“I am what I am
I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity
I bang my own drum
Some think it’s noise, I think it’s pretty
And so what if I love each sparkle and each bangle
Why not try to see things from a different angle
Your life is a sham
Till you can shout out
I am what I am”

by Chris Clark 

This song from the musical “La Cage Aux Folles” came out in the spring of 1983, a few years after this awkward, weird, shy kid from South St. Louis came blazing out of the closet. It spoke to me deeply at the time and I start sobbing every time I hear it to this day. I cry all the time. So what.  

I graduated from St. Louis U. High in 1979, and after a few false starts at Mizzou and UMSL I finally found my place at Webster University where I graduated with honors in 1985. My path took me to Pittsburgh, PA for five years in the late 80s after graduation, but the siren call of the Arch lured me back home in the spring of 1991. I spent a number of years aimlessly wandering through life as a waiter and eventually general manager of Redel’s Restaurant.  

After Redel’s closed in the late 90s, I was at sea professionally, nearly 40, and not at all sure what to do with myself. By chance and my own good fortune a friend of mine introduced me to a board member of the St. Louis International Film Festival. I did not know at the time that it even existed, but found myself fascinated and drawn to it. I guess I was a good envelope stuffer and volunteer because I was in quick succession made the volunteer coordinator, then a board member, and ultimately hired on June 1, 2001 as the Artistic Director for Cinema St. Louis, which has been my job title for the past 20 years. Cinema St. Louis annually presents a number of film-related events each year including the Classic French Film Festival, QFest St. Louis, 48Hour Film Project St. Louis, the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, and our flagship event the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF).

I remember being fairly terrified that first year since I had no real clue how to do the job for which I was hired. I also recall feeling dejected and pissed off after a Riverfront Times article about myself and the new executive director at the time. The article was titled “Amatuer Hour at the St. Louis International Film Festival.” Big Daddy from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” had taught me about tenacity, so I dug in and worked hideously long hours and figured it out. I was thrilled to be vindicated in a glowing, post-festival review of the event and my own nervous performance as artistic director. I’ve never looked back since and joyfully work my ass off each year to make it all happen.

Since then the organization has grown dramatically in size and budget, plus added the four other festivals. I have served under two executive directors (three if you include the period of time when I was both managing and artistic director) and seven board chairs. Sadly, I have also outlived two of them.

Cinema St. Louis is an arts non-profit, which means we have to have our hands out a lot and perpetually fundraise. We host an annual Bowlathon each summer, but honestly staff and board are not huge fans of hustling people for a few bucks at a time. In a heated board session a year or so ago, the pitch was made that we figure out something else to replace it and a tasty kernel of an idea was formed.  

One of the greatest St. Louis food experiences I know is the insane fun that is a Tenacious Eats dinner and a movie event by local Chef Liz Schuster. By integrating film and food, this highly original experience, a feast for the senses, is a unique event that brings food and film, chefs and diners together. Former Scottish Arms chef Liz Schuster is the creative mastermind behind this interactive, visceral dining venture, which she says combines the “two art forms that I love:” food and film. The venture’s tagline describes the experience as “full contact dining” and presented in “High Definition Taste-O-Vision” For each event, she writes a new menu specific to the film presented. Sometimes the menu is literally from the film itself, and sometimes it is inspired interpretation. The “kitchen” is 

always set up on one side of the screening space adding to the experience by offering the smells, sounds and tastes of fine dining. Multiple courses are served throughout the evening as audience members eat, drink and watch a great movie along with thematic wine, specialty cocktail and beer pairings.

One of the true highlights of my first year programming SLIFF was the film “Dinner Rush,” that won our audience choice award that year. The film is a lively crime caper set in an upscale Manhattan/Tribeca Italian restaurant starring Danny Aiello, Sandra Bernhard, Kirk Acevedo, Summer Phoenix, and John Corbett. I had also worked at the original Cafe Balaban on Euclid for a few drug and alcohol soaked years back in its heyday in the early 80s, so I knew these people – the customers and staff from both front and back of the house. The director, Bob Giraldi, had also directed the Michael Jackson music video “Beat It.”

Like the old “who put the chocolate in my peanut butter” Reese’s commercials, the concept of joining the two for our fall fundraiser was born. On Saturday, September 14th, Cinema St. Louis and Tenacious Eats are hosting an event at Mad Art in Soulard called “What A Rush! 20 Years with Chris Clark” to honor my accomplishments for the past two decades. I am deeply flattered, honored, and somewhat embarrassed by it all, but it’s happening.

I know what I’m not, which is wealthy or ultra cool or super popular. I don‘t have a big gay posse, nor am I a scenester. I do however have a rich, quiet, humble life that I rather enjoy and one of the coolest jobs anywhere. I think this makes me one of the luckiest people in the world.

For full disclosure they made me write this article about myself and it’s been kinda weird to do so. I would truly love it though if you could be there to help share this very special night with me.

Tickets are $125 or VIP table of 6 for $1,000. All proceeds benefit the year-round programming presented by Cinema St. Louis. To purchase tickets, contact Bree Maniscalco by calling 314.289.4154 or email at bree@cinemastlouis.org.