The summer sun was starting to fade at the Columbia Lakefront as Tom Brzezinski pulled into the parking lot. He grabbed two bulky movie projectors and walked down the steps toward the water. After unlocking the doors to the storage closet under the lakeside fountain, he started to unload his sound system, a large screen and a table.
It was fairly quiet; the only sounds were of the bubbling fountain, the quacking ducks on the lake and the chatting patrons at Clyde's restaurant nearby. But all of that soon would be muffled by hundreds of moviegoers gathered on the lawn with blankets, beach chairs and snacks.
For 34 years, Brzezinski -- known as Mr. B. -- has been the host for the Columbia Association Film Festival, part of a summer lakefront entertainment series that also features dancing and concerts.
Brzezinski started showing films outdoors in the summer of 1969. He wanted to give something back to the community, where he taught at an elementary school. So he rented an old reel movie and set off for Bryant Woods Park in Columbia with a bedsheet, clothesline, card table and film projector. He had passed out fliers inviting children and adults to view free movies there a couple of times each week during the summer.
The following year, the Columbia Association sponsored the festival and gave him space along the lakefront where the Rouse Co. building now stands. Two years later, the showings were moved to the hillside between the fountain and Clyde's. Ever since, they have attracted about 100 to 700 people on Monday and Friday nights (Fridays and Saturdays during the school year).
"I really enjoy and feel blessed that I've been a part of it for all these years," said Brzezinski, 63, who now lives in West Friendship. "I almost think of it as a calling. It's something I know a lot about, it's something I've got some expertise in, and I enjoy sharing it with other people."
Movies have been a big part of Brzezinski's life for 50 years. The Baltimore native became interested in films in junior high school. While at Catonsville Community College and at West Virginia Wesleyan in Buchanan, W.Va., he ran film programs. He later served on the board of the Columbia Film Society, a popular subscription series.
He became the Howard County school system's first media specialist, at Bryant Woods Elementary School in Columbia. After 10 years there, he took a similar job at Clemens Crossing Elementary School, where he has worked for 25 years. After he retires, he plans to continue running the festival.
"I do it because I like seeing people happy," said Brzezinski, who is married and has two daughters and is the owner of a golden retriever, three cats and a piranha named Fluffy.
"I love seeing the people down here. It's almost like a fellowship or a brotherhood. To me it's part of the reason why Columbia was built. It was built for people to enjoy life, to celebrate life."
The films draw bigger crowds when the weather is nice, but sometimes moviegoers brave bad weather. Earlier this summer, Brzezinski said, 300 people sat in the rain to see "Shrek."
Films rated G or PG are shown for children on Monday nights. Classics such as "Casablanca" and other movies attract an older crowd on Fridays. The festival began in June and runs through Sept. 18.
Brzezinski, who works part time for the Columbia Association during the summer, chooses the films and rents them from major distribution companies. He sets up themes such as the upcoming children's literature series. "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and "Charlotte's Web" have been among the most popular movies shown.
The films screened largely are familiar to most who attend. Brzezinski said he tries to draw from a mix of genres, from classics to recent blockbusters. Sometimes, he shows a movie that has been requested.
Many people arrive early to stake out a good spot and to eat a picnic dinner before the show begins about 8:30.
On a recent Monday night, Trudy Hutcherson of Takoma Park was one of the first to stretch her blanket out on the lawn. Snacking on chips and cookies, Hutcherson, her friend Sheila Clark and two 10-year-old girls the women tutor, Janae Humphries and Nybria Gadson, eagerly awaited the start of "The NeverEnding Story."
"I cried when I first saw it," Hutcherson said. "I haven't seen it for some time, so I don't know what kind of reaction I will have now."
Despite the 40-minute drive from her home, Hutcherson said the film night was a perfect outing.
Edie and Mary Anne Espenshade of Columbia agreed that watching movies outdoors is a nice way to spend a summer evening. The sisters set up lawn chairs and started on the pizza they brought, just as they have many times over the past 10 summers.
Each year, they choose six to eight movies they want to see and hope the weather holds out. The first Harry Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," was Edie Espenshade's favorite. "It was packed," she said. "That was fun to watch with a big crowd."
Mary Anne Espenshade said she also enjoyed "The Lord of the Rings," but the three-hour film "made for a very long night in a lawn chair," she said.
It was almost dusk when Robert and Gail Callahan settled in the center of the lawn with their sons, Robert, 4, and Ryan, 2. It was the second time the Ellicott City family had seen a movie at the lakefront since moving to Howard from Prince George's County a year ago.
"I barely know what this is about," Robert Callahan said about "The NeverEnding Story." "But I thought it'd be something the boys might like."
The Callahans said they had also come to join their neighbors with children for a family night out. "It's a way to get together with people," Robert Callahan said.
They plan to make the film festival a family tradition. "It's something we hope to do every year with them," Gail Callahan said. "It's a nice summertime activity. The boys like being outside." Because the boys have not been to a movie theater, she said, the evening is a treat for them.
Toward the back of the lawn, a large group of college-bound young people gathered on blankets for a picnic.
"It's outdoors, it's nice, a little picnic action," said Greg Scruggs, a Columbia resident who will attend Harvard University this fall.
Brzezinski spoke with Scruggs, who attended Clemens Elementary when he was the media specialist there. As people walked by, dozens asked Brzezinski what film was showing. He cheerfully offered each a schedule.
The smells of popcorn and bug spray filled the air. Couples held hands across the arms of their beach chairs, and children snuggled next to their parents on blankets. Dusk finally fell. Brzezinski took the microphone and introduced the opening cartoon. The crowd fell silent. Minutes later, the somewhat grainy image filled the 15-by-12-foot screen. Soon, the only sounds were laughter and crickets chirping.
Then, just as he has for 34 summers, Brzezinski sat behind the humming film projectors to enjoy another night under the stars.