Gregory von Hausch was lying in the back seat of his dad's car, his father blaring his horn and speeding through red lights like a madman to get his 4-year-old son to a Cleveland hospital 30 miles from their home. Gregory had just contracted polio; it was 1953, and Jonas Salk's vaccine wouldn't be disseminated for another two years.
Gregory spent six months in the hospital, most of them in an iron lung. Today, von Hausch, 63, remembers those proceedings spottily but vividly — watching tennis players outside a window while being transported on a gurney, receiving daily shots of medicine (he thinks it was penicillin), and welcoming two ballplayers from the Cleveland Indians, who gave the sick children autographed baseballs. A dozen years later, after his somewhat miraculous recovery, a high-school nemesis wrote "Watching Greg walk" in a slam book under the heading "the funniest thing I ever saw was..."
"True, I did walk like a duck then, and I still do... but I'm happy I can walk at all," von Hausch says.
It's appropriate that he recalls these harrowing events as if they were movie montages — images ingrained in his memory and isolated from their broader context. Now president and CEO of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival and its flagship movie theater, Cinema Paradiso, von Hausch is Broward County's premier champion of film.
The festival, which is just launching its 27th-annual event October 19 through November 11 at three Broward County theaters, has brought countless films to Broward that would otherwise evade distribution. In von Hausch's 24-year tenure, he has lured celebrities including Michael Caine, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Michael Moore, Jerry Lewis, and Eva Marie Saint to Fort Lauderdale while hosting the occasional live performance or retro film event on Cinema Paradiso's grounds.
It's safe to say Von Hausch lives movies. He met the woman who would become his wife, Bonnie, when she decided to volunteer for the festival, and he estimates he sees 900 films a year. If you count the titles he shuts off after the first few minutes, the number would rise to about 1,800.
"A lot of trauma has happened to him over the years, and he has a way of handling everything with aplomb," says Ginny Miller, FLIFF's chair emeritus. "He has a lot of talent that not everybody appreciates or that even he appreciates in himself."
A self-professed hippie when he graduated with an acting/directing degree from the University of Florida in 1972, von Hausch declined an academic job in the theater department at the University of California-Santa Barbara because he wanted to start creating theater, not continue to study it.
The opportunities didn't come quickly, and for the next year, he found himself in a succession of dead-end jobs: pumping gas, wiring condominiums for electricity, teaching senior citizens' workshops on Miami Beach, delivering meat for a restaurant. Von Hausch saved up these various pittances to cofound his passion: the Hippodrome State Theatre in Gainesville.
He would spend the next 15 years as artistic codirector at the Hippodrome, a now-legendary venue that has been producing successful regional theater for 39 years. Even then, von Hausch and his colleagues were movie obsessives, producing versions of screenplays for the stage, including Carnal Knowledge and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, working with the likes of filmmaker Paul Mazursky and playwright Tennessee Williams.
"It was pre-video days, so we used a lot of slides and music," he recalls. "In retrospect, I'd say it was the most gratifying experience I've had in my life. Maybe I'm glossing over those years in memory, but they were really rewarding. I don't think there's anything like theater in that regard. Making movies, to me, was always a drag."
So he decided to work on the exhibition side, accepting a job in 1989 with the fledgling Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, a 3-year-old event founded by local cinephiles Patty Lombard and Katie Gustafson. At the time, the festival lasted just one week and screened 20 titles. This year, FLIFF runs 24 days and will screen 200 movies; a running joke is that the fest's acronym should stand for Florida's Longest International Film Festival.
Von Hausch came onboard because the festival required a full-time employee to receive a government grant, and Lombard and Gustafson wanted to move on. He used his passion for cinema and his business experience to elevate the festival's stature and, eventually, find it a permanent home at Cinema Paradiso, a church turned playhouse that is walking distance from downtown Fort Lauderdale.
The theater was launched in 1986 by Vinnette Carroll, a playwright known for being the first African-American woman to direct on Broadway, who had moved to Lauderhill. But the Vinnette Carroll Rep was not succeeding on its own as a stage venue, so in 1998, FLIFF entered into a partnership with the space. The building was in disrepair when von Hausch began to outfit it for cinema projection.
"On the stage, they would build a set, and instead of striking it, they would just push it to the back wall and do the next set in front of it," he says. "So there was this graveyard of old lumber and sets and costumes and fabrics, and it was like Miss Havisham's dining room. It seemed old and tawdry and in need of a good spring cleaning."
Over the following decades, Gregory and Bonnie, who still handles year-round programming at Cinema Paradiso, built the theater into Broward's only single-screen art house (Miami-Dade County, by contrast, has four of them), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that relies on membership dues, government grants, and donations from generous philanthropists. He sticks to showing independent movies and revivals of classics.
The venue is a cultural and community treasure. In October 2005, days after the destruction of Hurricane Wilma, Cinema Paradiso was one of the few places in town that had functioning electricity, putting on a Halloween event for area children and offering hot showers, cold beer, and free movies. "It was a much-needed escape from the drone of generators and the hot, humid nights that seemed to go on for three weeks," von Hausch recalls.
But Cinema Paradiso has its challenges. The lack of weekday parking has forced von Hausch to limit showtimes to nights and weekends. And although it still screens top-of-the-line, 35mm prints from time to time, the cinema's digital-projection apparatus is not up to current industry standards; it would take $85,000 that von Hausch doesn't have to upgrade the system. Both of these factors have resulted in distributors' declining to deliver certain high-profile titles to Cinema Paradiso.
But the atmosphere and perks — the theater was one of the first cinemas in the region to offer beer, wine, and occasionally upscale in-theater dining — have so far ensured its survival in a recessed economy. The relatively cheap admission cost is a draw. At $10 per film, ticket prices for FLIFF and Cinema Paradiso titles have increased just $3 for nonmembers in the 24 years von Hausch has been involved (members pay $6).
Conventional wisdom might call for austerity in times like these, when box-office numbers crater and other nonprofits shutter. But von Hausch's film footprint is only expanding. Last year, he started "FLIFF on Location," bringing some of the festival's best work for screenings at sites in North Bay Village, St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, and Grand Bahama Island. The project continues this year. And he's currently in the legal process of launching intimate movie theaters in downtown Hollywood (in a former pottery shop downtown) and north Broward.
For the month ahead, von Hausch is focused on FLIFF. Highlights of this year's festival include a live question-and-answer session with classic Hollywood sex symbol Carroll Baker, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award on November 4, and appearances by Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad, The Usual Suspects, Do the Right Thing) and Bailee Madison (Wizards of Waverly Place, Just Go With It). The film lineup includes the South Florida premieres of two early Oscar favorites: David O. Russell's The Silver Linings Playbook (November 10), a dark comedy with Bradley Cooper as a man trying to piece his life back together after his release from a mental institution; and The Sessions (November 3), a quirky sleeper about faith, iron lungs, and sex therapy starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy.
"We're always clawing tooth and nail just to survive... We always seem to be in that position. Right now is no different," von Hausch says. "They idea of taking on a capital campaign and opening up another venue could be distasteful for some, who might say, 'Get your own house in order before you start nation-building.' My mindset is just the opposite: Let's expand. Let's take the risk. With no risk, there's no reward."
For the entire FLIFF 2012 schedule, visit fliff.com.