back then. So we had to fib a bit to the library that we rented the projector from and tell them we were from a school. And as a result we got a cheaper rate. Though, thinking about it now, we were a school! I mean, these films were educational!” she laughed.
This unpolished beginning quickly developed into a fully realized cinema. CAC grew so much they eventually had to move to a larger location in Huntington Village. “It was nerve-racking at first. We were no longer just a bunch of film junkies sitting around a projector in a dance studio. We were now a theater with 100 seats to fill and rent to pay. Early on, my parents were unsure if this was going to work. But they really believed in the idea of creating a community where you could see these fantastic films that would ignite new ideas and discussion, and so the people came and kept coming, and word began to spread,” Dylan said.
In 1977, CAC would relocate one last time, to its current location, an abandoned elementary school shrouded in graffiti. It was in their fixed-up new home that CAC really established itself. Growing membership, donations from local supporters and regular funding from the New York State Council of the Arts continue to be vital to the organization. “We now have a board of directors, 12 full-time employees, an equal number of part-time workers and something going on every night. It’s a long ways from the old days when we hung that bed sheet on the wall!” Sky laughed.
“It’s a long ways from the old days when we hung that bed sheet on the wall”
Despite consistent growth, there have been some impediments along the way.
Recently movie theaters around the country have been forced to convert to digital projection, as the industry is now doing away with film. In order to make the transition, CAC had to raise more than $140,000, a considerable sum for a small operation. “We were concerned we wouldn’t raise the necessary funds. But the people came through. We got the new equipment. It’s just another example of how generous and supportive the community can be,” Dylan said.
This once makeshift theater that hung a bed sheet from a wall is now focused on expanding its programming even further.
“Dylan is more involved than ever. There’s always something new going on. He’s constantly networking within the industry, trying to make the theater the best it can be. And he’s probably now seen over 10,000 films,” Sky said. “Years ago, Vic and I used to feel guilty that he didn’t lead a normal kid’s life but now when I see how important film is to him it makes me really happy.
And he understands how important this medium is to so many others. It’s his enthusiasm and people like him that’s going to keep this place going for another 40 years.”
Dylan added, “I think 40 years from now we’re going to continue to grow. And even after the loss of my father three years ago, who was irreplaceable, we’re still going strong. This cinema is that important to the people, and he knew that. And we know that.”
Photos of Ed Burns, David Lynch and Tony Curtis taken by Christopher Appoldt