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It’s Wednesday afternoon and we’re at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, hanging out and enjoying white wine by the lake. The classic landmark might not be the most obvious spot to have a picnic, but for L.A. natives John Wyatt and Alia Penner, Hollywood Forever is the spot where the creative couple checks into work every summer, so to speak.
In 2002, Wyatt approached the owners of the famed cemetery about hosting an outdoor screening of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Strangers on a Train, which welcomed roughly 80 attendees. Now the outdoor film screenings on Fairbanks Lawn — better known as Cinespia — are held every Saturday from May to September, with thousands of guests attending. They’ve become what some people describe as “a rite of passage — you’re not an Angeleno until [you attend Cinespia],” according to Wyatt, a former set designer for indie films and music videos.
Not long after Wyatt began arranging more screenings, he asked Penner to help create a poster for one of his events while they were both working at Cinefamily, a non-profit American cinematheque in L.A. It was then that Penner, an independent artist who often works with the fashion industry (Diane von Furstenberg included), says they realized they lived next to each other and “fell in love, so we still live next door to each other.”
Their first date, as expected, involved watching a classic flick.
“You showed me a movie I had never seen before called Bedazzled. That was the first movie we watched together,” recalls Penner of the 1967 film starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, to which Wyatt responds with a smile, “That’s a good first movie date.”
Penner, clad in a vintage rainbow frock from Golyester and Jeffrey Campbell platforms, adds: “Cut to seven years later and probably a lot of posters, we’ve expanded into doing these big sets together.”
Those sets — which are designed around the concept of that evening’s movie — give folks the chance to jump in and have their photos taken. Ranging from a Dazed & Confused-esque classroom to a medieval village for their fantasy-themed all-night screening, the sets have become a signature part of the Cinespia experience.
So what do the pair do when they’re not busy building extravagant sets and organizing each season’s film schedule?
“We’ll end up on the Westside to pick up something and then we stop at The Ivy and have margaritas and lobster tacos and then ride the Ferris wheel. We grew up on the pier,” explains Wyatt, who notes that they’re often both workaholics. “We both grew up on the Westside, so finding ourselves as tourists in our own city is something we love to do. We love Hollywood Boulevard. We love just celebrating our city.”
And, of course, there’s one activity they always enjoy doing together. “We love to go to the movies,” Wyatt adds, which elicits a small chuckle and a nod of agreement from Penner. “It’s nice to have that in common.”
Now in its 14th season, Wyatt’s passion for bringing Angelenos together through film remains intact.
“I think it’s this collective experience — that’s what people crave and L.A. really, before Cinespia, didn’t have that at all,” he says. “And after we were the only ones doing outdoor screenings for almost 10 years in the whole city. There was just no one else doing it. For us it’s always been about that community and the films.”
Indeed, Cinespia has gathered friends, family and first dates together for one of L.A.’s favorite summer traditions. Among the many couples that show up at Cinespia, there’s one pair in particular that gets Wyatt all choked up.
“One of the best things someone has ever said to me was this guy who came up to me with his wife and said, ‘Hey, listen we’ve been coming for years. We love it,’ ” he recalls, continuing, “He said, ‘We came here on our very first date and this is my wife.’ And then he said, ‘This is our daughter. She comes now, too.’ “
“So they had their first date, came while they were dating, got married, came as a married couple and then they bring their daughter,” shares a teary-eyed Wyatt as he recalled that special moment. “For me, it’s very moving obviously.”
Above all else, Wyatt hopes Cinespia’s screening of classics will show the audience that “there’s timeless art in film.” Adds Penner: “It feels so good when you can have a classic movie translate into 2015, and it feels like it could last forever.”
“Hopefully it will inform the work they do and make them better artists, filmmakers or anything they do, really,” Wyatt says.
Find out more info on Cinespia’s upcoming summer screenings — including Grindhouse (July 18), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (July 26), Apocalypse Now (Aug. 1) and It Happened One Night (Aug. 8) — at cinespia.org. (Poster designs by Alia Penner.)
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