An English teacher once told me, paraphrasing Tolstoy, that all great literature follows one of two plots: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. As I walked down Wheeler Avenue that morning, I sensed both plots unfolding at once. I was a stranger in Pleasantville, on a journey to the Jacob Burns Film Center.
Pleasantville is small enough that if you hang around its main street, people will start to notice you. The barber, the bookseller, and the manicurist will look up from the head, haiku, or hand they’re tending to and wonder where you came from. There is something nice about being noticed.
I grew up in a Manhattan suburb eighteen miles southeast of Pleasantville. In my town, there are banks because there is money, golf because there is time, and church because people grew up Christian— though half the pews are empty on Sundays. There is a colonial inn-turned-museum called the Square House where George Washington once spent two nights. Retirees and kids on field trips wander through its restored rooms, perusing the maps, manuscripts, and bowls of fake fruit.
There is also Playland, an amusement park that houses one of America’s oldest wooden roller coasters. Tom Hanks shot Big there in 1988. Seven people have died at Playland, but the kids keep coming to throw their hands up on the Dragon Coaster, despite its rotting beams and rusting bolts.
My town has beauticians and dieticians, and expensive tutors to get public school kids into private schools and private school kids into college. We have stores on Purchase Street, but they close and flip often because we shop online, in Connecticut, or in the city. Mostly though, we have houses, thousands of them in yellow, white, and gray— some modest, some not.
It’s a wonderful place to grow up, but John Cheever had an aversion to towns like mine. The city mouse longs for the country. The country mouse longs for the city. The suburban mouse has everything, but wants more. Something is missing in suburbia, and quietly, this perturbs the mouse.
Maybe it’s the name, or maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up there, but Pleasantville feels a world away from my town: softer, slower, and turned back in time. There’s a pawn shop to sell gold, a salon with old magazines stacked against pink walls, and a mom-and-pop pharmacy to buy candy, candles, and calcium supplements. Green newspaper racks dispense The Examiner, where the girls’ soccer team and the town recycling program make front-page news. Dining room chairs dot the train platform to accommodate tired commuter legs.
In 1846, railroad tracks connected Pleasantville to New York City. Soon after, shoemakers, shirtmakers, and pickle-factory-workers moved to the village. Then, came the playwrights, architects, and publishers. Lillian Hellman, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Reader’s Digest moved to Pleasantville for its easy living and proximity to the city. They ushered in a golden age. In 1925, the Rome Theatre opened on Manville Road; the Spanish mission-style cinema – a grand stone building with leather seats, velvet curtains, friezes, and a pipe organ – served Pleasantville moviegoers for six decades. In 1928, the same year Playland Park opened its doors in my town, Pleasantville hosted a royal wedding.
Since the Duke of Sweden married Estelle Bernadotte, little has changed — at least according to Pleasantville’s Wikipedia page. Pleasantville of today recalls a pre-Amazon age when errands were a communal affair with nods in the dairy aisle, smiles at the dry-cleaner, and warm greetings at the deli. A single click can bring the universe to our doorstep, but the small storefronts of Wheeler Avenue keep Pleasantville’s seven thousand residents connected.
In 1987, the rise of the multiplex forced Manville Road’s movie palace to close its doors. But a decade later, a Pleasantville resident purchased the Rome with a grant from the Jacob Burns Foundation and a vision to build an art house and education center inspired by the power of film.
Now two hundred thousand people walk through the doors of the Jacob Burns Film Center each year. They buy buttered popcorn, cappuccinos, and tickets to premier titles in independent, documentary, or world cinema. The lights dim, and suburbia fades as the audience travels to saturated South Florida or neo-noir Romania.
Pleasantville is an insular place, but the movies remind the people living there that the world outside is tiny and titanic, foreign and familiar.
On Wheeler Avenue that day, I cut off three inches of my hair and bought a taco-falafel at Falafel Taco, a Mexican-Israeli spot overlooking the train platform’s dining room chairs. By then, it was early afternoon, and all the ‘Closed’ signs were ‘Open.’ I entered the Jacob Burns Film Center. I wasn’t there for a Korean drama or a Kenyan documentary, but for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. I settled into a camel-colored chair in a row of my own.
Going to the movies can be a lot like going to church. We power off our devices and detach from the outside world only to ponder it: in the quiet, in the dark, in the company of strangers, half-strangers, maybe loved ones. We watch a plot unfold together, but our minds race independently.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about a Presbyterian-minister-turned-television-personality who felt a responsibility to help children realize how special they are. With hand puppets, goofy voices, and his staple red cardigan, Mister Rogers made people feel recognized. He became everyone’s neighbor.
In one scene, Mister Rogers sits across from prickly journalist Lloyd Vogel in a crowded restaurant. Rogers asks Vogel to join him in a moment of silence to think about all of the people who loved him into being. Some popcorn kernels grew soggy with tears as we, the audience, imagined the faces and names of those people in our lives.
When the movie was over, a couple in front of me stayed until the last yellow letters disappeared from the black screen. The husband turned to me, patted my shoulder, and told me to have a nice day. There is something nice about being noticed. Then, a teenage boy came in with a broom to sweep all evidence of the audience away.
Movies have a binding power, albeit a transient one — kind of like smiles in the aisles of the grocery store. I was a stranger at the end of my small cinematic journey. I left JBFC and walked past the barber, the bookseller, and the manicurist, leaving one town to go home to another.
Alone in the car, I pondered the plight of the suburban mouse. His home is a bubble with half-strangers inside. He longs for Mister Rogers, small storefronts, and an art house where he can sit with people and together see the world.
Ellie hails from Rye, NY, a mildly exciting Manhattan suburb. She enjoys playing word games, hiking in upstate New York, and eating roast beef sandwiches (on the summit of an Adirondack 46er or at the Thain Family Café of Bass Library). She would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.