‘Wishin’ and Hopin’’ debuts to a sold-out house at the Garde

Wally Lamb addresses the audience Sunday, moments before the world theatrical premiere of the film version of his best-selling novel "Wishin' and Hopin'" at the Garde Arts Center in New London.
Wally Lamb addresses the audience Sunday, moments before the world theatrical premiere of the film version of his best-selling novel "Wishin' and Hopin'" at the Garde Arts Center in New London.

New London — For his seventh birthday, Wally Lamb got to invite his class to his home on McKinley Avenue in Norwich for an after-school party. He remembered being so ecstatic, he clambered up on a chair to give a speech.

And he said he felt that same kind of excitement Sunday, at the world premiere of the movie adaptation of his comic novel “Wishin’ and Hopin’” at the Garde Arts Center in New London.

After the first scheduled screening sold out, the Garde added a second, which also promptly sold out.

The reaction to the film — produced by Rocky Hill-based Synthetic Cinema International and shot in and around Norwich during the summer — was happily enthusiastic. Superlatives were proffered by audience members, with one man saying, “Wally, this movie is going to be the new Christmas classic.”

After a limited release in theaters in major cities, it will air on TV, on Lifetime at 8 p.m. Dec. 6.

“Wishin’ and Hopin’” is set in 1964 Connecticut, where 10-year-old Felix Funicello deals with, well, being a kid. He lives with his warm-hearted family, who run a diner. He goes to Catholic school, where he clashes with the class know-it-all, jokes with his best pal and meets a new student direct from Russia. He navigates the nuns who run the school. And he, along with the other students, gear up for an elaborate Christmas pageant the school’s newest teacher creates.

The film, like Lamb’s source material, is a warmly nostalgic work, with an affection for the time period not just in the writing but also in the attention to detail — from the costumes to the sets to the overall tone. (Colin Theys directed, and John Doolan wrote the screenplay.)

While the kids have the biggest roles, the cast also boasts some famous names in supporting turns. Molly Ringwald plays Felix’s French teacher, and the actress speaks with an impressively realistic French-Canadian accent. Meat Loaf portrays a monsignor who seems to have a wee bit of a drinking problem. Chevy Chase isn’t seen on screen, but he narrates, with wry humor, as the adult Felix. Blanche Baker (who reunites with her “Sixteen Candles” co-star Ringwald for a few scenes here), Conchata Ferrell (“Two and a Half Men”), and Cheri Oteri (“Saturday Night Live”) all get into the habit — yes, they play nuns.

The four young leads — Wyatt Ralff, who is Felix, along with Quinn McColgan, Siobhan Cohen and Shawn Ervin — were all present Sunday. Also there for the screenings and the Q&A that followed were actress Baker, who joked, “Every actress secretly wants to play a nun,” and Camila Banus, who starred for five years on “Days of Our Lives,” and said that, being on a “very dramatic show” for so long, she wasn’t used to doing comedy and was happy to hear moviegoers laugh during the screening.

Steve Sigel, executive director of the Garde, called the event the “first Wally Lamb multi-generational student alumni reunion.”

Indeed, in addition to former students peppering the crowd, one was instrumental in getting the movie made and another in bringing the screening to the Garde. The latter: Jeanne Sigel, the Garde’s director of development and marketing, was a student of Lamb’s and broached with him the idea of showing the movie at the New London theater.

The former: Andrew Gernhard, who is Synthetic’s co-owner and producer, had Lamb as a teacher at NFA, where Lamb taught English and writing for 25 years. Gernhard approached him about the possibility of Synthetic’s adapting “Wishin’ and Hopin’” into a movie.

After Sunday’s screening, Lamb said to the crowd, “Not too bad for a couple of guys from Norwich Free Academy.”

Lamb has seen his other novels optioned for movies — but none of those have ever been produced. He recalled how, in Hollywood, people love to talk about how “passionate” they are about a project. When Lamb met with Gernhard and the word “passionate” was never used, Lamb joked that it prompted him to think that maybe this film would actually happen.

And it did.

“It’s just a joy to work with all the people from Synthetic,” Lamb said.

He also said, “It was a thrill to be invited into the process.” He was involved in various ways, including reviewing the screenplay drafts. Lamb said he got to put in his “two cents” on casting.

And Lamb himself turns up in a dialogue-free, Hitchcockian appearance at the start of the film as a custodian. When some potential roles were presented to him, he said, “I wanted to be the custodian for the sake of irony because I can’t fix a damn thing in my own house.”

Lamb told the crowd Sunday that there’s more of him in the character of Felix than any other character he’s written. As for some specifics, he noted that he, like Felix, saw the thriller “Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte” and was scared to death. A hilariously awkward birds-and-bees speech that Felix gets from his father was verbatim what Lamb’s father told him.

Synthetic shot “Wishin’ and Hopin’” in Norwich, Willimantic and Jewett City. (The company also filmed some of its 2011 zombie flick “Steve Niles’ Remains” here as well.)

Norwich Free Academy plays a rather substantial role as the parochial school that Felix attends. The opening scene with a sweeping shot of the NFA exterior elicited an actual round of applause Sunday. Felix’s classroom is an NFA one transformed into a 1960s incarnation. The place where Felix and his cohorts take recess is the blacktop behind Cranston House. The theater where the Christmas pageant is staged is Slater Auditorium.

Another part of the city pops up, too. A movie theater marquee was added to a building on Main Street, and that’s where the young hero sees “Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte” and lives to regret it.

Naturally, local people who participated in the movie flocked to Sunday’s screenings. Ken Lamothe, who lives in Norwich and taught math at NFA for 35 years, was one. He had a scene-stealing cameo as a bus driver bringing the kids to “The Ranger Andy Show.” Aggravated by their persistent singing of “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” Lamothe’s driver finally snaps, “By the love of all that is holy, shut up!”

Lamothe is friends with Lamb — they were best men at each other’s weddings — but his being hired for “Wishin’ and Hopin’” came about through an audition. And it didn’t hurt that he had acted in a previous Synthetic film, “Banshee.” Lamothe also acts onstage with Chelsea Players, a Norwich-based theater group he helped found.

He said he had seen a rough cut of the film at the place Lamb rents in Cape Cod, but he was even more wowed by the finished product.

“I thought it was out of this world,” Lamothe said.

Others had similar reactions. Janice Orsini, who was an extra in the Christmas pageant scene, said, “I like how the movie captured that whole 1964 period. Everything about it was so true — the props, what people wore, how they acted.”

Orsini grew up in Norwich and lived there till she moved to East Lyme three years ago. She went to NFA at the same time as Lamb’s sisters.

“It was exciting to see the campus transform for the movie,” she said.

Like Orsini, Laura Katrenicz played an audience member for the Christmas pageant scene. Katrenicz, though, isn’t local; she drove from her home in Pennsylvania to be an extra in the film and then to attend Sunday’s showing. The most exciting aspect for her, she said, was getting to meet Lamb.

Sigel noted that net proceeds from Sunday’s screenings are going to food pantries in the region, which he said was the idea of “one of the nicest guys in the world” — Lamb.

k.dorsey@theday.com

Twitter: @KAgDorsey

Wally Lamb shares a laugh with Janice Orsini of Niantic, one of the extras in 'Wishin' and Hopin'.'
Wally Lamb shares a laugh with Janice Orsini of Niantic, one of the extras in "Wishin' and Hopin'."
Wally Lamb shares a laugh with Janice Orsini of Niantic, one of the extras in 'Wishin' and Hopin'.'
Wally Lamb shares a laugh with Janice Orsini of Niantic, one of the extras in "Wishin' and Hopin'."

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