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Ambler Theater to hold gala on Oscar night

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STORY WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For Digital First Media

Were you able to score tickets to Los Angeles’ Dolby Center for the annual Academy Awards festivities? If not, don’t despair. There is an appealing  alternative closer to home. The Ambler Theater will celebrate their 12th birthday with a gala evening on Oscar night. It will be replete with food, drinks, and the Academy Awards ceremony projected in HD on the big screen.

As executive director of the venue, John Toner, will be supervising the festivities. He said, “The Oscars are the biggest and most publicized celebration of movies in the world. Toner candidly conceded some of the flaws in the ceremony, “The event itself can get a little long-winded.” He added, “A lot of great movies and performances get overlooked.” However, Toner touted the fact that, “It’s still fun, nonetheless.  And it’s always fun guessing who will win.” He cited another attractive aspect of the event, “It provides a chance to look back and recall some great on-screen experiences.”

As Toner explained, “We started the event as a way to celebrate the theater’s birthday and the great movies we have shown over the course of the year. He added, “From there, it has grown into the gala that it is now. It really took off after we finished the restoration of the front theater in 2007.”

Toner noted, “We saw growth every year in the party up until 2013. That year we had our largest crowd of about 400 patrons.” According to Toner, “The growth of the event mirrored the growth of Ambler Theater’s membership and the rejuvenation of the town.

Toner acknowledged a dilemma, “For years, we worked to make the party bigger and better, but then reached a point where it was just too big. And bigger was fighting better.” He clarified, “While we were so happy to have that many movie-lovers in attendance and supporting the theater, we felt that we had crossed the threshold to make the event comfortable and provide the best a wonderful experience.”  He and his colleagues came up with a solution, “We have strategically scaled back the event over the past two years to make sure that everyone who attends has an incredible night.” Toner clarified, “We have made some changes this year. We wanted to make the event even more special, so we have actually capped the number of guests at 250.”  He said, “This will make sure that we are able to give a VIP experience to everyone who attends.”

: John Toner, executive director of the Ambler Theater, poses in front of a poster of “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” a film that he contends changed his life. Submitted photo

: John Toner, executive director of the Ambler Theater, poses in front of a poster of “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” a film that he contends changed his life.
Submitted photo

In anticipation of the gala, Toner said, “The biggest challenge is organizing the reception before the awards.” He admitted, “Fortunately, I don’t have to do much of that work.  The lion’s share is done by our Associate Director, Chris Collier, and our board of directors and our staff.  There is a logistical challenge to get everyone into the building, fed, and into their seats for the event, all while having a great time.” He embraced the prospect, “We love challenges and look forward to figuring out ways, each year, to make the event a better experience for the patrons who attend.” Toner exuded confidence, “There is a lot of planning and strategizing, but it all comes together by show time.”

As part of the event, the Ambler Theater invites attendees to predict the Oscar recipients. Toner characterized their Pick the Winners contest as, “one of the most successful parts of the evening. We post the updated results to our website as soon as awards are handed out and we also share them on screen the night of the awards. We have found that it really can be a toss-up until the final awards of the evening. We have had some upsets with the Best Picture award, where the leader gets knocked out at the last minute.

“Each of the years we have run the challenge, we have had different winners, but there are a couple of familiar names who keep appearing at the top each time. Most of the winners are a combination of lucky guessers and movie lovers. They definitely know the films and pick their selections strategically,”  Toner said.  He pointed out an irony, “We have found that being too much of a cinephile can backfire. Some cinephiles pick the films they want to be rewarded, which can be very different from the more general views of the Academy.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Toner disclaimed, “I was not a cinephile growing up.  My tastes were pretty pedestrian.” Things changed.  “It wasn’t until I lived in New York City in the ‘70s that I fell in love with movies.  New York had a substantial number of repertory cinemas at that time and that’s where I got my film education – watching Godard, Bergman, Fellini, and the ‘70s Hollywood upstarts like Scorsese and Coppola, as well as Hitchcock and classic Hollywood films.” Officially, Toner’s favorite film is “The Lady Eve,” directed by Preston Sturges, which starred Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck.  However, Toner specified that it was official, because “otherwise it would be changing every week. “ However, it was another film, “Celine and Julie Go Boating” a 1974 film from French New Wave director, Jacques Rivette, that Toner said, “changed my life.”  He elaborated, “I saw it at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge around 1982.  After that, I helped start a film society in Doylestown.”

Asked what the most gratifying aspect of the gala was for him personally, Toner singled out, “Seeing our members and patrons arrive at the theater with big grins on their faces and leaving with the same smiles.” He concluded, “It is a reminder that what we are doing, to bring people together through the magic of film, is working.”

The Ambler Theater Gala will take place on Sunday, Feb. 22. Doors will open at 6:30 pm for a red carpet reception with champagne toast, catered food, and drinks. The awards ceremony starts at 8 pm. Tickets are $75 to the public and $65 to members of the Ambler Theater. All tickets come with reserved seating in the front Main Auditorium.

For further information on the Ambler Theater’s Gala, visit  http://www.amblertheater.org/awardsparty.php or call (215) 345-7855.

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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