More than 18 months after the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library opened in Simi Valley, Ronald Reagan the actor has finally hit the screen there in an eight-film festival that promises to be a marked departure from the executive trappings already on display.
"This is something that's been talked about since we started," said library spokeswoman Stefanie Salata.
"A lot of people do comment when they see the (museum's) Hollywood section. They say, 'Oh, you should show his movies,' " Salata said. "There's enough of an affinity for his movies that we think there will be a good response."
The response started off slow last week, as fewer than 10 Reagan film fans turned out Wednesday for a showing of "Knute Rockne--All American."
Salata said the light crowd was not unexpected, because it was the first time the library was open to the public at night. As word of the festival spreads, she hopes to eventually fill most of the 100 seats in two library theaters.
Nearly all who did find their way to the hilltop museum described themselves as hard-core Reagan admirers who appreciated the library's efforts to provide a well-rounded view of the man.
"I'm a Ronald Reagan fan, myself," said Rick Hill, a tourist from Indiana who was visiting friends in the area. "So when I heard that they had a special deal for the museum and the movie, I couldn't pass it up."
Films are shown on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. free with a paid library admission. Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for senior citizens 62 and up. Children 15 and under are admitted free.
"Knute Rockne--All American" led off the festival with showings last week and Sunday. The remaining schedule is:
* "Santa Fe Trail," Wednesday and Sunday. * "Hellcats of the Navy," July 21 and 25. * "The Winning Team," July 28 and Aug. 1. * "Cattle Queen of Montana," Aug. 4 and 8. * "Bedtime for Bonzo," Aug. 11 and 15. * "Dark Victory," Aug. 18 and 22. * "King's Row," Aug. 25 and 29.
But while Reagan's celluloid legacy may be a hit with library visitors, film scholars say he was much more successful in public office.
"The best role he ever played was as the President of the United States," said Jim Hosney, an instructor at the American Film Institute and director of the film and video program at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. "I think he did a better job in that role than in any of his movies."
Richard Jewell, an associate professor at the USC School of Cinema-Television, said that Reagan's years as an actor were characterized by large roles in small films and small roles in large films.
"It seems to me that he was a good actor and he was a good-looking guy. But he did not have that special spark, that special charisma that turns somebody from being a face on the screen to being somebody who lights up the screen," he said.
Both Jewell and Hosney praised Reagan for his work in "King's Row," but questioned the omission of a film they say may be Reagan's finest on-screen performance.
"Of all the films of Reagan's that I've ever seen, the best one that I've ever seen is 'The Killers,' " Jewell said. "I think it's the best film that he was ever in where he was a major component in the film itself."
Hosney agreed, but speculated that the dark role Reagan played in the 1964 release may account for its absence from the festival.
"He plays a corporate criminal," Hosney said. "Imagine that, here's the man who will become President of the United States playing a corporate criminal, slapping Angie Dickenson around. It's amazing."
Salata said Reagan helped decide which of his 53 films were to be shown in the festival, and said the choices were among his personal favorites.
"I hope to eventually show them all," Salata said. "The list I generated first were some of his favorites and things that were readily available to me. . . . It's not like anything was thrown out. These are just the first eight films."
Of the films that will be shown, Jewell said "Dark Victory" also represents a high-water mark for Reagan.
"I love that film. I show it to my students every few years and it's a great weeper, a great melodrama from the period," he said. "When Reagan comes on screen the students all whoop it up, because he's this drunken playboy who kind of halfheartedly romances Bette Davis but never gets to first base with her."
And it's that kind of recollection that Salata said made her wonder whether a film festival was appropriate at a distinguished library and museum operated by the National Archives and Records Administration.
"It's something I worried about for a long time," she said. "And I wouldn't say right when we opened that we would have had this film festival. (The library) is supposed to be stately and presidential. But, again, we're trying to have this appeal to a wide variety of people.
"Because he's in retirement, we're able to look at all these aspects of his life and enjoy each of his particular careers."