Flashback

Nobody is quite sure when movies were first shown at Holy Cross, but we do know that, sometime in the early 1960s, Rev. Fred Gallagher, S.J., offered a “Great Movies” program that was so popular he had to limit ticket sales. Fr. Gallagher himself could have been the stuff of a movie, an English professor and a drama aficionado who put aside his books after Pearl Harbor to become a Navy chaplain with the Marines. He saw action in the South Pacific and said Mass on beaches, aboard ship, on the back of a reconnaissance car and, once, on an Australian cricket field.

Charles A. Baker, director of the film program and professor emeritus of French, recalls that one of the theater’s old projector bases was dated 1935—and that it had been donated to the College by the campus Navy recruitment program during World War II. Baker himself started at Holy Cross in 1958—which belies the myth propagated by some, he points out, that his first contract was signed by Bishop Fenwick—and remembers those films shown in Kimball Hall by Fr. Gallagher.

As students returned to campus this fall, they discovered a brand-new movie theater to enjoy, located where it has always been, in the former bowling alley in the basement of Kimball. Now known as the Francis Xavier Seelos Theater, the space has undergone a thorough renovation.

Fr. Gallagher retired in 1963, at which point Baker and a group of film-loving professors started a fine-arts movie series.

“This was the heyday of Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Truffaut,” Baker remembers. “We would run the film on Wednesday and would have discussions on Thursday. We ran the films again Thursday evening, and the theater would be packed. The College asked me if I would take over Friday and Saturday as well, and I did.”

As far as academic acceptance of film goes, Baker found it was mostly language teachers who used it for teaching in the 1960s, perhaps to help students with language skills. But as film came to be more and more embraced as an art form that stood on its own, courses on the subject itself started showing up in college catalogs. Baker found philosophy and theology professors using his films in their courses, and, around 1965, some colleagues and he began offering the course “Cinema and Humanism.”

Today, Holy Cross students can take courses in American, British, Chinese, Italian, Latin-American and world film—and can focus on such subjects as film narrative and the use of the medium during war time.

Baker’s own love of film dates back to his days as a Ph.D. student at the University of
Illinois.
“We had an art house in Champaign that had 10-cent shows,” he recalls, “and of course we didn’t have any money, so we’d go.”

A long-told story about the early days of cinema at Holy Cross involves a Jesuit sitting in the center of the last row, who would raise his hand to block the projection whenever a scene of questionable taste was about to come up—and, so, protect the morals and sensibilities of the students. Baker knows of the story, doubts its veracity, but accepts that such a good yarn is hard to kill.

“It’s like the line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” he says. “When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.”