Jack Garner

A lifetime spent at the movies

Most people have landmark moments—events that change the landscape of their lives and stand out as fixed points in time. They can come years or decades apart and can often transition a person’s life from one scene to the next. Jack Garner had three. had three. And all three came in 1970.

“That’s the year I graduated grad school. That’s the year I got married. And that’s the year I came here to Gannett.”

Plenty of ups and downs followed that monumental year for Garner, but the basic plot was established. Over the next 37 years, Garner became an iconic figure by sharing his opinions of the silver screen with readers far and wide. And it started with a choice to make Rochester his home.

Raised in Williamsport, Pa., Garner actually grew up a short drive from his future wife, Bonnie, while she attended a rival high school. However, it took a mutual friend in grad school at Syracuse University introducing them to figure that out. “We traced back and realized we were at some of the same games but the other side of the field, the same dances but the other side of the gym.” So when it was time to leave SU and make a living, he weighed his options.

“Syracuse, I thought, was a good town, but the papers were awful— the Syracuse Sub-Standard and the Herald Urinal, as we used to call them. So, I wanted to get outta there,” Garner said from his Rochester home of 43 years. “Buffalo, I thought, had good papers, the Courier and the News, but in those days, Buffalo was the pits. It’s since become quite a good city, but back then it was the pits. So, I thought Rochester was an up-and-coming town. I knew about its optical history and its Kodak and its Xerox, Bausch & Lomb and that whole world. I also knew that it was the headquarters of an up-and-coming journalism company called Gannett. At that time, the Rochester papers were the flagship papers. There was no USA Today, so I came here. Simple as that.”

Garner also gave himself the local rock ’n’ roll beat. He’d go to concerts until late at night and wake up early to be part of the daily deadline rush that the T-U, an afternoon paper, lived on. He took information from reporters in the field and wrote the stories that ended up in print. One story in particular stands out. A Pulitzer Prize has a way of standing out.

“I could remember to this very day when a reporter—a friend of mine named Terry Dillon—was on the phone with me from Attica, and the Attica prison rebellion happened while he was on the phone,” Garner says. “I could hear all the gunshots because the attack occurred while he was on a payphone right outside the prison. ... Now, they won the Pulitzer as reporters, but my story was the one that won. And that’s how it should be,” he adds, respectfully. “It’s a reporter’s Pulitzer. But I wrote the story; it was sort of considered a team effort, and we all felt like we won a Pulitzer.”

It wasn’t long before the Democrat & Chronicle poached him away to make him an editor. He was good at it, but the job was more as a manager. Garner missed writing, and in 1977 he began his reign as Rochester’s film critic of record.

“At that point, they weren’t ready to let me go as an editor,” he says, “so I created a position called ‘popular arts editor’ where I’d sort of do some editing, but also cover the popular arts, which would be music and film. I can always pinpoint the day it started. It was May of ’77 because the first ‘Star Wars’ was my first review. And I’m proud to say that I suggested it could use a sequel.”

For 30 years, 20 of which he spent as the national film critic for all of Gannett’s publications, Garner was, as he describes it, “paid to watch movies.” From his seat on the aisle—at 6-foot-9, he needed the legroom—Garner used his reviews to usher moviegoers to their seats before they even purchased tickets.

“My first job as a critic was to react to a film and study within myself my own reactions, to figure out why I felt what I felt during that movie,” he says. “It’s very self-analytical. You analyze why you felt that way, and then that gets you to how the movie is.”

Along the way, he interviewed some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Names such as Jimmy Stewart and Lillian Gish harken back to a time before Technicolor, while stars such as Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, and Woody Allen help bridge the gap to the present. Comedy legend Bill Murray provided one of those classic reporter stories as only Bill Murray can.

“So, I was with a group of journalists,” he says, “we were all going en masse, these little herd-like lemmings going down the hall, and we went into his room. There were 10 or 12 of us, and he says, ‘How about Bloody Marys?!’ So, he’s there and he’s making Bloody Marys and he’s saying ‘here’s one for you’ and ‘here’s one for you’ and ‘Down the hatch!’

“And then ... ‘Time’s up.’

“What do I got? I got Bill Murray can make a dynamite Bloody Mary.’”

The late Robin Williams was another challenge of an interview for the reason you might expect—he was so busy being funny you could never get an answer out of him. Garner said Williams had such untameable energy that he purposely requested the earliest possible interview, not allowing the comedy legend to get warmed up. “Everything was shtick. You’d laugh your ass off and then you’d go back to your room and say, ‘Well, what am I gonna write?’ Because you got nothing besides lots of great laughs.”

De Niro was another tough interview but for completely different reasons.

“I don’t think Bob ...” he stops and sort of catches himself being so familiar, “... yeah, my friend, Bob—I don’t think De Niro likes viewers to have baggage that they can carry into a film. In other words, the less you know about him, the better, which is why you know very little about De Niro. You get a lot of yeses and nos and maybes. However, I interviewed him for “Bronx Tale,” which is the only film he directed, and it’s a good film, and he was much more articulate about that because he would talk about the technique of directing.”

Jack Garner with the Ronettes
A TRUE TREASURE. Garner as a 19-year-old freshman at St. Bonaventure University, with the legendary Ronettes, of “Be My Baby” fame.
Jack Garner with Lillian Gish
CINEMA QUEEN. Garner with the legendary Lillian Gish, circa 1990 at The Eastman House.
Jack Garner with Sophia Loren
MS. LOREN. “She was my all-time cinema lust of my youth and young adulthood, and was in Rochester to sell her perfume line at McCurdy’s in the mid-’80s.”

Yes, with all the A-listers on his collection of interview subjects, his favorite conversations came with the men and women on the other side of the lens. Directors provided such interesting perspectives to how a film comes to life, and Garner had fostered an appreciation for the process. He didn’t care about who was sleeping with whom or what an actor’s latest drug conviction was. Good or bad, he wanted to know how an artist works. Of course, some of those directors are A-list in their own right.

“One of my favorite interviews was Spike Lee,” he says, his George Eastman Medal of Honor displayed not two feet from him right next to photos of family. “I interviewed him when he came to the Eastman House to receive an award, and it happened to be during the NBA playoffs, and it happened to be a very rare period when the Knicks were in the playoffs. So, when Spike came in, he told the Eastman House people he’d appear and he’d do an interview with me, but his only insistence was that they have a separate, private room with a TV so he could watch the playoffs. So I sat with him and watched the Knicks game, and my questions would come during the timeouts and a large part during halftime. But, otherwise, I watched a Knicks game with Spike Lee. How cool is that?”

Less cool for Spike Lee, as the Knicks lost that night, but cool nevertheless. He may have even given some great quotes about “He Got Game” or some other career highlights that night. But the story, for Garner, was and is the game they watched together. Those are the stories of Garner’s storied career. He did great work, but he’ll be the first to tell you that it was the work that made it great. He got to do what so many say they wish they could do. He did what he loved.

Jack Garner for the premiere of American Beauty
FUNNY. A rose bath notes the release of “American Beauty” in 1999. Photo by Annette Lein. (courtesy of the Democrat & Chronicle)

Despite still very much enjoying his work, Garner retired his full-time gig in 2007 but continues to write columns. “I often say I retired from newspapers about the same time that newspapers retired from me.” He eventually compiled his favorite stories and reviews into a book, “From My Seat on the Aisle: Movies and Memories,” in 2013. It includes a list of 200 “essentials” and his all-time top 10 movies. The father of three and grandfather of five continues to be an advocate of good movies, good music, and the good in Rochester.

“I’ve never regretted it. I love much about this town, and I feel respected in this town, which is a nice feeling. Rochester’s been a great town, and I’m proud to have been here long enough to know how to pronounce it.”