Former CIA President & CEO Grafton Nunes, John Ewing, and filmmaker John Waters. Photograph by Rob Muller

By ANDREA C. TURNER

Most people rarely have the opportunity to work in a job they love in a career spanning almost four decades. John Ewing is the exception. He has been the Director of the Cleveland Institute of Art’s (CIA) Cinematheque – Cleveland’s alternative film theater— for 38 years. His storied career is coming to a close on June 30, 2024, when he’ll retire.

In 1986, Ewing was approached by Ron Holloway, the veteran film journalist based in Berlin, whom he met at the old Park Cinema in Cleveland. Holloway was impressed with the young Ewing, a native of Canton who showed movies at public libraries, wrote film reviews, and booked films for Canton’s Palace Theatre.

Holloway suggested Ewing meet George Gund III, the former owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Cleveland Barons, and San Jose Sharks. Gund was not only a sports enthusiast and philanthropist, but also a film aficionado, and he wanted to open a cinematheque in his hometown of Cleveland. Together, the three men co-founded the Cinematheque, and first presented films at Case Western Reserve University’s (CWRU) Strosacker Auditorium, home of the CWRU Film Society. All films were shown in 35 mm.

The Cinematheque was later adopted by CIA and its first official building was located at 11141 East Blvd. There, it had 600 seats and showed films 50 weekends of the year. This theater closed in 2015, when the Cinematheque relocated to CIA’s new Peter B. Lewis Theater at 11610 Euclid Avenue, a vast improvement with a larger screen and more comfortable seats. Ewing has been instrumental in presenting 250 different films there every year.

Interestingly, he was simultaneously showing 75-90 films a year at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s (CMA) Morley Lecture Hall. He did this two days a week as its film programmer, for a total of 34 years (1986-2020). The CMA’s film program is the second oldest museum film program in the US, outside of NYC’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

One of Ewing’s most memorable Cinematheque events was Russo-rama!, when Cleveland natives Joe and Anthony Russo arrived in May 2018, to show the three Marvel movies they directed. Both brothers attended the Cinematheque when they lived in Cleveland. Ewing claims that Anthony Russo said that the Cinematheque was the most important theater to him growing up.

“Russo-rama! totally sold out,” says Ewing. “But during one of the screenings, there was a power outage in University Circle. It was a programmer’s nightmare. But, the Russos made lemonade out of lemons. The power came on later, so we could show “Avengers: Infinity War” and the brothers stuck around afterward for a one-hour Q&A with the audience,” he added. “They even hung out in the plaza talking to fans, signing autographs, and taking selfies. It ended up being a better experience for fans than we had planned.”

Other memorable moments were when the Cinematheque nearly sold out for the Japanese anime classic, “Akira,” with 590 people in attendance. Well-known actor Willem Dafoe appeared in person after a screening of “Shadow of the Vampire” to the audience’s delight. Former CIA President and CEO Grafton Nunes knew Dafoe from a film he produced, “The Loveless,” in 1983. Interestingly, that film was directed by Kathryn Bigelow. She was the first woman to receive an Oscar for best director for the film, “Hurt Locker” in 2008.

After viewing thousands of movies, you might be surprised to learn that Ewing’s favorite film of all time is “Shane,” a 1953 Western starring Alan Ladd.

“I am most proud of three things: that Holloway, Gund III and I—with the support of the Gund Foundation—were able to establish the Cinematheque at CIA in 1986,” says Ewing. “[And] that the hardworking Cinematheque staff and I, with support from our loyal audience, have kept the program going for 37 years now. Our efforts and offerings have helped elevate Cleveland as a major American film city,” Ewing says.

In the Cinema Talk column of the Cinematheque’s Jan/Feb. 2024 program guide, Ewing offers some programming advice to whoever becomes his successor.

Ewing gives eight pieces of advice. 1) Maintain the Cinematheque’s programming diversity (including new international films, classic movies, thematic series, second-run films, and in-person special events), 2) Show good movies (those that are worth the audience’s time and money), 3) Surrender to chance (don’t over-plan what you’re going to show), 4) Keep film history alive (honor the totality of film history as a visual arts presenter by showing key works from the Silent Era, the 1930s-1950s, etc.) 5) Exhibit “new masters” as well (show new films by major contemporary auteurs), 6) Consider the Cleveland market and audience (with only three Cleveland-based outlets showing art films: the Cedar Lee Theatre, the Cleveland International Film Festival and the Cinematheque, if a new work is heralded at major film festivals and passed over by the first two venues, if falls to the Cinematheque to premiere it locally) 7) Exploit the Cinematheque’s technical capabilities (a comfortable 300-seat theater equipped with a 36-foot wide screen, a 4K digital cinema projector, two 35 mm film projectors, and 7.1 Dolby Digital sound), 8) Keep “Cleveland’s alternative film theater” just that (an alternative to the mainstream).

Cleveland film lovers are grateful to Ewing for bringing an amazing array of films to our region. His legacy is cemented in Cleveland cinema history.

This winter, check out screenings of John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy from February 11-25. (“Fort Apache,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” and “Rio Grande”) Bogie [Humphrey Bogart] in Black & White screens through February 14. “The Maltese Falcon,” “To Have and Have Not,” “The Big Sleep,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “In A Lonely Place,” and “Casablanca” will be shown. Admission to film screenings are $11-14. Tickets are $8-11 for Cinematheque members, CIA and Cleveland State University ID holders, and those age 25 and younger. For dates and showtimes, visit cia.edu/cinematheque or call 216.421.7450.