A young Sammy Fabelman looks at the screen in complete wonder.
It’s the first time in a movie theater and it’s in New Jersey.
That’s how Steven Spielberg recalls the real-life movie experience that started his fascination with movies when he was 6 years old in the Oscar-nominated film “The Fabelmans,” released in November. It is the very first scene in the film.
The year: 1952. The movie: “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Spielberg, 76, who co-wrote and directed the best picture nominee based on his childhood and output as a young filmmaker, spent some of his youngest years in New Jersey with his family when his father worked at RCA in Camden. The Cincinnati native saw his first movie at The Westmount Theater in Haddon Township. He attended Thomas A. Edison Elementary School nearby.
Last week, Camden County unveiled a historical marker honoring Spielberg outside the theater. The building is now home to a Retro Fitness, although the theater facade and marquee remain. The Oscar-winning director sent a letter to the Camden County Board of Commissioners thanking them.
Here’s what he said.
“I was so surprised and equally honored to learn of the historical marker commemorating the site of the first movie I ever saw when I was a little boy of six years old living on Crystal Terrace Ave in Haddonfield,” Spielberg said in the letter, shared by the Haddon Township Historical Society on Facebook. “The Westmont was the movie house where I saw many movies after ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’ Another movie I specifically remember seeing there was John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ in 1956.”
“The Fabelmans” also depicts the moment when a young Spielberg met Ford when he was trying to get a foothold in Hollywood. Director David Lynch stars Ford opposite Gabriel LaBelle, who plays a teenage Spielberg in the film. Most of the film covers the years the Spielberg family lived in Arizona and California.
Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord plays a 6-year-old Spielberg, aka Sammy. Michelle Williams plays his mother, Mitzi Fabelman, aka Leah Spielberg (later, Leah Adler), and Paul Dano is his father Burt Fabelman, aka Arnold Spielberg.
“For a budding storyteller, theater was a kind of place of worship, and when my father left RCA in Camden to join GE in Phoenix, Arizona, I sadly knew that I would leave behind the memories of so many wonderful afternoons and weekends at that movie palace out back,” Spielberg continued in the letter.
“When I sat down to write my semi-autobiographical film, there was no doubt where the story would begin … the place where all my big dreams began … at Westmont. Thank you for marking my time in New Jersey and I will be visiting Haddon Township to pay my respects to your wonderful community very soon.”
At the Oscars on Sunday, “The Fabelmans” is nominated for best picture, best director, best original screenplay for Spielberg and Tony Kushner, best actress for Michelle Williams, best supporting actor for Judd Hirsch, best score for John Williams and best production design for Karen O’Hara and Rick Carter.
For more on Spielberg’s history in New Jersey, here’s our look at “The Fabelmans.”
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Amy Kuperinsky can be reached at email@example.com and followed at @AmyKup on Twitter.