Local friends, film fans get lens turned on them

Local friends, film fans get lens turned on them
Members of the Cliffhangers, the subject of the documentary "Brotherhood of the Popcorn" that will screen at the 2015 Burbank International Film Festival, gather in Glendale resident Woody Wise's home theater to enjoy some old movies on Saturday, Aug. 29. From left to right: Tim Walker, Bill Exter, Richard Mottern and Rocky Sportelli. (Photo by Chad Garland)

For Woody Wise, operating a theater is a passion. Several Saturdays a month, the Glendale resident puts pipe organ music on the juke box, makes popcorn, chooses the films for the morning's slate, dims the lights and runs the projector.

He does this for friends in his little eight-seat home theater on the second floor of his home on Riverside Drive, near Bette Davis' old estate, a group calling themselves the Cliffhangers after their penchant for the old chaptered serials of Hollywood's golden age, which ended with a suspenseful plot device to keep audiences coming back week after week.


Wise's wife, Sandy, said he also opens the theater for just about anyone and "lives to have people watch movies with him." Last Saturday morning, the group of eight retirees met to watch the 1938 film "Angels with Dirty Faces," two chapters of a Republic Pictures serial called "The Masked Marvel" and the 1944 Sherlock Holmes mystery "The Spider Woman."

However, next weekend at 2 p.m., when the Cliffhangers get together again, they won't be watching black-and-white films in Wise's home theater. They'll be seeing themselves on the big screen at the Burbank AMC Town Center 6 in a screening of the documentary "Brotherhood of the Popcorn," which tells the story of their friendship.


The film, five years in the making, is directed by Inda Reid and will be the second to last film of the 2015 Burbank International Film Festival, which opens Wednesday and runs through the following Sunday.

The event will feature 25 premieres, said Jeff Rector, the festival's president and artistic director.

In the documentary, the Cliffhangers' Saturday get-togethers are the jumping off point to delve into the lives of the eight friends from various walks of life — two animators, a school teacher, a fish-truck driver, a rockabilly crooner, a house painter and a retired Los Angeles Times reporter — most of whom live in Burbank, Glendale and Los Angeles.

"These guys' passion for film ... is the heart of the film," Rector said.


For Reid, who said she's a classic movie buff herself, it's about more than old movies.

"It's about a passing of an era ... and the feeling of nostalgia that these men have," Reid said. "They really cling to that."

The film documents the collectors — Dennis Penna the former rockabilly artist and Jack Edward Tuerk the former fish-truck driver — and their collections of old cars, memorabilia and DVDs.

It also tells of the animation careers of Bill Exter and Tim Walker, the youngest of the Cliffhangers, and of Walker's battle with Parkinson's disease, which forced him to learn to draw with his left hand.

Reid said she discovered the group after overhearing Rocky Sportelli, the retired house painter, and Exter discussing old movies at a Sherman Oaks coffee shop. They invited her to Woody Wise's theater, and then gradually into their lives.

"We lived through the best times," Exter says near the beginning of the film.

While the film lovers are sentimental about the old days, they're not stuck in the past, which Reid said was another thing she found interesting about the men. In one sequence, she follows Eric Harrison, the retired Times reporter, as he volunteers at the coffee shop in Burbank's Joslyn Center, where he seems to be popular with the ladies.

"This old stuff's not so bad," Harrison says in the film, after telling a story about a flirtation with an older woman.


What began as a short film for festivals eventually became feature-length as the footage piled up, Reid said. Though it's intended as a memory album for the group members and their families, she and Woody Wise, who executive produced and helped fund the film, have started to share it with others, submitting it to 15 festivals and screening it for Warner Bros. retirees.

Sandy Wise said she learned things from the film that she'd never known about the Cliffhangers even after decades of their gatherings.

"We just thought they liked movies," she said.

Information about the Burbank International Film Festival and its full slate of films is available at