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Sharing his love of older movies

JACKSONVILLE — Fans of older motion pictures can view them on a big screen with an audience rather than at home, thanks to the town's mayor, an avowed movie buff.

Paul Becker hosts monthly showings in Old City Hall, 205 W. Main St., one Friday each month. Before he screens each movie, he gives a talk based in part on his experiences in Hollywood.

"I think motion pictures are designed for audience participation. Being in the body of folks that are watching it, you are ... caught up in the reaction," said Becker. "They were made for people to sit in an audience and see the audience reaction."

Becker started the free series in 2009 shortly after he was elected to the City Council. He became mayor in January. Audiences usually range from 20 to 35 people, with a nucleus of about 15 who see every show.

"The No. 1 thing ... is he gives talks about the characters, the actors, the directors, the producers, and he had contact with many of these people, so he speaks from personal experience," said Larry Smith, who attends most showings. "It's the talks that he gives in front of the movies that make it so real."

Over the years, the movies have ranged from Joan Blondell's 1932 "Central Park" to "1776", an epic musical made in 1972 on the founding of the nation. Other shows have featured Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, John Wayne and holiday-inspired offerings. "The opening night we had an overflow audience," said Becker. "We did 'The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid,' shot in Jacksonville, so everyone wanted to see that one."

On Friday, Dec. 16, he will show "They Were Expendable," which he calls the best movie made about World War II. The 1945 film, directed by John Ford and starring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne, focuses on PT boat crews in the Philippines. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Becker says he "just fell in love with movies" as a kid in New York City. His father was able to get passes to Lowes and RKO theaters every week.

"It didn't even matter what was playing in those days," said Becker. "In the late '40s and early '50s, we didn't have any TV. That was our entertainment."

In the mid-1970s, the mayor started a radio show on the NPR affiliate in Los Angeles where he took a nostalgic view of older movies. Research for a show on Ginger Rogers led to a meeting with the actress.

"Ginger and I really did become very good friends," said Becker. "We were friends enough she trusted me to be her executor."

Contact with Rogers led to other Hollywood celebrities and requests to put together clips from old films that would be shown at celebrity award shows.

His clips included ones shown at a ceremony honoring Charlton Heston at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, for George Montgomery and for the Dance Guild of America Association.

Visits to Rogers' ranch near Shady Cove convinced Becker he would like to live in the Rogue Valley.

Becker, whose talks usually last five to 10 minutes, does research on each film, as well as using his personal knowledge.

Smith said Becker will tell the audience, "when you get to scene 3, you need to watch for this," or he'll inform an audience that a film may contain the only known performance by an actor.

Jacksonville's Old City Hall, which dates from the 1870s, recently gained a new screen, sound and projector system. The back row of pew-like benches was replaced with chairs to better accommodate those with back troubles.

Becker provides coffee, tea, water and cookies, and there is no admission charge for the showings.

Movies are usually held around the middle of each month. Becker will forward upcoming movie dates and information about the films to those who send an email to piccadillyjim@clearwire.net.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.