Tomorrow “Little Pink House” opens in theaters. The world premiere took place Sunday night at the Garde Arts Center, a historic 1,400 seat theater in New London, the city where the epic legal battle Kelo v New London was fought. It sold out, and hundreds more people were turned away at the door. The response was so overwhelming that the Garde announced yesterday that it had added a second showing on Saturday, May 5th at 7:30. And the movie will open at the Niantic Cinema - near New London - on May 4th.
When I started writing the book in 2005, I hoped it would become a movie. Being in the theater Sunday night was one of the highlights of my career. Afterward, a friend who traveled all the way from Washington, D.C. to attend as my special guest sent me this text message: “What was going through your mind when the movie ended and the room filled with thunderous applause?”
Well, lend me your eyes and I will show you what I saw and felt leading up to that unforgettable moment.
At 3pm, two hours before show time, the popcorn machine started up. A small army of ushers milled around the lobby. Stacks of my books – from Little Pink House to Tiger Woods – covered a table in the foyer.
By the time the doors opened at 4pm, the lines at the box office were twenty-deep. I was in the lobby, preparing to sign books, when moviegoers entered like a wave hitting a beach. It seemed as though every person I knew in southeastern Connecticut was suddenly in front of me. I felt like Jimmy Stewart in the final scene of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” overwhelmed at the sight of all his friends and neighbors who show up to help him.
People said the kindest things. “I knew your grandmother when ….” “I went to school with your mother. She must be so proud.” “I remember you when you were a little boy. Look at what you’ve become.”
Sweet elderly women left lipstick imprints on my cheeks.
A woman named Judy from Crescent Beach talked her way in without a ticket by saying that she is my friend and simply wanted to give me a hug and tell me congratulations. Once Judy was inside, Jeanne Sigel, the Garde’s marketing and development director, found her a seat in the last row of the balcony.
Before the film started, Steve Sigel asked me to say a few words and introduce Courtney Moorehead Balaker, who directed the film and wrote the exceptional screenplay.
As I stood on stage and looked out at the full house, I wished I could freeze time. The unity in the theater was something we need more of in our public discourse. The place was packed with Republicans and Democrats, the politically connected and the politically disenfranchised. Every level of the socio-economic spectrum was present. But we all came together for a night. I love how art and entertainment wipe away barriers.
As the lights went out, I ventured to the very rear of the theater, where I found Susette Kelo all alone, leaning against a support column. “What are you doing back here by yourself?” I said.
“I don’t have a seat,” she said.
“Come with me,” I said.
I had two tickets in my pocket. One for me and one for my wife. But since she was up in Boston with three of our children for Patriots Day festivities (it’s a family tradition, and we don’t break traditions for anything – not even a movie premiere), I happened to be carrying a ticket to the only empty seat in the theater.
Susette took my hand and I led her through the dark to a row in the center orchestra section. It was filled with friends whom I had provided with complimentary tickets. My two seats were located between New England Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy and my son's girlfriend.
But as we made our way down the row, I realized that an elderly woman had mistakenly taken my seat.
Seeing Susette coming toward him, Van Noy quickly vacated his seat and climbed over the row in front of him, squeezing into an empty seat. Susette took Kyle’s seat. Then I climbed over and sat next to Kyle. Here’s the interesting thing. None of these people knew each other. Susette had no idea that Kyle plays for the Patriots. Kyle had no idea that Susette was the person being portrayed on screen by Catherine Keener. My son and his girlfriend were wondering who the big guy was that just climbed over the seats.
And no one – including me – had any idea who the elderly lady was that had slipped into my seat. But when the bulldozer arrived on screen and started taking down houses, that elderly woman blurted out: “That’s wrong! They can’t do that! That’s someone’s home!”
Throughout the movie, Susette clutched my hand. At times she cried. At times she laughed. At one point, I looked around me and realized that I was surrounded by people whom I’ve met through my writing – Susette Kelo (Little Pink House), Kyle Van Noy (The System), Michele DiBuono (The Untouchables), Armen Keteyian (co-authored the Tiger Woods biography with me), Bob Doran and John Levinson (Without Reservation). I could go on and on. These are some of my best friends. And I would know none of these people if not for being a writer.
So here’s what went through my mind when the movie ended and the theater erupted in applause – an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I had tears in my eyes. Then Susette started weeping and she buried her face in my shoulder. Through tears, she whispered “Thank you, Jeff.” At that point I lost it too. And so did so many people around me.
As we exited the row, Susette was mobbed by people. I felt like a 4-year-old coming down the stairs on Christmas morning. Amidst the bedlam, John Olsen, the former chairman of the Democratic Party in the State of Connecticut approached me. Sixteen years ago when I ran for U.S. Congress in Connecticut, John and the party backed my opponent, Joe Courtney, who eventually got the nomination and is still serving in Congress today. After losing to Courtney, I wished him the very best and returned to writing.
With a huge smile on his face, Olsen said to me: “Think about it. If I hadn’t worked so hard against you back in 2000, none of this would have happened to you.”
We both laughed so hard that my sides were hurting. Then we gave each other a big hug.
Olsen’s right. My life would have been so very different had I gone to Congress back in 2002. Sometimes, life turns out better when you don’t get what you want.
To check listings for Little Pink House, visit www.littlepinkhousemovie.com
Tiger Woods is #3 on the New York Times bestseller list. To see where Jeff will be speaking and signing copies of his latest book, visit www.jeffbenedict.com