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Movie night under the stars

Lake Grove family has been screening films for neighbors, family and friends for more than 10 years


by: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE  - Couple John Lee and Jean Shaw get ready for a night under the stars - and the silver screen.

It’s a gorgeous summer night — and John Lee has just arrived for an 8:45 p.m. movie showing.

Inside the theater, no inconsiderate cellphone users yammer through the odious, never-ending previews. In fact — there aren’t any previews.

And despite the late hour (and the work appointments he has scheduled for the morning), Lee isn’t worried about the traffic or getting home late.

So as the audience quiets and the lights darken completely, Lee settles down next to his wife, Jean Shaw, and lets out one long, beautifully contented sigh.

Everyone in the theater seems perfectly happy. After all, even the popcorn was free.

That’s because Lake Grove residents Lee and Shaw have a secret: On movie nights, the couple stay in — but they go outside.

And the best part? The whole neighborhood is welcome.

The husband and wife team converted their deck into an outdoor home theater in 2003. Over the past 10 years they’ve screened at least 300 films for friends, neighbors and family. (Though at this point, who can tell the difference?)

Now, instead of shelling out for tickets and candy, Lee and Shaw (and company) watch everything — from big-budget Hollywood blockbusters to introspective nature documentaries — in the comfort and privacy of their own backyard.

Relaxing on the top half of their spacious, two-story deck, Lee explained: “We basically live out here during the summer. It’s our living room. And I looked at this space and I said, ‘You know, we could start showing movies out here.’ ”

So that’s exactly what they did. All Lee and Shaw needed to get started was a projector, a few planks of plywood for a screen and the light of the stars.

But they soon realized that the outdoor movie screenings were too good to keep to themselves. At first, Lee would stick an orange cone at the end of his driveway on movie nights, and neighbors, if they were brave enough, would stop by, not knowing what to expect.

“In the beginning, we didn’t know (our neighbors) very well,” Lee said. “And they were a little bit shy about coming over. But that changed.”

The process evolved over time, and now the regulars can check a private website — or simply drive past his home, where a white sign announces the film’s title.

“It’s always a wonderful night under the stars,” neighbor Rick Hendon said. “You’re sitting there with friends, not strangers. And our dogs can come.”

Hendon, who alleges that Lee prefers to go by the name “Zippy,” is one of several around the block who enjoy the evening and weekend screenings.

Matt Chrisman is another avid attendee.

“John knows his movies,” Chrisman said. “He shows a lot of stuff off the beaten path, things that you don’t even know are out there.”

Tonight’s film is no exception. “My Life as a Turkey” (2011) is an account of naturalist Joe Hutto’s year playing surrogate mother to a brood of wild turkeys. On screen, Hutto (portrayed by actor Jeff Palmer) comes off as deeply passionate, erudite and a little bit kooky.

“These young turkeys were, in many ways, more conscious than I was,” Hutto said. “They reminded me to be present. To be here.”

But “My Life as a Turkey” is only one example of Lee and Shaw’s eclectic taste. Over the years, they’ve acquired a predilection for original, real-life narratives about purpose-driven people.

Past favorites include “A Man Named Pearl” — starring a self-taught topiary artist — and “Genghis Blues” — a feature on a Californian bluesman who learned to throat sing.

And while Lee and Shaw say they’re not true movie aficionados, merely film enthusiasts, their weekly selections range from the obscure to the truly esoteric.

“A lot of what’s shown at Bridgeport (Regal Cinema 18) just doesn’t grab us,” Shaw said. “American movies are pretty shallow. Of course, as soon as I say that I can think of exceptions.”

Neither Lee nor Shaw can pinpoint exactly what qualities make a movie right for them, but a combination of trailers, online reviews and recommendations from Netflix help them plan their next few showings.

“More and more it’s rare that we hit a clunker. Or, at least, I know I’m going to like it,” Lee said.

He laughs.

“As for everybody else ... “

Well, that’s another story.



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