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From Judy Garland to 'Blair Witch Project,' grandparents share passion for movies

Vera DiLeo watches "Annie Get Your Gun" with

Vera DiLeo watches "Annie Get Your Gun" with her granddaughters, sisters Andrea, 13, left, and Gianna DiLeo of Smithtown, 16, at Vera's home in Middle Island on Feb. 3, 2019. Credit: Barry Sloan

Vera DiLeo doesn’t care whether Lady Gaga is named best actress for her performance in the show-biz epic “A Star Is Born” at Sunday’s Academy Awards. When she heard her son, Michael DiLeo, and his wife telling their daughters, Andrea, 13, and Gianna, 16, how wonderful Gaga was in her big screen debut, she couldn’t keep quiet.

“I said, ‘you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Judy,’ ” says Vera DiLeo of Middle Island.

Judy, of course, is Judy Garland, who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the 1954 version of “A Star Is Born.” So DiLeo sat down with her granddaughters and showed them the film, which features Garland’s tour de force “Born in a Trunk,” a 15-minute mini-musical sequence. “When it got to ‘Born in a Trunk,’ they just loved it. They were amazed,” says DiLeo, who boasts that she was born the night “Rebecca” won the best picture Oscar on Feb. 27, 1941.

Since then, they’ve been going through DiLeo’s massive library of DVDs to watch other Garland classics including “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) and “Summer Stock” (1950). Just last weekend, DiLeo gave the girls a taste of black-and-white by showing them the 1953 romance “Roman Holiday” starring Audrey Hepburn as a princess who flees the palace and finds love with a newspaperman (Gregory Peck).

“ ‘Roman Holiday’ is now their favorite movie and Audrey Hepburn their favorite actress,” DiLeo says.

Movie nights have been a tradition for families since the days of silent films, and for grandparents, it’s a great way to bond with the grandkids. “Movies are fun, movies are exciting, movies take you someplace else,” says Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. “That sensation works on a 7-year-old as well as a 70-year-old.”

DiLeo, who ran a movie theater at Saddle Lakes housing development in Riverhead when she lived there, has had a lifelong love affair with the movies that she had passed down through the generations. She watched movies with her sons, John and Michael, and her daughter, Lenore, when they were little and with her oldest granddaughter, Hannah Berner, now 27.

“She was very athletic, so when she was a tween, I knew she would like Esther Williams, especially ‘Dangerous When Wet,’ ” she says. They soon watched every one of the swimmer’s lavish MGM aquacades. “All I remember her saying is ‘I want to meet her so badly,’ ” DiLeo says.



Often, the best way to pique grandkids’ interest in movies is to draw from personal experience. Jessica Ley, 77, of Huntington, was certain that her granddaughters, Arianna and Vanessa, then 10 and 12, would adore two movies she treasured as a child — Disney’s animated “Alice in Wonderland” (1951) and “Singin’ in the Rain,” the 1952 songfest often cited as the greatest musical ever made. Both made a hit, but the movie that really got them hooked was The Beatles’ 1964 romp “A Hard Day’s Night,” which they saw at the long-gone Shore Theatre in Huntington.

“We sang the music, and that’s the one they still talk about,” says Ley, who volunteers at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington.

It didn’t even matter to the girls that the movie was in black-and-white.

“If you start watching movies with them when they’re young enough, they don’t know the difference between black-and-white and color,” says Mankiewicz, who has begun introducing his 5-year-old daughter, Josie, to films from Hollywood’s golden age. “Over the holidays, we watched in one night ‘Holiday Affair’ and ‘Christmas in Connecticut.’ She didn’t say ‘This would be better if it were more colorful.’ She thought they were great.”

He also suggests finding a film with an easy-to-follow story and a happy ending.

“If you’re introducing your kid to ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ at 5, 6 or 7, by the time they’re 12 or 13, they’re going to want to see ‘Cornered,’ ” referring to the 1945 Dick Powell film noir.

Ley’s granddaughter, Arianna Wright-Diaz, 26, who grew up in Locust Valley and now lives in Los Angeles, says that through her mother and grandmother she was exposed to a number of critically acclaimed films at an early age. “When most kids were watching whatever ‘Shrek’ franchise was out — which I do admit to enjoying — I was watching ‘A Few Good Men,’ ‘Pretty Woman,’ and ‘Ghost’ which are my favorites to this day,” says Wright-Diaz, who works for a company that produces movie trailers. “Films like these did inspire me to work in entertainment as I do now.”

Seeing movies with their mom also inspired DiLeo’s sons, Michael, 51, of Smithtown and John, 58, of Milford, Pennsylvania, in their careers. Michael penned “The Spy Who Thrilled Us,” a 2004 book on the films of James Bond. John, a former actor, has written numerous film books, the most recent being “10 Movies at a Time” from 2017.

John DiLeo recalls seeing movies with his grandparents as well. "My dad's mother and my mom's father were both really into the tearjerkers, so they loved to cry," he says. "I remember seeing 'An Affair to Remember' as a kid, and they would get excited because they knew they were going to cry soon."



Seeing films together can also promote interesting discussions, from stories about what it was like seeing a movie for the first time at one of the old movie palaces like Radio City Music Hall to social issues.

After seeing “The Florida Project,” a 2017 indie about a hapless mother raising a 6-year-old near Disney World, Ley and her granddaughters had plenty to talk about. “That movie impacted the three of us profoundly,” she says. “We had a long discussion about how these children were so ill-prepared for the future in the real world.”

DiLeo’s granddaughters taught her a lesson on American industry and the symbolism that was rampant throughout “The Wizard of Oz.”

“We were learning in social studies about 1890s and how farmers and factory workers in America were being mistreated,” says Gianna DiLeo. “We had a discussion about ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and how the Scarecrow represented the farmers and the Tin Man represented the factory workers.”

DiLeo, however, was unprepared for the questions that came up after showing the girls “Meet Me in St. Louis,” set at the time of the city’s 1904 Expo. “After the movie, they asked me ‘what was life like back then?” DiLeo says. “I’m not that old.”

The girls then asked if cities really did host world’s fairs, which prompted DiLeo to recall taking her children to the one in 1964 at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens.

“Whenever we see a movie,” DiLeo says, “they always ask when it was made and if it’s taking place in the period it was made.”



Mary DeFazio’s idea of a bloody good way to spend an evening with her grandson, Giancarlo DeFazio, 19, is with a movie designed to scare both of them.

“I don’t go for soapy love stories,” says the 87-year-old Freeport grandmother. “I like movies on the occult and parapsychology.” And while she’s partial to vampire flicks (“I think vampires kind of freak him out,” she jokes), her grandson prefers zombies.

Horror has always been a favorite genre for DeFazio, who spent many a Halloween watching creature features starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing with her son. When Giancarlo was younger, their favorite movie was the man’s-best-friend tale “My Dog Skip.” Then one day, DeFazio decided he was ready for something scarier.

“For my 11th birthday, she gave me a copy of ‘Friday the 13th,’ ” says Giancarlo, a Suffolk County Community College student who lives in East Northport. “Ever since I watched that I got into the slasher movie genre like ‘Scream’ and ‘Halloween.’ ” The two also started watching films like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and TV’s “The Walking Dead” together.

“She first got me into it,” Giancarlo says. “Then we’d call each other and talk about the episode after we’d see it.”

Giancarlo, who says he’s interested in acting and producing music, is now working on making his own horror film in a style “similar to David Lynch” with his friends.

And his grandmother couldn’t be prouder: “I think it’s funny that he’s got a grandmother of my age who’s into all this.”


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