At the Cinema Arts Center, in one of the theatres,...

At the Cinema Arts Center, in one of the theatres, from left: Charlotte Sky, her son Dylan Skolnick, Programming Director; Judith Gardner, Director of Development; and Vick Skolnick. Charlotte and Vic are the founders and co-directors of the Cinema Arts Center. Credit: Newsday

This story was originally published in Newsday on Jan. 3, 2003.

Adrienne Mancia knows film. And film centers. She was the film curator at the Museum of Modern Art for 33 years; she created and now runs the BAM Rose Cinemas at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

She's also an authentic Manhattanite. She doesn't own a car. She's never even been to the Hamptons. She doesn't know where Huntington is, or much about it. She's never been to the Cinema Arts Centre there. But she has met "Char and Victor" (as in Charlotte Sky and Vic Skolnick), and she knows about their movie house cum cultural center, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary of bringing the odd, the unusual, the independent, the foreign, the unknown, the very best in film to a large suburban audience.

"It's a big plus to see an art center that is not in the major city doing that kind of work," Mancia said. "From what little I know of them, they are very knowledgeable, dedicated and persistent. They are people of integrity. I don't know how they do it, where the funding comes from."

With all her experience, Mancia knows the kind of work and the kind of money it takes to build an institution that now has three screens, a cafe/music room/alternate screening room; runs seven days a week, 365 days a year and draws close to 190,000 visitors annually. Clearly, she thought, Skolnick and Sky have some outside source of income.

Not exactly. Almost from the moment Skolnick quit his position as a history professor at C.W. Post College in 1973 to show old movies on a king-size bedsheet in the New Circle of Dance studio not far from the cinema's current location, the couple have never taken more money than anyone else on the staff (once they got a staff). Right now, their salaries as co-directors of one of the most important independent film centers in the country are $31,000 each.

There's a full-time staff of nine, including Judith Gardner, a retired American Express executive brought onboard recently for fund-raising and administration, and their son Dylan, 35, who's deep into programming films. There are about 15 part-timers and 40 to 45 volunteers, though Skolnick still changes light bulbs, fixes toilets and directs traffic (not to mention the rambling, engaging introductions he often gives audiences). There are nearly 6,000 members and many corporations and foundations contributing to keep the place afloat. (The largest single donation was a $1 million check from the Marion O. and Maximilian E. Hoffman Foundation in 1990, which allowed expansion, new seats, new equipment, a new lobby and more.)

It all began as the New Community Cinema, which during the first years moved from the dance studio to the gym in a former firehouse on Main Street to an upstairs room in that same building and finally to leased space at the former Village Green School. Skolnick and Sky are still who they were then: film-fanatical bohemians from Brooklyn brought together by their common addiction and their left-wing outlook. (It was the politics, they believe, that kept getting them in hot water in the early days with the town board, police and building inspectors.)

They no longer look like hippies or beatniks, even with the long hair and the cowrie shells, corduroy and denim. Today, savvy veterans of decades spent keeping their dreams alive, they look like hobbit sages who know the secret history of independent cinema from its birth. Which they do.

"'Independent' used to mean something different," said film curator David Schwartz of the American Museum of the Moving Image. "It was an out-of-the-mainstream distribution system. Filmmakers would travel around with prints to get them shown. The cinema was there at the beginning of that, in the '70s. They were right there, supporting filmmakers with regional films, who were not known, who didn't have tremendous publicity out of Sundance." (It was born six years before what became Sundance was created and nine years before Robert Redford founded the Sundance Film Institute.)

"They are truly independent," Schwartz continued. "They were among a small number of theaters around the United States supporting this work. They were very important to the filmmakers, to the films. They helped build up this culture that is huge."

The cinema's reputation indeed is widespread and positive. Its founders are known and respected among programmers, filmmakers and distributors, from California to Boston. The center is the model for the new Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, in upper Westchester County. "They were very much, personally, an inspiration," said Steve Apkon, Burns founder and director.

Rama Dunayevich, associate director of programming for the Rafael Film Center in Mill Valley, Calif., is another city-centered New Yorker who hadn't even heard of Sky and Skolnick until she arrived in California. She soon found out they were respected resources. Although she still has never met them, she has often spoken to them on the phone: "It's like I would call them to be kind of my elders," she says of Sky, 72, and Skolnick, 73.

Rebeca Conget, vice president of the theatrical division at New Yorker Films, said that a good showing at the Cinema Arts Centre is like a seal of approval. "When I talk to people around the country, they say, 'It did well at the cinema.' People know of it." In some ways, Conget said, it's better for a movie to do well in Huntington than in Manhattan. "If it's in New York City, they say, 'That doesn't count.' If it does well in the suburbs, that's better."

("Trembling Before G-d," about gay Orthodox Jews, and "Sobibor," about an uprising at a concentration camp, are among the New Yorker films shown recently in Huntington.)

Filmmakers, too, have reason to be grateful for the cinema. James Ivory was being shown there in the late 1970s, long before he teamed up with Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to make Merchant-Ivory Productions. Wim Wenders was among many important filmmakers who have been feted at the center's galas. Long Islander Hal Hartley has said several times that he got his basic film education from the nights and weekends he spent there.

"It's safe to say that it has a reputation far beyond its immediate locale," said film critic James Hoberman, who has written for the Village Voice since 1980.

With this history, significance and reputation, the impressive physical structure, complete with outdoor sculpture and decorative garden, and the neat, modern look of the interior, the Cinema Arts Centre seems the very model of an established cultural institution.

But appearances can be deceiving. Skolnick, during the wandering, amusing and informative film introductions for which he is notorious, always finds himself forced to beg the audience for support and contributions. This year's $1.6 million budget has a $200,000 deficit, for example. Cinema insiders say that Vic and Char have been known not to cash their paychecks to help keep things going. And they really do some of the manual labor.

Almost everyone who attends notices, and appreciates, the efforts. During an observer's visit, a group of seventh graders from Oldfield Middle School in Greenlawn was filing out, after having seen Vittorio De Sica's stark, post- World-War II "Miracle in Milano." The film was cool, the students agreed, but what several found more striking was the condition of the theater. "It's clean," Danielle Hanna, 12, said. "It's not, like, cluttered. And outside it's so cool, it has so much art."

Bridget Bernhardt, also 12, chimed in: "At any other theater there would be popcorn on the ground."

So it isn't just the past that is served at Cinema Arts Centre. There's room for the future, too.

Skolnick and Sky "love film," BAM's Mancia said. "You can't say any more than that."

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