Curtain call: John Ewing reflects on his illustrious career at helm of Cleveland Cinematheque

In August 2023, Cinematheque co-founder John Ewing announced his pending retirement—a subsequent press release stated that Ewing had screened more than 9,000 films on the Cleveland Institute of Art campus since the repertory theater launched in 1986.

Yet, Ewing believes he’s been a bit shortchanged. The Cinematheque director, who is leaving the institution on June 30, says he has shown at least 10,000 classic, foreign, and independent movies in his 38 years at the helm.

Whatever the numbers show, there is no doubt that Ewing’s programming has built the Cinematheque’s reputation as Cleveland’s premier venue for historic and avant-garde film. With attendance at the theater finally returning to pre-COVID levels, Ewing is now ready for the next chapter.

“I had originally thought of retiring in 2023, but we were still adjusting to post-pandemic realities, and I didn’t want to bequeath a limping organization to my successor,” Ewing says of his lengthy goodbye.

Bilgesu Sisman will become the Cinematheque’s next director—the native of Turkey has promised to make cinema accessible for all audiences through new educational and interactive opportunities.

As he departs, Ewing is incorporating 25 films never-before-shown at the beloved theater. Dubbed “Unfinished Business/Parting Glances,” the series began in early May with Walt Disney’s 1940 “Fantasia.” The remainder of the program will showcase works by a murderer’s row of auteurs that includes John Ford, Jean Renoir and Federico Fellini. He has also programmed a second farewell series, “Movie Crazy,” starting Saturday, May 25, featuring seven new and classic features that spotlight different aspects of “movie mania.”

John Ewing’s long career at Cinematheque has helped cement thetheater’s reputation as a premier venue for historic and avant-gardefilmJohn Ewing’s long career at Cinematheque has helped cement thetheater’s reputation as a premier venue for historic and avant-gardefilmIn some ways, Ewing’s tenure at Cinematheque is ending how it started: By highlighting filmmakers both old and new from across the global movie landscape.

Prior to Cinematheque, Cleveland only had a handful of community arthouses—a short list encompassing Cedar Lee Theatre, Little Italy’s former Mayfield Theater, and the former Heights Art Theater on Euclid Heights Boulevard in Cleveland Heights.

The Cleveland International Film Festival also slaked area thirst for hidden gems and independent voices, Ewing notes.

Otherwise, he says much of film history has been reduced to “Greatest Movies Of All Time” discourse, where classics such as “Gone With the Wind” and “The Godfather” overshadow a rich tapestry of offerings not shown in multiplexes.

“These films were not coming to Cleveland,” he says. “If you wanted to see movies by [Japanese animator Hayao] Miyazaki or [Indian director] Satyajit Ray, you’d have to catch those screenings in big cities. We lacked a venue that would host these touring film series, plus any new films that didn’t open commercially.”

A bit of history

Ewing founded the Cinematheque alongside Cleveland philanthropist George Gund III and veteran film journalist Ron Hollaway in July 1985—launching with a screening of French film “Week’s Vacation” in the Strosacker Auditorium at Case Western Reserve University. The theater found a permanent home at CIA’s Aitken Auditorium a year later, with help from a $116,000 grant gifted by the George Gund Foundation.

Ewing had previously proved out the concept with then-CIA president Joseph McCullough, who cited safety concerns when considering opening a movie house at his school. When a showing of the 1982 noir “Vortex” drew a large crowd, Ewing says he believed he had the potential for something special.

“We had a few hundred people show up,” says Ewing. “I thought I had a chance of doing this permanently.”   

Under Ewing’s stewardship, the Cinematheque introduced Cleveland filmgoers to directors before they made it big. Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, Mike Leigh, and Bela Tarr all graced the theater’s single screen over the years. Ewing also brought on a litany of high-profile guests, from actor Willem Dafoe to stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen to British director Peter Greenaway.

The Cinematheque showed Japanese Anime before most people knew the term and presented the “Twin Peaks” television series to patrons disgruntled about the show’s famous cliffhanger conclusion.

“I’m proudest of all that the Cinematheque is still going after 38 years, and that it’s kept Clevelanders apprised of important new filmmakers coming down the pike,” Ewing says.

Cinematheque director John Ewing interviews actor Willem DafoeCinematheque director John Ewing interviews actor Willem DafoeCelebrating a great art form

Ewing is a veteran critic and film buff who programmed screenings at his alma mater, Denison University in the east central Ohio town Granville, and acted as director of the Canton Film Society in the mid-70s and early-80s. Post-graduation found Ewing writing critiques for The Geauga Times Leader, The Plain Dealer, and Cleveland Scene.

In 1986, the same year he opened the Cinematheque at CIA, Ewing was hired by the Cleveland Museum of Art to program films—a gig he kept until August 2020. At CIA, Ewing showed 250 to 300 feature films annually, drawing on his enjoyment of musicals, westerns, silent comedies, and experimental movies.

Ewing says the rise of VCRs, cable and online streaming has not dampened local enthusiasm for the theatrical experience.

“Those platforms eroded attendance over the years, but we’ve always drawn enough to function,” he says. “There’s nothing we can do but show movies the way they were meant to be seen—either nice digital copies or 35mm prints. There’s enough people who want to see these movies on the big screen without interruption.”

During a 16-month pandemic shutdown, the Cinematheque charged patrons for streaming films on its website. Customers slowly returned after the theater re-opened in July 2021—a bounce back that culminated in Ewing’s retirement announcement. Health considerations and a desire to spend time with his grandkids further spurred the decision.

Ewing does not leave his post empty-handed, however, as his efforts were recognized with a Cleveland Arts Prize in 2016. In 2010, he was named a Chevalier (knight) in the Order of Arts and Letters by France’s Ministry of Culture—a distinction shared with, among others, Robert Redford, Uma Thurman, and David Bowie.

On June 30, the Cinematheque will screen its long-time director’s three favorite movies— “Shane,” “Late Spring,” and “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

That day, the theater will also bid farewell to a driving force of independent cinema, one who trusts his work will be carried on.

“I hope the Cinematheque continues to have the same programming as it did under me,” says Ewing. “It’s about upholding film as one of the great art forms.”

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.