Take me to your theater

For one day each year, sci-fi fans gather at a Boston theater to head out of this world in a movie marathon.

Shortly after 11 a.m., the doors of the venerable Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Mass., open. Outside, the line waiting to get in begins to move: People haul in sandwiches, water bottles, sleeping bags, and pillows. Accompanied by the musical theme from "Indiana Jones," one group marches in with a huge food container labeled "Ark of the Covenant," carried on two poles.

The 27th annual Science Fiction Movie Marathon has begun. Each year, over President's Day weekend, some 500 fans take over the Coolidge for 24 hours of movies, contests, cheers, - and a quick nap or two.

More than a quarter-century after the festival began, many of the early attendees still come back from all over the country. Veterans proudly recall their first marathon, usually by the shorthand of SF (for "science fiction") and the number of marathon. This year's event was SF27.

Like the mythical village of Brigadoon, which appears from the Scottish mists for one day every century, the marathoners gather to spend 24 hours with friends and fellow fans. Often, it's the only time they see each other all year.

"The first one I came to was SF5 in 1980," recalls Lloyd Gowen. "It was totally on a lark." Mr. Gowen, who now lives in Seattle, said the movies themselves are only part of what brings him back. "It's a community," he says.

Some arrive in groups, bringing friends and family with them. Michael Brother was at his 20th marathon. "There's five of us," he says. "My wife has been coming since the 10th year."

As with any community, fans at SF27 have their traditions and rituals. The marathon usually kicks off with the Daffy Duck cartoon "Duck Dodgers in the 24th and 1/2 Century," with the audience reciting their favorite lines along with the characters on screen.

Longtime attendees initiate newcomers in other quirks, such as cheering any character named Mark. (This was inspired by "Planet of the Vampires," a 1965 Italian entry, in which the captain of the ship - Mark - is addressed by name some 50 or 60 times in the course of an 86-minute movie. One year, the audience attempted to keep a running count.)

Of course, the primary attractions are the films themselves. This year's schedule featured a mix of recent, classic, and campy films. They included the restored 1925 silent "The Lost World," accompanied by live music; 1932's "Dr. X," an early example of Technicolor; the cheesy 1955 "Creature with the Atom Brain"; 1971's apocalyptic "The Omega Man" starring Charlton Heston; and last summer's comedy "Evolution."

The audience can turn vocal when it doesn't like a film, as happened with the slow-paced 1974 adaptation of Michael Crichton's "The Terminal Man." But it also will cheer the rediscovery of a high-quality film. Such movies as "Blade Runner" (1982), "The Iron Giant" (1999), and "Gattaca" (1997) were embraced by past marathons, even though they had failed at the box office. This year's find was "Happy Accidents" (2001), a quirky love story in which Marisa Tomei is wooed by Vincent D'Onofrio, who claims he's from the 23rd century.

The marathon was launched at the Orson Welles Cinema, across the river from Boston in Cambridge, Mass., in 1976. It was held from noon Sunday to noon Monday on President's Day weekend, with the hope of attracting an audience primarily from the many colleges in the area. After the Welles burned in 1986, Garen Daly, its one-time manager, moved the marathon to another venue briefly before striking a deal with the Coolidge Corner, where it's been held since 1990.

Mr. Daly began booking films for this year's event as soon as he recovered from SF26. "There's no real ideal schedule" of movies, he says. "If you find a couple of interesting films, you can always fill in the rest with more recent stuff." This year's festival theme was "Mutants 'R Us."

Loyal marathoners from Los Angeles to New York give Daly suggestions about what to screen, and they keep him apprised of new prints of old films. Such is the case with Joseph Losey's 1961 nuclear war shocker "These are the Damned." Marathoner Tony DiSalvo spotted it at a retrospective of the director's works in L.A. Mr. DiSalvo has attended the marathon since SF4 with a group of friends and relatives, even though he now lives on the West Coast.

David Rosen and his wife, Rita Dunipace, who live in the nearby Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, say it's hard to explain to friends what attracts them to the marathon each year.

"We just tell them we're going into outer space for 24 hours," Mr. Rosen says. "Most of them just shake their heads."

The Boston event may sound strange, but it's not completely unique. A spinoff in Columbus, Ohio - started by Bruce Bartoo, a veteran of the Boston event - is now in its 18th year.

Another science-fiction marathon, 26 years old, is run by the Case Western Reserve Film Society on that school's campus in Cleveland.

And this past January, the newest science-fiction marathon was launched in England: Sci-Fi-London features three days of programming.

One concern is whether the Boston event is becoming a time capsule of people who became science-fiction fans when they were in college two or more decades ago, or whether it is a vibrant community that attracts young fans. Many of the most loyal marathon attendees are in their 40s or 50s.

Tom Chenelle, one of the marathon mainstays, is the leader of a group of science-fiction fans that call themselves the Martian Liberation Organization. He and his uniformed cadre sit together at the marathon, and one year "took over" the theater to protest "anti-Martian" films. "Major Tom," as he is known, acknowledges the graying of the audience. "It's something we've been denying for such a long time," he says.

So where are the newcomers? Nick Marshall-Butler of West Hartford, Conn., and Julian Krasow Baptista of Salem, Mass., are two 12-year-old friends who attended their first marathon. They were brought by their mothers - who had last come to the event some 20 years ago. "We're both kind of supernerds," jokes Julian, "so we got really excited." They plan to come back.

Thirty-something Rachel Alkhas of Billerica, Mass., was attending her second marathon - at her boyfriend's request. She doesn't consider herself much of a science-fiction fan: What made the experience fun, she says, is the "team spirit" of the audience.

No one could have imagined that a novelty event started in 1976 would still be going strong in the 21st century. Many other such gatherings, like 12-hour horror marathons, have come and gone. Perhaps there's something special about science fiction, attracting the sort of moviegoers who enjoy films that can alternatively stretch the imagination or reduce you to helpless laughter.

Caleb Oglesby tells his employers at the Discovery Channel in New York City that he always has plans President's Day weekend. He attended his first marathon at age 11, when he lived in Cambridge, Mass., and has missed only two or three over the years.

"There are people here that I've known since third grade," he says.

• Daniel M. Kimmel, a Boston-based film critic, attended his 22nd Science Fiction Movie Marathon. He sits with the Martian Liberation Organization.

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