Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Classics under the stars

Citizen Staff Writer
Cover story



You would think Erika O’Dowd dreams in black and white.

O’Dowd is the driving force behind Cinema La Placita, where black-and-white movies dominate each Thursday evening from early May through October.

Oh, O’Dowd loves movies, had parents who woke her up in the middle of the night because a movie with “the most beautiful woman in the world” (Audrey Hepburn, “Sabrina”) or a Ray Milland murder mystery was on TV.

But, curiously, showing movies is not the primary motivation for her weekly outdoor movie screenings on the plaza at La Placita Village, 110 S. Church Ave. Generally, she doesn’t even see much of the movies because she’s busy doling out popcorn or doing whatever needs to be done.

“My focus is more just finding a reason to get people together,” O’Dowd said. “I enjoy movies but I’m not the most well-versed person. My real interest was to create an event, a reason not to go home after work.”

This month launched the 10th season for O’Dowd’s nostalgic and quirky creation, which has created a firm subculture that averages 200 spectators and has drawn as many as 350, she says.

These Thursday night movies – “Cool Hand Luke” with Paul Newman at 7:30 p.m. May 14 – draw Cinema La Placita veterans and newcomers week after week.

“On any given night, 10 percent of the people are here for the first time,” O’Dowd said. “I can tell because they ask where’s the bathroom and how much is the popcorn. Ten percent say they’ve been coming since the beginning.”

Barbara McCale has been to a few Cinema La Placita screenings the past two seasons and last week brought Bill Palser for his first movie under the stars.

“I think it’s great that you can sit outside,” Palser says. “We went and got something to eat and then she said, ‘Let’s go see a movie.’ ”

Cinema La Placita offers plastic chairs, table seating and the lawn around the gazebo. McCale and Palser chose the chairs, but otherwise she’s been on the lawn.

“When I don’t bring him, I bring my dogs,” McCale says.

Palser delivered newspapers in the 1940s and remembers Speedway Boulevard and Swan Road as dirt roads. Black-and-white movies are fine by him.

“At least there is no computerized crap” Palser says.

Couples that started coming to the movies here as twosomes now bring elementary school children. Singles have met here and married – O’Dowd among them.

O’Dowd met Josh Pope at Cinema La Placita in the second season; they later married. Their daughter, Tulla, who is 2 1/2 years old, has been part of the La Placita scene since the cradle

O’Dowd describes Ken and Christi Friskey as the poster family for Cinema La Placita. They’ve been coming for nine seasons – before kids Dean, 8; Justin, 6; and Sagan, 5, were born.

“Even when we had newborn infants, we’d come with a stroller,” Ken Friskey says. “They’ve been coming here since they were days old.”

Christi Friskey says that sometimes her parents and grandparents join the family at La Placita Village to make a four-generation movie outing.

“Once you have kids, it’s hard to go to movie theaters,” Ken Friskey says. “This is a perfect venue for us.”

O’Dowd reveals the schedule only one month at a time because flexibility is both a necessity and a benefit. She needs to make sure chosen movies, mostly inexpensive rentals (hence the many B&W movies), are available. Rainouts can be rescheduled more easily and the open calendar allows her to schedule movies to coincide with current events.

“I did ‘Manchurian Candidate’ (Sinatra version) the same day Bush addressed the (Republican) convention in 2004,” she says. “We were able to show ’3:10 to Yuma’ (Glenn Ford version) the day before the remake came out.”

For a woman who largely shows black-and-white movies, O’Dowd’s favorites list is slightly more contemporary and mostly color: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Notorious,” “Manhattan,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance.”

If you see “Rosemary’s Baby” in the lineup, know that you’re getting an O’Dowd personal favorite.

“I have a huge crush on Cary Grant,” she says. “I have a big crush on Audrey Hepburn. I get a lot of input from the audience. If it’s available and not too expensive, I try to fit that in.”

Scheduling only one month ahead also allows people willing to donate $500 to sponsor a movie screening of their choice.

“If somebody calls me and says, ‘Our anniversary is June 28,’ great,” says O’Dowd, adding that for $500 that couple can choose the movie to celebrate with.

O’Dowd tries to fit a theme or two in each year. This season she plans to show a Paul Newman movie each month and perhaps a movie from 1929, 1939, 1949, 1959, 1969, 1979 “but not 1989.” “China Syndrome” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” are the 1979 candidates.

Cinema La Placita started in 2000 while O’Dowd was marketing director at La Placita and her boss, La Placita director Jane McCollum (now the force behind Main Gate Square) told O’Dowd to come up with a weekly event.

The first two seasons were funded with a $24,000 city Downtown Projects grant. Since then, funding has been a challenge, but O’Dowd never gave up: “I guess I’m a little stubborn.”

Admission is free, but the suggested $3 donation to see a movie bridges the gap between the roughly $10,000 this season will cost and the $4,000 in sponsorships from Bourn Partners (owners of La Placita Village), Betts Printing, Twice as Nice and individual movie sponsors.

“I need everybody to give me $3,” she says. “If everybody gave me $3, we’d be set. The event costs about $650 a night.”

The sponsorships in the past were as high as $6,500. O’Dowd reined in the budget from $12,000 and pared down the paid staff to the projectionist. Paid staff in the past set up and put away chairs, but this year O’Dowd is calling on movie attendees to show up early and stick around to help with chairs and cleanup.

Larger donations count as going to a nonprofit because Cinema La Placita is a program of the Cultural Exchange Council.

From 2004 to 2008, the movies were a program of the Loft Cinema.


La Placita Village, 110 S. Church Ave.

Showtime: 7:30 p.m. every Thursday

May 14: “Cool Hand Luke”

with Paul Newman

May 21: “Topper” with Cary Grant

May 28: “We’re No Angels”

with Humphrey Bogart

May 30: a special 8 p.m. Saturday screening of “The Wizard of Oz” in conjunction with the Meet Me Downtown run.

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