Meet New Haven’s moviegoer, who loves the communal thrill
When I walked into Steve Fortes’ home in New Haven, “The Wolfman” was on his TV, but it wasn’t the original Lon Chaney Jr. version from 1941.
“This is the newer one, with Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro,” Fortes said, tossing out the names effortlessly from his moviegoer’s memory bank.
“I don’t know why,” he said, “but I always remember all this stuff. I stay and watch the credits after the movie ends.”
Fortes’ friend and fellow film buff, Vincent DeJoy, had recommended I do a column on Fortes because “Steve has a passion for motion pictures. He is a dedicated patron of local movie theaters.”
DeJoy worked at the York Square Cinema on New Haven’s Broadway before the block went utterly upscale and that great old moviehouse closed in 2005.
“Steve was a regular there,” DeJoy said.
Fortes and DeJoy comprise one-half of the membership of the HMVS Donut Club. This group, which includes Harold and Margaret Hassel, of West Haven (the HMVS comes from the initials of the four first names), gets together once a month on a Saturday to eat doughnuts and talk about — or watch — movies.
How great is that?
Sometimes they meet at the Hassel home. But often they gather at Donut Crazy on York Street.
Fortes pulled out a book with the title “Donut Underestimate Yourself.” As I leafed through it, I realized it wasn’t a book at all, just a log of where and when the club has met.
“When we meet at Harold’s house, we always watch a movie,” Fortes said. “Harold and I are ‘Star Trek’ fans. My favorite is ‘The Wrath of Khan,’ so we watched that one.”
Fortes has about 200 movies in his collection on DVD, so he regularly brings one to share with his buddies. “I brought ‘The Right Stuff.’ That’s one of my all-time favorite movies.” (No. 1 is “Casablanca”).
Fortes loves so many kinds of movies, from dramas and thrillers to comedies, science fiction and foreign fare, that he’s never at a loss for something to go see. He said his “go-to place” is New Haven’s last remaining downtown movie theater, the Criterion Cinemas. He estimates he’s at the Criterion about three times a week.
“They know my name there and what I’ll order at the concession stand: small popcorn, no butter.”
Although his celluloid tastes are wide-ranging, Fortes is a recognized authority of films focusing on black people. In 1991 and 1993, he taught a seminar at Yale on black films and TV shows. Because we’re now celebrating Black History Month, it was particularly appropriate that I gave Fortes an opportunity to sound off on his favorite black movies, from “Daughters of the Dust” (1991) to “Get Out,” recently nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including best picture. Its director, Jordan Peele, might bring home an Oscar this year.
Fortes said: “When I saw the trailer for ‘Get Out,’ I was thinking: ‘What is this? This might be interesting!’ And it really was. A lot of times prejudice is not spoken about openly. Peele was doing a lot of social commentary, but a lot of it was comedic. It was a horror movie as well.”
Fortes, who often discusses movies as a guest on Thomas Breen’s “Deep Focus” show (WNHH 103.5 FM, affiliated with the New Haven Independent), recently was there to analyze the movie “Amistad.” It was the 20th anniversary of the film that depicted those historical events, some of which occurred in New Haven.
“I liked it but I didn’t love it,” Fortes told me. “There wasn’t much background to the mutiny. Singbe and the others were depicted as being too savage.”
Fortes, 67, has more time these days to go to the movies because he retired last September from Yale University, where he worked for 40 years in the Student Financial Services Department.
He spent about 12 years as a downtown ambassador in New Haven for the Town Green Special Services. Those are the nice people you see roaming around, helping out with directions or other problems. Fortes said his wife, Edith Fortes, is not nearly the film fan he is, so often he goes to theaters on his own. But they watch a lot of movies together at home on the Turner Classic Movies channel.
He much prefers seeing movies in a theater. “Maybe it’s because I grew up with that experience. It’s a communal thing. You’re out there with people, sharing that feeling; it takes you out of yourself. There’s something magical about seeing something that’s so big.”
Fortes reminisced about his formative childhood movie outings. “The two I went to the most were the Roger Sherman and the Loew’s College. The College always got the James Bond movies. And at the Paramount on Temple Street I saw ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ ‘Bullitt’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ ”
Fortes remembers the Crown for its Vincent Price horror movies and those starring Elvis Presley. As for neighborhood theaters, also now departed, Fortes recalled the Whalley, now the site of Edge of the Woods on Whalley Avenue; the Westville Theater and the Lawrence in the East Rock neighborhood.
“My parents also took me and my sister to the Dreamland on Grand Avenue, which I thought was the greatest name for a movie theater. If you got a pink pass in your popcorn bag, you would get to see a free movie.”
I didn’t arrive in New Haven until 1977, so I was never in those moviehouses. But Fortes and I traded fond memories of the Lincoln, a tiny gem off of Trumbull Street that closed in 1982. “That’s where I saw the original ‘Frankenstein,’ ” he said. “And it’s the first place I saw ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ ”
Because Fortes lived for a while in Hamden, he spent lots of time at the Cinemart, the Strand and the Whitney. He was able to walk to them.
Indeed, when the Showcase multiplex operated in Orange, Fortes often took a bus to the Connecticut Post Mall, then walked up the hill to see a movie.
“I don’t drive,” he told me. This makes it a bit of a challenge to get to Cine 4 in New Haven, off of Interstate 91. He rides the bus to that venue about once a month.
Fortes showed me a thick scrapbook with covers of the movie soundtrack CDs in his collection. He likes composers Jerry Goldsmith (”Star Trek”), John Williams (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.”etc.) and Bernard Herrmann, who did many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films as well as “Jason and the Argonauts.”
“When those skeletons came out in ‘Argonauts,’ Bernard Hermann’s music was so perfect!” Fortes said.