On March 10, hundreds will descend on the stately Riviera Theatre and Performing Arts Center in North Tonawanda to listen to organ music while a tuxedo-clad emcee announces little known facts about the evening’s seven featured short films.
But the decorum ends there as the audience revs up for a gleeful evening of Three Stooges gems featuring Curly, Larry, Moe and Shemp.
What is it about these films -- many from the 1930s -- that still appeals to multiple generations, as well as folks from every walk of life?
“I think it’s the childlike nature of the Stooges,” said Lenny Potwora,<cq>, who started the film festival 27 years ago. “I think that’s why they’ve lasted all of these years….Sometimes, you just have to let loose and be childlike. I think it’s the Stooges’ bluntness, their realness. When people were artificial, the Stooges tore that up...They started making these films in 1934 and they are still fresh and funny.”
The idea for a film festival began with friends sharing a common bond. Potwora hosted post-softball game gatherings in his home in the 1980s and one time, he popped in a Stooges VHS tape. It was an instant hit.
“I remember one of the guys laughing so hard I thought he was going to choke on his pizza,” Potwora said.
Players started inviting friends along to the gatherings and pretty soon the house was bursting at the seams.
On a whim, Potwora and his friend, Joe Mankowski, approached the Riviera management about staging a Stooges fest for the general public at the theater and got a green light.
“We fumbled our way through the first year because we didn’t know what we were doing and 300 people showed up,” Potwora recounted.
It’s not unusual for the event to now draw up to 700 to 800, Potwora said.
“We have people my age, their wives and their kids,” Potwora, 64, said. “We have a 95-year-old World War II veteran, a state Supreme Court judge, construction workers….They come from diverse backgrounds, but they’re unified at that moment. This has really turned into an event over the years.”
Potwora recalled that he handled the promotions in the early days while Mankowski, who had played keyboards at the Sabres games, played the Riviera organ and emceed the event. Mankowski has since moved to Florida and Potwora took the project on by himself.
“It doesn’t feel like work, it’s fun,” Potwora said “After the first short film or so, I‘ll run to the back of the theater, so I’m behind all of the people. To hear that big laugh is such a rewarding feeling. It makes it worth it all.”
Potwora, a Cheektowaga resident who has owned and operated a video production business for the past 30 years, Keepsake Video, recently took some time to explain what goes into creating a great Stooges festival.
He actually presents the festival twice a year, summer and late winter, at the Riviera and has one planned for Aug. 18, as well.
Q: How do you pick the films you show?
A: That’s one of the hardest things to do. We only show the ones with Curly and Shemp, not the later ones with Joe and Curly Joe. Those are good, but I think the best ones are the earlier ones.
They made 190 shorts between Curly and Shemp. I pick ones that I haven’t shown in the past five to seven years and I try and mix them up as much as possible.
In the beginning, we had to rent 35-millimeter films that came in these giant canisters and the selection was limited and you had to guess at what quality you’d get. Now we pay to rent the film and show it publicly and the quality of the film is impeccable. I have a full selection of 190 films and there is always someone at the end of the night that tells me, ‘I’ve never seen that one before.’
I don’t really have themes, but one time Baby Joe Mesi introduced a boxing short. And I’ve become friends with a 95-year-old gentleman who comes to our festivals and a couple of years ago, I had him stand while I introduced one of the World War II films. I said, ‘Larry, this next movie is dedicated to you.’ The place erupted. That was a real high point.
Q: Do you let people know ahead of time what films you will show?
A: No. That is a very big secret. And, most people have a favorite. I just got a call from a gentleman asking me to please show a war film.
Q: What’s your favorite?
A: “Hoi Polloi” from the 1930s. Two rich gentlemen make a bet that they can take three men from the lowest means and make them gentlemen. Eddie Murphy did a remake years ago.
Q: So, what will be the evening’s format?
A: Pete DiGioia will do an organ concert starting at 7 p.m. and he’ll play the old classics. He’s very entertaining. Then the films start about 7:30 p.m. and we have seven short films, probably 18 minutes long or less. I welcome everyone and as Pete plays, the place goes crazy because the organ descends and the lights dim and the curtains part and the first title appears.
After three films, I ask everyone to stand and stretch and on the count of three, I ask them to do their best Stooge impression, because the Stooges made lots of wild noises. But I tell them not to slap the person next to them -- unless they deserve it. (laugh)
And in between each film, I’ll walk up onstage and comment briefly on the film, point out interesting little facts from the movie. It’s a chance to take a little deeper look into the films.
After the fourth film, we take a little break and then come back and give away a bunch of prizes, Stooges stuff. There’s a store, World Hollywood Entertainment in the McKinley Mall and they have lots of Stooges merchandise and they set up tables at the back of the theater and sell it and they also donate some prizes to give away.
It’s a well-rounded, full experience for everyone.
Q: How does the summer festival differ?
A: We do it up a little bigger in the summer. We have the organ concert at every show, but I try and get a band, the Knuckleheads, in for the summer show, too. It’s an aggregate from different bands in the area and I’m the drummer. We always finish with ‘The Curly Shuffle.’ I was a drummer for Alyn Syms<cq> for a long time, he was a guitar player for Rick James.
The August 18 show will be the 27th anniversary of the summer show. We added the winter show about five or six years ago.
Q: How do you get tickets?
A: Tickets are $12 for adults and $7 for 12 and under. You can buy them in advance at the box office, online at Rivieratheatre.org or at the door.
Q: Are you one of the Stooges’ biggest fans?
A: I think the Stooges are funny, but there are much bigger fans than me. I tell them they have a master’s in Stoogology.
We have one three-generation family that comes, Dan and Sarah Marinaro and their family from West Seneca. Dan’s brother in Chicago started a petition to get a Stooges stamp. They are total experts on anything Stooges.