When the film "For the Love of Benji" is shown Monday at the Lakefront Summer Festival in Columbia, hundreds of moviegoing children and their parents will cozy up on blankets in front of a large, flat canvas screen outdoors.
That's quite a change from the days when Tom Brzezinski strung a clothesline between two trees, draped a bed sheet across it and projected movies onto the swaying cloth for neighbors. That was 1969--well before Brzezinski started organizing movies for the Columbia Association's annual festival at the town center and before he helped launch a popular film society in Columbia.
Before there were cinema complexes, there was Brzezinski--better known as "Mr. B"--with his round, smiling face, portable projector and extra-long extension cord. As the organizer of the festival's movie nights and as director of the Columbia Film Society, Brzezinski has been bringing the magic of the movies to the region for 30 years.
"I just enjoy films, and I enjoy people liking movies," said Brzezinski, 58, the media specialist and librarian at Clemens Crossing Elementary School in Columbia. "It's a form of escapism, a form of entertainment and a way to broaden your horizons."
While Columbia has its share of movie theaters and will have more screens when renovations at Columbia Mall are completed, it lacks theaters for viewing foreign or arts films, Brzezinski said.
People interested in these genres usually have to go to theaters in Washington or Baltimore, or they must wait for the home video versions.
That always surprised Brzezinski, who said that Howard County has a market for these films.
The film society, which shows foreign films, has been so popular among residents that more than 200 people are turned away for membership each year.
The society has nearly 900 members.
"There's a substantial base in Columbia of academic people who enjoy this kind of cinema," he said. "We definitely could start supporting an international cinema."
Brzezinski was always drawn to the movies, even as a child growing up in Catonsville. Back in the 1940s, he would take a streetcar to the movies, with friends or alone, to see Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis or Gene Autry and "Champion the Wonder Horse."
"I was just fascinated by the movies and by the people who appeared in them," he said.
In the sixth grade, Brzezinski won a 16mm projector as a prize for selling the most gift wrap during a school fund-raiser.
His first showing was a "Mighty Mouse" cartoon. As a teenager, he bought an 8mm film projector and showed black-and-white silent movies accompanied by tape-recorded music. That was the first time he presented movies outdoors.
He got involved with the audiovisual group in high school, and during college, he was in charge of showing movies on campus.
After college, he pondered opening a small theater in Columbia to show foreign films, but the idea never worked out.
He started showing movies to friends and neighbors, and the Columbia Film Society formed from that.
Members of the Columbia Association then called upon his expertise in the early 1970s to arrange for films outdoors during the Lakefront Summer Festival.
The festival's movies are divided into two categories: films for families on Monday nights and "a hodgepodge for an older crowd" on Fridays, he said. It never shows a film more mature than a PG-13 rating.
An average of 300 to 500 people attend each movie.
"The audience has gotten to known Mr. B over the years, and I think they enjoy seeing that he's still doing the movies with us," said Maggie Brown, vice president and director of community services for the Columbia Association.
The popular film society meets nine times a year at the Smith Theatre at Howard County Community College to view subtitled foreign films and other films in English.
The $30 membership covers all nine films, which are chosen by Brzezinski and other members of the film society's board of directors.
Each movie is shown twice, and this fall, the group will add a third showing to accommodate more members.
"I could rent the same movies at home, but this is much more social," said Verna Parker, who has been a member since the group started in 1969. "I see people I don't normally see, and it's a lot more pleasant than driving into Washington."
Helen Ruther and Marcia Gorrie, both longtime residents of Columbia, take credit for starting the film society.
But that first year was terrible. The first movie they showed, Ruther recalled, was a Japanese western that was so bad that people left early "and we had to hide in the bathroom."
"It was kind of embarrassing," she said.
They called Brzezinski to help, and the society quickly became a success.
Before the showing of the Italian film "The Best Man" earlier this month, film society members arrived at the dimly lit theater, carrying blankets and plastic bags of candy.
As people greeted Brzezinski and their friends and chose seats, Norma Eigles helped her 89-year-old mother, Eleanor Kaplow, settle into a chair.
These films are perfect for her mother, who is hard of hearing and usually cannot understand movies without subtitles. Likewise, the subtitles are easier for her to read on a large screen than at home on the television.
Eigles said she is grateful to Brzezinski for making these films available in Columbia.
"I never would have thought to start something like this, but thanks for Mr. B," Eigles said. "He is quite a beloved character in Columbia."
CAPTION: Tom Brzezinski began projecting movies for neighbors in 1969. The Columbia Film Society, which has nearly 900 members, formed from those gatherings.