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Curtain Call: The Man of 3,600 Films

Bentley Boyd, Donor and Member Communications Manager
August 20, 2020
Photograph of a man surrounded by film equipment.

Image: John Ewing, Curator of Film at the CMA for 34 Years. Image courtesy Howard Agriesti for the Cleveland Museum of Art.

You couldn’t watch a movie on your phone when John Ewing took over the film program at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1986. But our era of on-demand streaming content only makes the CMA’s curation of film more important, he believes.

“A lot of us who love film resist the word ‘content.’ The best movies are not ‘content.’ They are works of art conceived by artists and should be seen in the best possible environment,” Ewing says.

Ewing was about to show director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943) at the museum when the CMA was forced to close in March due to the COVID-19 public health emergency. Streaming technology has been a godsend to millions of people self-isolating in their homes for months — but people are beginning to feel adrift in all that “content.” How do they pick what to watch next? How will we watch movies in 2021? Without a vaccine, venues for professional sports, concerts, and theater are wondering how and when audiences will gather in person again.

Ewing saw his first movie at the CMA as a college English major in the early 1970s — a W.C. Fields comedy. But with no idea of when the social experience of theater viewings will return, he retired in August.

“Whoever succeeds me will have to separate what the museum does from this multimedia culture that saturates us,” he says. “Films are to be savored, start to finish, with no interruption. That’s something we need to reaffirm. They’re almost now closer to classical music or opera than they are to popcorn diversions. Film is a time-based medium, like listening to Mahler.”

“Films are to be savored, start to finish, with no interruption. That’s something we need to reaffirm. They’re almost now closer to classical music or opera than they are to popcorn diversions. Film is a time-based medium, like listening to Mahler.” — John Ewing, Curator of Film

He departs an institution where a third of the current staff were born after Ewing began his tenure with a showing of the Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra musical On the Town (1949). Ewing has screened more than 3,600 films at the CMA — about a thousand of them being Cleveland premieres.

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On the Town (1949) Official Trailer — Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly Movie HD. Video courtesy Movieclips Classic Trailers.

Director of performing arts Tom Welsh says, “His body of work is staggering. We know he is revered not just in Cleveland but by people across the country in independent cinema. He’s a legend not only in our community but in the field.”

John Ewing pictured at the CMA in 1988.

Ewing programmed his first films as director of the 1973 January Term film program at his alma mater, Denison University. Between 1975 and 1983, he directed the Canton Film Society for the Stark County District Library, showing free international films. From 1984 to 1986, he ran a cinema series at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library, and in 1984 he co-founded the Cleveland Cinematheque and will continue his work as director there after his CMA retirement.

At Ewing’s virtual retirement party for the CMA, media services specialist and longtime Cinematheque projectionist Les Vince told him, “Your passion is very infectious. I would mention a scene in a film I had seen 10 years ago and couldn’t remember the name of the film, and you could name it immediately. The patrons came for the movies, of course, but they really appreciated your knowledge and the personal introductions you had for the films. It was a great touch.”

Early CMA film program brochures.

At the CMA, Ewing increased the number of film screenings per week and oversaw the acquisition of 35mm projectors in Gartner Auditorium in 1988. The night those projectors debuted is a highlight for him — and for Marjorie Williams, CMA senior leadership giving officer. She was in the packed auditorium when the German silent film Nosferatu (1922) ended and the screen rose to reveal organist Dennis James, who turned to accept the applause wearing a vampire mask, and the crowd erupted. “That was a great evening!” Williams says.

Ewing says, “I didn’t know he was going to do that. He really brought the house down.”

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The Leopard (1963) Trailer. Video courtesy HD Retro Trailers.

Another favorite moment for Ewing was the community reaction to The Leopard (1963), a three-hour Burt Lancaster movie not available in the US at the time. Ewing got a print of the Italian movie from the British Film Institute and wondered who would show up.

“We had 500 people materialize out of nowhere. I was overwhelmed,” he says. “I think so many people turned out because it appealed to the traditional museum audience. We’ve built this bedrock of a very well-trained, sophisticated audience. These are people who know their film history.”

John Ewing checks screen masking in the Morley Lecture Hall before the showing of Kings of Pastry in November 2011.

Ewing is now part of that history. In 2010, he was named Chevalier (Knight) in the Order of Arts and Letters of the Republic of France, recognized for his significant contributions to French culture. (CMA director William Griswold, and artists Robert Redford, Uma Thurman, David Bowie, and Leonardo DiCaprio have also received the award.)

The award honors the perseverance that was required to curate an international film program with analog technology. Remember that movie from March that Ewing didn’t get to show? It would have been a DVD copy. When he wanted to show that same movie in June 1989, he had to show a silver nitrate print.

“Silver nitrate is highly flammable stock,” Ewing says. “We had to get special dispensation from the fire department. During the showing, we had to sit by the projector with a fire extinguisher.”