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Here's Picnicking With You, Kid

A film classic is a mellow draw for an outdoor film series in Long Beach

September 03, 2002|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a drive-in movie with pizza and hot dogs, but no wheels. And, as one moviegoer said, there was no danger of "driving off with the speaker still in your window."

Three thousand people thronged Marina Green along the waterfront in Long Beach on Friday night to just enjoy being in Southern California on a balmy late summer evening. They came to socialize and to picnic and, oh, yes, to watch an American classic, "Casablanca," on a 20-by-30-foot outdoor screen.

It was the third--and to date the most popular--in the Long Beach Outdoor Film Series being presented on Friday nights through Sept. 13 by Partners of Parks, a community organization that funds programs ranging from literacy to gang prevention.

The crowd began arriving as soon as the gates opened at 6. They came bearing beach chairs and blankets, picnic baskets and wine buckets. They came in groups, they came as families and they came as couples, who cuddled under blankets as night fell.

Some simply plopped takeout pizza down on their beach towels; others set up little tables with white cloths, wineglasses and candles. Still others eschewed the picnic idea and queued up at the concessionaires' booths for egg rolls, barbecue and popcorn shrimp.

Dianne McNinch and Michael Blasdell of Long Beach couldn't decide whether they were in Casablanca or Hawaii. They hadn't exactly come for the waters, but they did bring a bubble machine--and a string of colorful lights in fish shapes. "We figured tropical," said Blasdell. "I love outdoor entertainment," said McNinch, and "since we live in the best city in the world, why not enjoy it?"

Rhonda Rivera of Lakewood brought her mother, Connie Meyer, visiting from Scottsdale, Ariz., where, Rivera observed, "they don't go outside" during the summer. Her daughters Roxanne, 11, and Erica, 10, were enjoying chips, dip and lollipops while waiting for their dad, Charlie, who was braving the headache of parking.

But small annoyances aside, a party spirit prevailed. In the front row, a multigenerational group was celebrating a birthday. Said Justine Friend, "My son used to take the TV outside and we'd barbecue and all the neighbors would come. When we heard about this, we thought it's better than TV." Would anyone care for grapes, or perhaps shrimp cocktail?

"It's one of the few things you can bring high school kids to and it's cool," said her friend Barbara Strong. In the spirit of things, daughter Brooke, 14, borrowed a pale mink stole to toss over her sweatpants and T-shirt.

A band played until dark, when the movie began. They played rock and, of course, they played "As Time Goes By" and "Knock on Wood," which Dooley Wilson plays at Rick's cafe in the film.

The Henderson family--Pam and Shonte and three kids--pitched a pup tent, where baby Paejah, 1, could sleep peacefully while Ilsa and Rick's destiny played out on screen.

Way in the back, a tailgate party of sorts was in progress, complete with a proper picnic table. "An extended softball team and friends of friends," explained Jerry Walls, who'd made baked ziti but confessed that "Albertsons made the chicken." At 49, the oldest in the group of about 20, he also was one of the few who'd seen "Casablanca," and he'd seen it about eight times.

Surprisingly, many people had come not as "Casablanca" fans, but simply to take part in a big community picnic. Not atypical was Sandra Abbott, who said, "I don't know what it's about. All I know is it's Humphrey Bogart. I don't even know who the chick is." Her mother, Judy, had never seen it either, but their friend Lillian Sanchez had seen the movie "maybe 20 times" and has it on video.

A group of a dozen friends were feasting on pizza and beer--er, make that "apple juice," said one, noting that bringing alcohol to the event was not encouraged.

These friends--among whom are a software developer, a nurse, a dietitian, a voice-over actress, a tile contractor, a high school music teacher and a microbiologist--call themselves "the St. Matthew crew," for a Catholic church in Long Beach where they worship and where, public relations man Kevin Irion observed to appreciative laughter, "they don't shut the door as we're approaching."

Tony Umphenour, the microbiologist, is a cantor at the church. "It's just fun to sit with your friends and say, 'Here's looking at you....' "At 8 p.m., while there still were long lines at the food booths--and a few people were squabbling with those behind them over whether their chairs were blocking the screen--the film began rolling in glorious black and white. The complimentary birthday cake marking the 60th anniversary of "Casablanca" had been devoured.

There were palm trees on screen and palm trees framing the huge screen, silhouetted against a rosy sky. On one side, lights twinkled in the city skyscrapers. On the other, the triple stacks of the Queen Mary were illuminated. It was magical.

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