At the intersection of Downer and East Belleview Place, the marquee sign of the Downer Theater is always illuminated; the eye of the block. What is not readily visible to the ordinary bystander would be a little church a stone’s throw east from the Downer Theater. “Church in the City” is a little non-denominational religious group that frequents the centuries-old building, but on every other Saturday night it is inhabited by devotees of another belief. Henry Landa and Dan Guenzel are two disciples of film, film collecting, and film exhibition– they founded and run the Focus Film Society of Milwaukee. If you by happenstance stumble across 2648 North Hackett Street some weekend evening, you might see their old handmade banner hung up in the front door of the building.
As you enter, you might be somewhat perplexed about the lack of signs that would point you to the designated screening room. But, if you are truly endowed with faith in cinephilia, you know that the hunt is part of the fun, for it takes effort to see many of the films presented at Focus. “We wanted to dig into the unusual classics, not to be different but just to try to find some little old gems that sort of slipped off the radar screen,” said Guenzel. “Sometimes we show the classics like “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca,” but we want to get away from that.” True indeed, films such as The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Cat and the Canary (1939) are not easy finds and to have the privilege to see these projected on actual 16mm is a rare and unprecedented honor to be a part of. You might wander down the winding old oak staircase to the basement, but you will undoubtedly be disappointed. Conversely, if you climb all the way to the top level, you might hear the faint mechanical jingle-jangle coming out from the corridor to your left. As you approach the robust yet finely carved doors in the middle of the hall, the sound will become more distinctive. Inside you will be greeted by a running Elmo projector mounted on top of a church pulpit, which will surely grab any newcomer’s attention.
Usually one would pay a pretty penny to see these classic gems projected in print, but the humble establishment that is Focus Film Society permits the admission fee of three dollars, plus a dollar or two maximum for concessions (homemade chocolate cookies and soda). Upon approaching your seat posed in front of an altar-turned-makeshift projection screen stand, you might be awe-struck by the sheer detail of the archaic molding that lines the edges of the looming ceiling space. The Gothic windows leak in halogen street lights that add an atmosphere similar to that of some Hammer Horror film from the sixties; this is most effective around Halloween. Usually the films are opened with a short subject, either Laurel and Hardy or The Three Stooges, ultimately loosening up a typically mixed crowd to an unanimous uproar of laughter.
“I suppose it’s a perfectly normal reaction to say, ‘Gee, if I don’t know this film I don’t want to run down and see something if I have no idea what it’s like,’ but even though the films we show aren’t familiar, they’re good and entertaining,” said Guenzel.
In spite of this remark, Focus gets quite a diverse cross-section of city dwellers, ranging the venerable regulars to the novices– young and old. If you come early, you might assume the turnout being merely a handful, but as the lights come up between reel changes, the crowd gradually grows in size. In the space behind the seating section, there will surely be kids running about and patrons socializing, reaffirming the genuine and unpretentious mission statement at Focus and the willingness to draw in all kinds, not to serve as a breeding ground for elitists.
Said Guenzel, “With a lot of these films, we’ve had people tell us when they leave the theater, ‘Oh, I’ve never heard of this film, but it’s really good. Why haven’t I heard of this before?’ So what we’re trying to do is fill that gap.”