Raj Tawney, the director of publicity & promotions at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, is an old soul in a 29-year-old’s body. He’s always been that way. The son of a Puerto Rican/Italian mother and Indian father, Tawney grew up in the Commack suburbs—but his upbringing was very much old-school New York City.
“I always heard stories [from my family] about growing up in the city, your aunts, uncles and cousins were your neighbors,” Tawney said. “Growing up on Long Island was similar, everyone bought houses near each other. We were always surrounded by family.”
Tawney spent most weekends with his grandparents and great aunts and uncles, who instilled values such as independence, patience and a respect for elders in him. It was during these weekends that his grandmother Elsie, a Bronx-born, tough-as-nails woman who grew up during the Great Depression, introduced him to film.
“I think her greatest joy was watching movies because growing up that was escapism. She wasn’t anyone who was raised with a lot of privilege. She’s still around, and the greatest joy I have with her today is watching movies. It is something we share a bond over.”
It’s a bond Tawney, who previously co-ran an arts and music events program called Sparkboom, now shares with the hundreds of people he has met during his first year at the Cinema Arts Centre. His colleagues joke that he is the “senior citizen whisperer.”
“I’m the kind of person who will just hang out on my own in the lobby and in the café. I’ll strike up a conversation with the older generations. They love telling stories and I love listening. They’ve become my friends.”
But Tawney doesn’t agree with the stereotype that the Cinema Arts Centre is geared only towards the 65-plus crowd, something he and his colleagues are working to break through with trivia and board game nights. But even classic films have a broader appeal than meets the eye.
“[People] will say senior citizens only come to the old films. It’s a ridiculous stereotype because young people show up and you see the integration of demographics and it’s like, ‘Oh wait, everyone can appreciate it.’”
Case in point: Tawney recently chose to screen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 flick Shadow of a Doubt.
“I couldn’t believe how many people showed up. It was a packed house. To see young people and old people in the room appreciating a movie that came out 70 years ago was one of the best feelings.”
It’s a scene that Tawney believes needs to be a recurring one because, despite the Cinema Arts Centre’s stereotype, its ability to spark conversations is what makes it special.
“It’s a place where people can really use each other and express opinions about films. It’s an all-encompassing sanctuary to appreciate each other’s opinions.”