Movies Still Magic For Italian Immigrant
To many people, movies are just a form of entertainment, but to Huntington resident and film historian Irene Eckert, movies are much more.
“I had become a movie addict from an early age to learn the language,” said Eckert, who came to the United States from Italy when she was 5 years old.
She didn’t know a word of English, but she gradually began to learn the language by going to the movies two or three times a week. She fell in love with the films she saw, and the ones she remembers most fondly are those that starred Shirley Temple. Although she didn’t know the language that well yet, she said, she was able to enjoy Shirley’s singing and dancing.
Eckert eventually became fluent in English and went to elementary school in the Bronx.
“I really knocked myself out to learn the language, but I continued to go to movies a lot, all during this time, because it was my way of picking up the language and it was our entertainment of the time,” she recalled.
Her mother had more children over the years and the family’s house became noisy, so going to the movies was her outlet for peace and quiet, Eckert said.
Later on, Eckert attended Christopher Columbus High School, where she went to school with Anne Bancroft, who would famously star as Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate.” After high school, Eckert decided to further her education and go to college.
“The only way I could get ahead was to go to college,” she said.
She got accepted to Hunter College and majored in history.
“I didn’t like science and math that much. I majored in history because I did like stories,” Eckert said.
After she got her bachelor’s degree, she proceeded to get two master’s degrees, one in European history at Fordham University and another one in teacher education from Hunter College.
When Eckert got married, she came to Long Island and landed her first job as a social studies teacher at Elwood High School. Teaching jobs were common among women during that time, she noted.
“Today the women have many more alternatives than we did many years ago,” Eckert said. “This was the ’50s and ’60s, so we [didn’t] have that much opportunity to do things.”
Even though teaching wasn’t a career in film, she still enjoyed her job. She would get a chance to return to film, however, after her three children, Richard, Michelle and Stephanie, graduated high school and went off to college.
“By that time, the kids were going off to college, so [the] movies was my big thing even after all this time,” Eckert said.
In the ’80s, she started to attend the New School for Social Research and took classes in film history and film techniques.
“I enjoyed that tremendously, going down there, because I met a lot of nice people, met a nice network that I still have, saw a lot of films I would have never seen and had wonderful instructors,” Eckert said.
One of the most important lessons she said she learned was the dilemma directors often face when they have to decide whether they want to make their film artistic or entertaining.
“I remember that so well because when you go to movies you feel like there are very few films that fill that artistic category, but there are a lot more that fill entertainment,” Eckert said.
Some of the films she categorizes as artistic are “Citizen Kane,” “Vertigo” and “Bicycle Thief.”
“I learned that an artistic film should be like artwork; it should stay with you,” Eckert said.
She said she feels many of the movies today lack that artistic element.
“I used to go to the movies every weekend and I could enjoy them, but now I really have to take my time and look,” Eckert said.
She is passionate about classic films, and her way of bringing them back is by holding programs at the Huntington and Harborfields public libraries and teaching classes at LIU Post’s Hutton House.
At the libraries, she has different themes for her programs. Her favorite themes are Film Noir, Italian Neorealism and Italian Comedy. During the programs, she shows several films and then asks the crowd questions to get a dialogue going.
The crowd that comes out for her programs, she said, are usually older, but she hopes that younger people will feel the draw.
“I hoped to get a lot of these baby boomers to see a lot of these great films that were made in those days,” Eckert said.
For eight years, she has been teaching Italian Film History at Hutton House. Those classes are a little more elaborate than her programs at the libraries, she said.
“I like doing what I’m doing now because I was doing this by myself, but now I have an audience that I get feedback from,” Eckert said.
And so, what started as a learning tool has blossomed into a true passion for Irene Eckert.