Monday, October 24, 2016

A Reel Review: Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Festival

A book is a wonderful thing which can reach a lot of people in many different ways. Cinema has always had the power to make that reach go even further by being accessible and bringing visuals to the words. Eighty years ago, book-to-film adaptations such as THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND showed how powerful the approach can be, and here in the modern era, THE LORD OF THE RINGS and J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER series have become the most significant entries into our culture since STAR WARS.

The world of HARRY POTTER descended upon southeastern Pennsylvania this past weekend with the Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Festival. For two days, six blocks of the historic Germantown Avenue closed off to traffic and created a festival atmosphere attended by thousands of fans. This Blogger and this Blogger’s Girlfriend were more than pleased to make the magical journey on the second full day of the festival.

Chestnut Hill is a neighborhood in the northwestern section of Philadelphia, accessible from the downtown by the area’s Regional Rail. Aware of the fine details of the books and the films, organizers turned the train into a Hogwarts Express experience, complete with characters in costume and distributions of The Local Prophet; a spoof of the magical newspaper which doubled as a festival guide. We (this Blogger and this Blogger’s Girlfriend), boarded one of the later trains and were instantly blown away by the massive number of people on their way to the festival. The train was standing-room only (we stood for the whole trip, which took nearly an hour), but the magnitude of the event had yet to hit us.

The Chestnut Hill West train station, just like the rest of the town, was transformed into the magical town of Hogsmeade, and despite the Dementor-like weather of soul-sucking cold wind and rain, the mass of humanity on the streets was overwhelming. The line to get into a popular restaurant was four hours to get a table, the line to the port-a-potties looked like it stretched forever, and we could walk for five minutes and cover a total of ten feet.

But the congested streets and foul weather could not dampen the spirits of us or the rest of the festival goers…because we were literally in HARRY POTTER land. Local businesses transformed into locations from the films and books; one store became Ollivander’s Wand Shop (where the wands really did choose you), another sold potions and magical trinkets, a candy store became Honey Dukes Sweetshop, while bars and restaurants turned into The Leaky Cauldron  and served special brews made just for this event. Activities for kids and adults (who were basically kids on this day anyway) were everywhere; such as dodging Dementors, making potions, coloring owls, stage events, art galleries, and so much more. Photo-stations were available so fans could take selfies at the famous Platform 9 and ¾, and Four Privet Drive. Large speakers were set up on each block where the soundtracks from the films were always playing…adding to the magical atmosphere. The charming nature of the neighborhood, with its cobblestone-streets and old brick and stone buildings, made it all seem like we had literally transported into the pages and silver screens. And although HARRY POTTER began as books, the film influences were clear; cosplayers in costume inspired by the movies were everywhere, and the love and passion people hold for the material was so thick it could be felt in the air...overpowering the rain and wind.

After a few hours of navigating Hogsmeade, it was time to head down the hill to Chestnut Hill College where a real Quidditch tournament was happening. A Knight Bus (shuttle) was available to usher people to the matches, but we elected to walk through the wind and rain. The 20-minute walk was all part of the fun, as even getting lost had its benefits as we asked a Mad-Eye Moody cosplayer for directions. So lesson learned; when you need help…ask a wizard.

The Quidditch tournament, which is now in its (ahem) seventh year, hosted community teams from Chestnut Hill, the University Pittsburgh, Franklin and Marshall College, Lafayette College, Kutztown, Syracuse, and Stockton University. The adapted game combined rugby, dodgeball, and team-handball…and these players meant business. They played with more ferocity than the clumsy NFL does, and the matches were a thrill to take in.

And all this was on the second day of the festival. The first day was also a packed event with a Pub Crawl, a conference, movie night and pizza party, and costume contest. But for this Blogger and this Blogger’s Girlfriend, the one day we attended was overwhelmingly satisfying. The atmosphere, music, and feel-good vibes from the thousands in attendance made that magical world of HARRY POTTER real for a short time, and there is no wand or spell which could ever replicate it. For a weekend…literature, film, and a community made real magic.

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