St. Louis group blends film, friendship for 20 years (and counting)


Movie salon participants dress for the occasion during a ‘Downton Abbey’ film viewing and discussion in 2019.

ELLEN FUTTERMAN, Editor-in-Chief

As the new president of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization, Dr. Ken Haller recalls being on a panel at Webster University’s LBGTQ film festival in 2006 discussing a documentary about marriage equality in Massachusetts. There were about 30 people in attendance, including, as Haller tells it: “This very nicely dressed woman with a nimbus of black hair and a Mary Tyler Moore smile asking all these really thoughtful questions and taking notes.”

After the panel discussion, the woman approached Haller, 67, introduced herself and said, “I really loved your answers to the questions that were raised. I’m part of a group we call the movie salon, and we meet once a month. We pick a film to see, then we all go back to my place and discuss it. I was wondering if you’d like to join us.”

Haller, a pediatrician, thought for a second. 

“It sounded like fun, so I went, and never looked back. I’ve been part of movie salon ever since.”

The woman with the billowy cloud of dark curly hair Haller describes is Susan Fadem, who started the movie salon 20 years ago. If her name sounds familiar it’s because Fadem, an award-winning journalist who considers herself a “cultural Jew,” used to be a frequent contributor to the Jewish Light, among other publications. She also was the subject of a 2019 story in the Light that celebrated her marriage to Richard Andersen — the two met on in 2011, a year after Fadem’s first husband, Rod, passed away.

But that was that story.

The start of the salon

This story begins in 2002, when Susan Fadem and her husband Rod, would regularly go to the movies together, though rarely talk about them afterwards.

“Rod didn’t like discussing them with anyone who didn’t agree with him,” recalled Fadem. “He was very funny about it, but we did not agree on movies. I would hate a movie and he would love it or vice-versa. And he would manage to talk first and tell me all the reasons he hated the movie. Then I’d say, ‘But I think,’ and Rod would — I kid you not — turn on the radio in the car.”

Susan Fadem. Photo: Marian Brickner

Fadem grew frustrated. In her universe, if you can’t discuss something, it’s just not worth doing. 

A close friend, Ethel Dimont, who was quite a bit older than Fadem, would regale her with stories about a time when friends took streetcars to the St. Louis home she shared with her husband, Max, a notable Jewish history author. According to Ethel, they’d all sit around a long dining room table and have heady discussions or listen while Max held court.

“That idea of gathering around a table to discuss ideas really appealed to me,” said Fadem, 71. “So, at some point I meshed it all in my head and thought, movie salon. We could all see a movie, sit around and discuss it.”

Soon after, Fadem asked four friends to join her to do just that. After a movie at Plaza Frontenac, they went to a nearby restaurant to discuss the film. And while they all enjoyed the discussion, a few complained the restaurant was too noisy.

“The next month we sat around the dining room table at our house (hers and Rod’s). We went from maybe five people to eight people,” said Fadem. “Over the years, I have amassed three different email lists and there are now well over 300 people.”

Not all 300 people show up each month. Some have moved away, some have passed away and some float in and out. As Haller notes, “Susan, in many ways, is a collector of strays.”

There was the time she talked a woman she just met in a restroom who spoke Italian to join the discussion of an Italian film the group had just seen at Wash U.

Or that day at Schnucks, after fighting over the last serving of wheatberry salad, that she befriended her adversary, a Nigerian woman, and invited her to the salon.

Typically, though, between 20 and 30 people join on the designated Saturday night. 

The Tuesday before, with suggestions always welcomed, Fadem announces by email the “pick flick.” Most of the films are relatively new releases, but classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” also figure into the mix, along with offerings at local film festivals.

Fadem aims for a film that sounds as if it will be enhanced by group discussion. In other words, “not the shoot-‘em-up action movies that tend to dominate top box office ratings,” she said, though over the years exceptions have been made for films such as “Black Panther” and “Spider Man: Far From Home,” both of which received high praise from critics and audiences.

Salon-goers see the movie on their own but gather for the Saturday meet-up around 6 p.m. Everyone brings a dish to share at a potluck dinner where they eat, mingle and catch up before the discussion begins.

Of course, that was before COVID-19, when like everything else, the movie salon was forced to pivot. 

“The transition to Zoom was surprisingly seamless,” noted Haller, who was among 23 salon-goers to join last month’s discussion of “Belfast,” a coming-of-age story set in the late 1960s in the Northern Ireland capital. About 80% of the group gave the film a thumbs up while the rest were lukewarm.

“Once the decision was made that we were going to do this, Susan worked hard to figure out Zoom and made sure everyone else knew, too,” Haller continued. Early during the pandemic, the group was meeting over Zoom twice a month because, well, as Haller noted, “What else did we have to do?” 

Movie salon milestone

There had been talk of a party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of movie salon. Though many of the movies they see lean toward the serious and dramatic, this is a group that appreciates a good party.

After the movie “Downton Abbey,” salon-goers came to the Saturday potluck and discussion dressed in period costumes, where they enjoyed food and drink worthy of British royalty. For a discussion of “Auntie Mame,” feathered boas were the accessory du jour. Rarely a birthday or wedding anniversary passes without the occasion noted in style.

Maybe down the road, a celebratory party will happen.

But currently, between sending emails informing salon-goers of the pick flick and then extensively recapping all they uncovered after each movie discussion, Fadem is fighting Stage 4 melanoma in her brain and lungs. She has had radiation and continues to have immunotherapy treatments. Other than being tired, she says she’s “good, most of the time.”

And as if this wasn’t enough, her husband was recently diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He had 5 ½ hours of surgery and is now beginning radiation and chemotherapy for the brain, which is in pill form.

Through all of this, Fadem has not missed a single movie salon. 

“I was afraid December might be the last (salon) for a while, but Susan seems to be doing well. Her perseverance, positivity and creativity are unmatched,” said Helen Friedman, a licensed clinical psychologist who has been attending movie salon for nearly all 20 years and named “Inglourious Basterds” as one of her all-time favorite selections.

“What originally got me there is that I love seeing a good movie and talking about it. What holds me there are the people I’ve met and the friendships that have formed,” Friedman added. “It’s a really bright articulate group of people. Many of us would not have met had it not been for Susan. Thankfully, Susan loves sharing friends.”

As Friedman notes, so enjoyable is movie salon that it has led to subsets of the group who go to dinner, theater and concerts together.

Jane von Kaenel founded a book group with other salon-goers focused on addressing racial equality. “In addition to deepening my appreciate of the art of film, salon has really improved my critical eye and led me to such an interesting group of diverse people.”

Von Kaenel, 69, jokes she could be president of the Susan Fadem fan club. She started coming five years ago when a friend brought her as a guest. She’s been a fixture ever since.

“Susan is an incredible facilitator,” said von Kaenel. “She knows how to keep everyone engaged and makes sure everyone gets a chance to talk.”

During discussion, Fadem goes around the room — or lately, around the Zoom — allowing each salon-goer two minutes (someone keeps time!) to give their initial impressions of the film. Then after everyone has spoken, the group dives deep into everything from cinematography to character development to costumes to artistic framing to underlying historical and social issues that influence various plot points. 

“We try not to interrupt each other, and no one dominates. As facilitator, I make sure of that,” said Fadem, adding that political talk is off-limits. “Our backgrounds are diverse. My intent is that we get to know each other through ideas.

“And we always have great fun.”