Biograph Times: Chapter Two

http://slantblog.blogspot.com/2018/02/biograph-times-chapter-two.html




Note: This is the second chapter of Biograph Times, a work in progress that will hopefully become a book.

Midnight Shows

In the 1970s, during what some film aficionados call "the golden age of repertory cinema," double features ruled. Perhaps the hodgepodge of double features that was central to the format of a repertory cinema had something to do with a sense of postmodern license to combine disparate elements. The presenting of midnight shows was also an integral aspect of the programming for many such movie houses.

Although films are still being shown in theaters at the midnight hour, the cultural significance of such screenings has been in steady decline since the end of the '70s. While most of what was done at the Biograph was standard practice in that era for art houses/repertory cinemas, it was somewhat of a trend-setter with regard to the methodology of promoting and presenting midnight shows.

The formula for how to do it consistently had yet to be codified when a twin bill of so-called "underground" films, “Chafed Elbows” (1966) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964), was the first special late-night attraction we presented. On April 7, 1972, the show actually started at 11:30 p.m. and was called a "late show." 

Over our initial year of operation I came to understand the sort of pictures that would appeal to the late crowd. So although “The Godfather” (1972) was a critical success and a popular film the year the Biograph opened, it was not the sort of movie that would draw an audience at midnight. On the other hand, “Fritz the Cat” (1972), released the same year — but barely remembered today — was a good draw. When we premiered “El Topo” (1970) during regular hours in the spring of 1973 it flopped. Later as a midnight show it did well.

A 16mm bootleg print of “Animal Crackers” (1930), a Marx Brothers romp that had been out of release for decades, played well at midnight. Some rock ’n’ roll movies worked, others didn’t. Same with thrillers and monster flicks. The most successful midnight shows needed a cachet of something slightly forbidden -- maybe not allowed during regular hours.

In that light, a Marx Brothers title that couldn’t be seen on television or in a standard movie theater had an extra luster. We rented it from a private collector who had a beautiful 16mm print.

We promoted midnight shows with radio spots on WGOE-AM and with handbills posted on utility poles and in shop windows. We relied on little or no newspaper advertising for midnight shows in the early days. We usually didn’t list them in our regular printed programs, which displayed the titles and some film notes for the movies we exhibited during regular hours.

By showing “Animal Crackers,” we may have been breaking some sort of copyright laws. But the Fan District wasn’t Manhattan or Malibu, so no one who had any interest in the obscure battle over the rights to an old Marx Brothers feature film was likely to notice.

In the first couple of years of operation we occasionally rented short subjects, old TV shows and even feature films from private collectors who acted as distributors. Some titles were in the public domain, which meant no one actually had the “exclusive rights” to the rent out prints of the movie. “Reefer Madness” (1936) was such a title. Others were like “Animal Crackers,” which, due to a legal dispute, wasn’t in general release.

My bosses at the Biograph in Georgetown and I talked about the propriety of showing bootleg prints of films with murky rights issues several times. I came to agree with them that we weren’t denying the artists, or rightful distributors any money. Instead, they saw it as liberating those films for people to see. Anyway, we didn’t get caught.

A few years later the issues that had kept “Animal Crackers” out of release were resolved. So we booked a nice 35mm print from the proper distributor. It didn’t perform at the box office nearly as well as it had before, when it was forbidden.

When the Biograph started running midnight shows in 1972 the bars in Richmond closed at midnight, so there was a lot less to do at 12:01 a.m. than when the official cutoff time was extended to 2 a.m. in 1976.

Another reason midnight shows caught on when they did was that drive-in theaters, which had done well in the '50s and '60s, were going out of style fast. Some of the low-budget product they had been exhibiting found a new home as late-night entertainment in hardtop theaters. “Mondo Cane” (1962), “Blood Feast” (1963) and “2,000 Maniacs” (1964) all played as Biograph midnight shows. Once into the ’80s that sort of movie began to routinely go straight to video, skipping a theatrical run.

By the time we booked “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” in June of 1978, going to a midnight show was no longer seen as an exotic thing to do in Richmond. Multiplexes in the suburbs ran them all the time. Which ironically made the timing perfect for a kitschy spoof of/tribute to trashy rock ‘n’ roll and monster movies to become the all-time greatest midnight show draw.

The midnight show craze of the ‘70s could only have flourished then, when baby boomers were in their teens and 20s. It came before cable television was widely available and video rental stores had popped up in nearly every neighborhood.

Sometimes, a successful midnight show run came along in the nick of time to pay the Biograph's rent. On the other hand, as a promoter, there were times when I bit off more than I could chew.

On October 22, 1982, “The Honeymoon Killers” (1969) opened as a midnight show. I had seen it somewhere and become convinced it would appeal to the same crowd that loved absurd comedies by Luis Buñuel and Robert Altman, plus those who had adored previously popular midnight shows, such as “Eraserhead” (1977), or “Harold and Maude” (1971).

A droll murder spree movie in black and white, “The Honeymoon Killers” fell flat. Unlike most people, I saw it as a comedy. Mostly, nobody else saw it at all.


After-Hours Screenings

Still of Jimmy Cliff as Ivan.
In the fall of 1973, David Levy, then the most active managing partner/owner of the Biograph Theatres in Georgetown and Richmond, asked me to look at a film to evaluate its potential. From time to time he did that for various reasons. In this case he had a new 35mm print of “The Harder They Come” shipped to me.

In those days we had frequent after-hours screenings of films we came by, one way or another. Usually on short notice, the word would go out that we would be watching a movie at a certain time. These gatherings were essentially impromptu movie parties. A couple of times it was 1940s and '50s 16mm boxing films from a private collection.

Sometimes prints of films that were in town to play at another venue, say a film society, would mysteriously appear in our booth. In such cases the borrowed flicks were always returned before they were missed ... so I was told.

Although I don’t remember any moments, in particular, from that first screening of “The Harder They Come”, I do recall the gist of my telephone conversation with Levy the next day. After telling him how much I liked the Jamaican movie, he asked me how I would promote it.

Well, I was ready for that question. I had smoked it over thoroughly with a few friends during and after the screening. So, I told David we ought to have a free, open-to-the-public, sneak preview of the movie. Most importantly, we should use radio exclusively to promote the screening. Because of the significance of the radio campaigns for the Biograph's midnight shows, over the last year, he liked the idea right away.

In this time, long before the era of giant corporations owning hundreds of stations, a locally-programmed daytime radio station with a weak signal played a significant role in what success was enjoyed at the Biograph. For a while we had a sweet deal -- a dollar-a-holler -- with WGOE-AM, the most popular station for the under-35 set in the Fan District and environs. In the first half of the 1970s, the station at the top of the dial, 1590, owned the hippie market. 

Subsequently, on a Friday morning in November the DJs at WGOE began reading announcements of a free showing of “The Harder They Come” that would take place at the Biograph that afternoon at 3 p.m. Then they would play a cut by Jimmy Cliff, the film’s star, from the soundtrack. This pattern was continued maybe three times an hour, leading up to the time of the screening.

Note: “The Harder They Come” (1972): 120 minutes. Color. Directed by Perry Henzell; Cast: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw. In this Jamaican production, Cliff plays Ivan, a pop star/criminal on the lam. The music of Cliff, The Maytals, The Melodians and Desmond Dekker is featured.

Of course, Reggae music was being heard in Richmond before our free screening, but it was still on the periphery of popular culture. As I recall, some 300 people showed up for the screening and the movie was extremely well received.

In previous runs in other markets, “The Harder They Come” had been treated more or less as an underground movie. As it was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for its American distribution, it had a grainy, documentary look to it that added to its allure. Upon hearing about the test-audience's approval, Levy got excited and wanted to book it to run as a regular feature, rather than as a midnight show.

While it didn’t set any records for attendance, “The Harder They Come” did fairly well and returned to play several more dates at the Biograph, at regular hours and as a midnight show. 

Levy became a sub-distributor for “The Harder They Come.” When he rented it to theaters in other cities within his region, he advised them to use the same radio-promoted, free-screening tactic.

In 1973, watching a virtually unknown low-budget Jamaican film after operating hours in the Biograph had seemed edgy, almost exotic. That night we had no idea how popular Reggae music was about to become.

Over the next few years Reggae music smoothly crossed over from niche to mainstream to ubiquitous. Bob Marley (1945-81), dead for over 30 years, still has a huge following to this day. Reggae's acceptance opened the door for the popularity of the still-fresh fusion sound of the 2 Tone bands, like The Selecter, The Specials, the (English) Beat, Madness, and so forth, in the early-1980s.

Biograph Times: Chapter One: The First Year

http://slantblog.blogspot.com/2018/02/biograph-times-first-year_11.html

by F.T. Rea 

The First Year: Over 200 Titles 

Note: The second of my three bosses, while I was manager of Richmond's Biograph Theatre, died on Tuesday. Lenny Poryles drew his last breath on Feb. 6, 2018, at his home in Arbonne-La-Forêt, France. He was 81. In addition to being an insightful and reliable person to work with, Lenny was a warm and generous man. RIP, Lenny.

About six weeks before its Feb. 11, 1972, opening gala this wide-angle view of The Biograph was captured by a Richmond News Leader photographer. It was snapped late in 1971, a few days before the new building at 814 W. Grace St. received its distinctive bright yellow paint-job.

*

On what I remember as a bright morning, it was in early July of 1971, I went to a construction site on the north side of the 800 block of West Grace Street. Mostly, it was a big hole in the orange dirt between two old brick houses.

A friend had tipped me off that she’d been told the owners of the movie house set to rise from that hole were looking for a manager who knew something about movies and could write about them. She also said they were hoping to hire a local guy. Chasing the sparkle of that opportunity I met David Levy at the construction site.

Levy was the Harvard-trained attorney who managed the Biograph Theatre at 2819 M Street in Washington. D.C. He was one of a group of five men who, in 1967, had opened Georgetown’s Biograph in what had previously been a car dealership.

Although none of them had any experience in show biz, they were hip young movie lovers whose timing had been impeccable -- they caught a pop culture wave. The golden age of repertory cinema was waxing and those original partners happened to be living in what was the perfect town for their venture. They did well right away.

With their success in D.C. to encourage them, a few years later the same five, plus one, were looking to expand. In Richmond’s Fan District they thought they had discovered just the right neighborhood for a second repertory-style cinema, again using split weeks and double features. In this style of calendar house programming one usually adheres to a published schedule. So if a movie draws well, instead of holding it over you bring it back soon.

A pair of local players, energy magnate Morgan Massey and real estate deal-maker Graham “Squirrel” Pembroke, acquired the land. They agreed to build a cinder block building to house a single-auditorium cinema just a stone’s throw from Virginia Commonwealth University’s academic campus for the entrepreneurs from D.C. to rent. The "boys in D.C." had to pay for the projection booth equipment, the turnstile (we used tokens, rather than tickets) and the seats, some 515 of them.

At the time I was working for a radio station, WRNL, so I gave Levy tapes of some humorous radio commercials I had made for what had been successful promotions. About 10 weeks after that first meeting with Levy I was offered the manager’s position for the new Biograph.

Can't recall all that much about that day, except I was told I beat out a lot of competition. Oddly, what I do remember clearly is a brief flash of me sitting in my living room, trying to be nonchalant, so as to not to reveal just how thrilled I was at getting that offer. In truth, at 23-years-old, I could hardly imagine a better job for me existed, at least not in the Fan District. 

This all happened three years after Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia merged to become VCU in 1968. In the fall of 1971 there were few signs of the dramatic impact the new university would eventually have on Richmond. Although a couple of film societies were thriving on campus in that time, other than local film critic Carole Kass' History of Motion Pictures class, the school itself was offering little in the way of classes about movies or filmmaking.

There were a few VCU professors who occasionally showed artsy short films in their classes. Mostly, independent and foreign features didn’t come to Richmond. So, in 1971, the coming of the Biograph Theatre to Grace Street was great news to local film buffs. Generally, it was seen as another sign the neighborhood's nightlife scene was becoming more attractive to the young adult market. 

Levy and I got along well right away. We became friends who trusted one another. He and his partners were all about 10 years my senior.

My manager’s job lasted until the summer of 1983. Owing to unpaid rent Grace Street’s Biograph Theatre was seized by the landlord four years later. A hundred miles to the north, the Biograph on M Street closed in 1996. David Levy died in 2004.

In 2018 there’s a noodles eatery in same building that once housed the repertory cinema I managed for 139 months. Now it’s the oldest building on the block.

*

On the evening of Friday, February 11, 1972, the adventure got off the ground with a gem of a party. In the lobby the dry champagne flowed steadily, as the tuxedo-wearers and colorfully outfitted hippies mingled happily. A trendy art show was hanging on the walls. The local press was all over what was an important event for that bohemian commercial strip.

The feature we presented to over 300 invited guests was a delightful French war-mocking comedy — “King of Hearts” (1966); Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates. With splashy news and television stories about the party trumpeting the Biograph's arrival the next night we opened for business with a cool double feature: “King of Hearts“ was paired with “A Thousand Clowns“ (1965). Every show sold out.

The owning partners were all there for the first-ever Biograph party. Other than the projectionist, Howard Powers -- who was supplied by the local operators union -- I had hired the theater's opening night's staff: The cashiers were Cathy Chapman and Susan Eskey. The ushers were Bernie Hall and Chuck Wrenn. A few weeks later Chuck was promoted to assistant manager and Susan Kuney was hired as a third cashier. I think Joe Bumiller replaced Chuck as an usher.  

The Biograph’s printed schedule, Program No. 1, was heavy on documentaries. It featured the work of Emile de Antonio and D.A. Pennebaker, among others. Also on that program, which had no particular theme, were several titles by popular European directors, including Michaelangelo Antonioni, Costa-Gavras, Federico Fellini, and Roman Polanski.

Like the first one, which offered mostly double features, each of the next several programs covered about six weeks. At this point Alan Rubin, who worked in the Georgetown office, did all the mechanical art for those programs, as he had been doing for the D.C. Biograph. In the initial months he and Levy made the programming decisions, with me throwing in my two-cents worth.

Baby boomers who had grown up watching old movies on television had learned to worship important movie directors. Within a certain set, knowing film was cool; it could get you laid. The fashion of the day elevated certain foreign movies, selected American classics, a few films from the underground scene, etc., to a level above most of their more accessible Hollywood counterparts.

In reading everything I could find about which films were respected and popular, especially in New York and San Francisco, it was easy to gather that the in-crowd viewed most of Hollywood’s then-current product as either laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupt. Or both. Perhaps most admired of all foreign films were those considered to be part of the French New Wave, which began as the '50s ended with the early features made by Louis Malle, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

What the first year on the job would teach me was how few people in Richmond really wanted to see the best imported films in that time. After the opening flurry of interest in the new movie theater, with long lines to nearly every show, it was surprising to me when the crowds shrank dramatically in the months that followed. Which showed me how important that run-up to the opening publicity had been.

As VCU students had been a substantial portion of the theater’s initial crowd the slump was chalked off to warm weather, exams and then summer vacation. In that context the first summer of operation was opened to experimentation aimed at drawing more customers from beyond the immediate neighborhood. That gave me an opportunity to do more with a project my bosses had put me in charge of developing, Friday and Saturday midnight shows -- using radio in particular to promote them.

By trial and error I learned quickly that movies that lent themselves to attention-getting promotion performed better at the box office. Early midnight show successes were “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (1971), and an underground twin bill of “Chafed Elbows” (1967) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964). Most of the failures have been forgotten.

With significant input from Chuck, the theater’s well-known assistant manager, quirky non-traditional ad campaigns were designed in-house. Chuck's help with developing the style we used for choosing these late shows and promoting them effectively can't be overstated. 

We learned there were two essential elements to midnight show promotions: 1. Wacky radio spots had to be created and run on WGOE, a popular AM station aimed directly at the hippie listening audience. 2. I made distinctive handbills that were posted on utility poles, bulletin boards and in shop windows in high-traffic locations. Both elements had to show a sense of humor. 

Dave DeWitt produced the radio commercials. We happily shared the copy-writing chore. In his studio, Dave and I frequently collaborated on the making of those spots with an ample supply of cold Pabst Blue Ribbons and whatnot. Most of the time we went for levity, even cheap laughs. Dave had a classic announcer's voice and he was quite masterful at physically crafting radio commercials. He was more of a nitpicker for perfection than I was, so we made a good team.

On September 13, 1972, a George McGovern-for-president benefit was staged at the Biograph. Former Gov. Doug Wilder, then a state senator, spoke. We showed "Millhouse" (1971), a documentary that put President Richard Nixon in a bad light.

Yes, I was warned that taking sides in politics was dead wrong for a show business entity in Richmond. Taking the liberal side only made it worse. But the two most active partners who were my bosses, Levy and Rubin, who was a geologist turned artist, were delighted with the notion of doing the benefit. They were used to doing much the same up there. So with the full backing of the boys in D.C. I never hesitated to reveal my left-leaning stances on anything political.  

Also in September “Performance” (1970), a somewhat overwrought but well-crafted musical melodrama -- starring Mick Jagger -- packed the house at midnight three weekends in a row. Then a campy, docu-drama called “Reefer Madness” (1936) sold out four consecutive weekends.

The midnight shows were going over like gangbusters. To follow “Reefer Madness” what was then a little-known X-rated comedy, “Deep Throat” (1972), was booked as a midnight show. By then the Georgetown Biograph was experimenting with playing naughty midnight shows. In Richmond, we had played a handful of films that had earned an X-rating, they had been more artsy than they were vulgar. This was our first step across the line to hardcore porn.

*

As “Deep Throat” ran only an hour, master prankster Luis Buñuel’s surrealistic classic short film (16 minutes), “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), was added to the bill, just for grins. It should be noted that like "Deep Throat," Buñuel’s first film, was also called totally obscene in its day. Still, this may have been the only time that particular pair of outlaw flicks ever shared a billing ... anywhere.

A few weeks after “Deep Throat” began playing in Richmond, a judge in Manhattan ruled it was obscene. Suddenly the national media became fascinated with it. The star of "Deep Throat," Linda Lovelace, appeared on network TV talk shows. Watching Johnny Carson pussyfoot around the premise of her celebrated “talent” made for some giggly moments.

Eventually, to be sure of getting in to see this midnight show, patrons began showing up as much as an hour before show time. Standing in line on the brick sidewalk for the spicy midnight show frequently turned into a party. There were nights the line resembled a tailgating scene at a pro football game. A determined band of Jesus Freaks took to standing across the street to issue bullhorn-amplified warnings of hellfire to the patrons waiting in the midnight show line that stretched west on Grace Street. It only added to the scene.

Playing for 17 consecutive weekends, at midnight only, “Deep Throat” grossed over $30,000. That was more dough than the entire production budget of what was America’s first skin-flick blockbuster.

The midnight show’s grosses conveniently made up for the disappointing performance of an eight-week program of venerable European classics at regular hours. It included ten titles by the celebrated Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. The same package of art house workhorses played extremely well up in Georgetown, underlining what was becoming a painfully underestimated contrast in the two markets.

On the theater's first anniversary I made a list of all the titles we had presented. A few noteworthy shorts films were on the list, such as Chris Marker's "La Jetée" (1962), but I omitted most shorts. The list, which I had printed as a flyer to hand out, was over 200 titles long.

In 52 weeks, to establish what we were, the Biograph had presented over 200 different films, some in a couple of runs. Split weeks with doubles features, plus midnight shows, chewed up a lot of product. By the end of the first year Levy, Rubin and I knew we needed to make some changes in our programming.

The Fan District was not becoming Georgetown and in spite of what some folks were predicting, maybe it never would. To be successful in Richmond we realized we had to do more to cultivate the audience here to appreciate the sort of films we loved and most wanted to present. And, in the meantime, we had to figure out how to stop losing money at an alarming rate.

To start, maybe fewer old Bergman flicks.

*

Here's a small sample of the first year's avalanche of sweet double features. In this case I chose to have 12 double features on the list, because that's typically what was on one of the Biograph's calendar style programs in the first year of operation:

Feb. 12-14, 1972: 
“King of Hearts” (1966): Color. Directed by Philippe de Broca. Cast: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Pierre Brasseur. Note: The first movie to play at the Biograph was a zany French comedy, set amid the harsh but crazy realities of too much World War I.
“A Thousand Clowns” (1965): B&W. Directed by Fred Coe. Cast: Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam. Note: A social worker investigates the rules-bending circumstances in which a boy lives with his iconoclastic uncle, an unemployed writer.

Feb. 21-23, 1972:
“Z”  (1969): Color. Directed by Costa-Gavras. Cast: Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Irene Papas. Note: A political assassination’s cover-up in Greece spawns a compelling based-on-truth whodunit, with sudden plot twists, all told at a furious pace.
"The Battle of Algiers" (1966): B&W. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Note: This account of the cruel tactics employed by both warring sides during the Algerian revolution is part documentary, part staged suspenseful recreation. Unforgettable.

Mar. 17-20, 1972: 
“Gimme Shelter” (1970): Color. Directed by Albert Maysles and David Maysles.  Performers: The Rolling Stones, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Tina Turner and more. Note: A documentary with much concert footage and one murder.
“T.A.M.I. Show” (1964): B&W. Directed by Steve Binder. Performers: the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Lesley Gore and more appear in concert footage.

Apr. 12-13, 1972:
"Bell Du Jour" (1967): Color. Director: Luis Buñuel. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli. Note: Beautiful Severine loves her successful husband. With him she’s frigid. Her kinky fantasies lead her to the oldest profession … only by day.
"A Man and a Woman" (1966): Color. Director: Claude Lelouche. Cast: Anouk Aimée, Jean-Louis Trintignan. Note: A widower and a widow meet by chance at their childrens' boarding school. As the struggle to deal with their attraction to one another, neither has gotten over their loss.  

June 1-7, 1972: 
“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1969): Color. Directed by Robert Altman. Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie. Note: With Altman, the routine gambling, prostitution and power struggles in the Old West take on a different sort of look. More grit. Less glory. All random.
"Klute" (1971): Color. Directed by Alan J. Pakula. Cast: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Roy Scheider. Note: Fonda grabbed a Best Actress Oscar for her convincing portrayal of a damaged prostitute who helps a dogged private detective solve a complicated missing person case.

June 14-18, 1972:
“Putney Swope” (1969): Both B&W and color. Directed by Robert Downey Sr. Cast: Stan Gottlieb, Allen Garfield, Archie Russell. Note: This strange but hilarious send-up of Madison Avenue was Downey’s effort to crossover from underground to legit. Probably his most accessible work.
"Trash" (1970): Color. Director: Paul Morrissey. Cast: Joe Dallesandro, Holly Woodlawn. Note: It was billed as "Andy Warhol's Trash," as he was credited with being the producer of Morrissey's series of undergroundish films. This one reveals the down-and-out urban lifestyle of an oddball couple.

June 29-July 2, 1972: 
"Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964): B&W. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens. Note: This nuke-mocking black comedy raised eyebrows at the height of the Cold War. Still a laugh riot.
 “M.A.S.H.” (1970): Color. Directed by Robert Altman. Cast: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman. Note: This cynical comedy about doctoring too close to the pointless battles of the Korean War is much funnier than the long-running TV show that followed it.

Sept. 21-24, 1972:
"Citizen Kane" (1941): B&W. Directed by Orson Welles. Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore. Note: The meaning of a powerful, lonely man’s last word enlarges into a mystery. Flashbacks reveal a large life driven by lusts and obsessions. As American as it gets. 
"The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942): B&W. Directed by Orson Welles. Cast: Tim Holt, Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter. Note. This truncated-by-the studio version of what the indulgent director intended follows the meandering story of a prominent family's fortunes.  

Oct. 9-11, 1972:
“The Third Man” (1949): B&W. Directed by Carol Reed. Cast: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli. Note: This elegant film noir mystery, set in crumbling post-war Vienna, is pleasing to the eye and stylishly cynical. Hey, no heroes here, but great music. 
"Breathless" (1960): B&W. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg. Note: An opportunistic thief on the lam becomes irresistible to a pretty American journalism student in Paris. Uh-oh, the guy is dangerous. How long can living in the moment last?

Nov. 17-19, 1972:
“Duck Soup” (1933): B&W. Directed by Leo McCarey. Cast: The Four Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo), Margaret Dumont. Note: With Rufus T. Firefly as dictator of Freedonia and flush from a fat loan from Mrs. Teasdale, what could hilariously go wrong? How about war?
"Horse Feathers" (1932): B&W. Directed by Norman McLeod. Cast: The Four Marx Brothers, Thelma Todd. Note: The Biograph's secret password that opened doors was "swordfish." The scene that spawned that tradition is in this gag-filled send-up of on-campus life and football.

Dec. 7-10, 1972: 
“The Producers” (1968): Color. Directed by Mel Brooks. Cast: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, Dick Shawn. Note: Brooks’ first feature film laughed at Nazis with what was a fresh audacity. Mostel and Wilder are so funny it ought to be illegal.
“The Graduate (1967): Color. Directed by Mike Nichols. Cast: Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katherine Ross. Note: The mores of upper middle class life in the '60s are laid bare, as a recent college graduate's idleness leads to an affair with the beautiful, but wrong older woman.

Jan. 25-28, 1973:
"The Conformist" (1971): Color. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Gastone Moschin. Note: A visually stunning look at fascist Italy, with Mussolini in power and old class distinctions melting away. Betrayal is in the air.
 “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (1971): Color. Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Cast: Dominique Sanda, Lino Capolicchio, Fabio Testi. Note: With WWII approaching, why did wealthy, well educated Jews stay too long in Germany and Italy? This film provides some answers.
 
-- 30 --

Biograph Times: The First Year

http://slantblog.blogspot.com/2018/02/biograph-times-first-year.html

Note: This piece is being edited as you read this, 
so changes are happening every few minutes.

 *

The First Year: Over 200 Titles 

Note: The second of my three bosses, while I was manager of Richmond's Biograph Theatre, died on Tuesday. Lenny Poryles died at the age of 81 on Feb. 6, 2018, at his home in Arbonne-La-Forêt, France. In addition to being an insightful and reliable person to work with, Lenny was a warm and generous man. RIP, Lenny.

About six weeks before its Feb. 11, 1972, opening gala this wide-angle view of The Biograph was captured by a Richmond News Leader photographer. It was snapped late in 1971, a few days before the new building at 814 W. Grace St. received its distinctive bright yellow paint-job.

*

On what I remember as a bright morning, it was in early July of 1971, I went to a construction site on the north side of the 800 block of West Grace Street. Mostly, it was a big hole in the orange dirt between two old brick houses.

A friend had tipped me off that she’d heard the owners of the movie house set to rise from that hole were looking for a manager who knew something about movies and could write about them. She also said they were hoping to hire a local guy. Chasing the sparkle of that opportunity I met David Levy at the construction site.

Levy was the Harvard-trained attorney who managed the Biograph Theatre at 2819 M Street in Washington. D.C. He was one of a group of five men who, in 1967, had opened Georgetown’s Biograph in what had previously been a car dealership.

Although none of them had any experience in show biz, they were hip young movie lovers whose timing had been impeccable -- they caught a pop culture wave. The golden age of repertory cinema was waxing and those original partners happened to be living in what was the perfect town for their venture.

With their success in D.C. to encourage them, a few years later the same five, plus one, were looking to expand. In Richmond’s Fan District they thought they had discovered just the right neighborhood for a second repertory-style cinema, again using split weeks and double features. In this style of calendar house programming you usually adhere to a published schedule. So if a movie draws well, instead of holding it over you bring it back soon.

A pair of local players, energy magnate Morgan Massey and real estate deal-maker Graham “Squirrel” Pembroke, acquired the land. They agreed to build a cinder block building to house a cinema just a stone’s throw from Virginia Commonwealth University’s academic campus for the entrepreneurs from D.C. to rent.

At the time I was working for a radio station, WRNL, so I gave Levy tapes of some humorous radio commercials I had made for what had been successful promotions. About 10 weeks after that first meeting with Levy I was offered the manager’s position for the new Biograph.

Can't recall all that much about that day, except I was told I beat out a lot of competition. Oddly, what I do remember clearly is a brief flash of me sitting in my living room, trying to be nonchalant, so as to not to reveal just how thrilled I was at getting that offer. In truth, at 23-years-old, I could hardly imagine a better job for me existed, at least not in the Fan District. 

This all happened three years after Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia merged to become VCU in 1968. In the fall of 1971 there were few signs of the dramatic impact the new university would eventually have on Richmond. Although a handful of film societies were thriving on campus in that time, the school itself was offering little in the way of classes about movies or filmmaking.

There were VCU professors who occasionally showed artsy short films in their classes. Mostly, independent and foreign features didn’t come to Richmond. So, in 1971, the coming of the Biograph Theatre to Grace Street was great news to local film buffs -- even in conservative Richmond the times were indeed a-changing. Generally, it was seen as another sign the neighborhood's nightlife scene was becoming more attractive to the young adult market. 

Levy and I got along well right away. We became friends who trusted one another. He and his partners were all about 10 years my senior.

My manager’s job lasted until the summer of 1983. Grace Street’s Biograph Theatre closed four years later. A hundred miles to the north, the Biograph on M Street closed in 1996. David Levy died in 2004.

In 2018 there’s a noodles eatery in same building that once housed the long-lost repertory cinema I managed for 139 months. Now it’s the oldest building on the block.

*

On the evening of Friday, February 11, 1972, the adventure got off the ground with a gem of a party. In the lobby the dry champagne flowed steadily, as the tuxedo-wearers and colorfully outfitted hippies mingled happily. A trendy art show was hanging on the walls. The local press was all over what was an important event for that bohemian commercial strip.

The feature we presented to over 300 invited guests was a delightful French war-mocking comedy — “King of Hearts” (1966); Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates. With splashy news stories about the party trumpeting our arrival the next night we opened for business with a cool double feature: “King of Hearts“ was paired with “A Thousand Clowns“ (1965). Every show sold out.
Feb. 12-14: Double Feature:
“King of Hearts” (1966): Color. Directed by Philippe de Broca. Cast: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Pierre Brasseur. Note: The first movie to play at the Biograph was a zany French comedy, set amid the harsh but crazy realities of too much World War I.

“A Thousand Clowns” (1965): B&W. Directed by Fred Coe. Cast: Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam. Note: A social worker investigates the rules-bending circumstances in which a boy lives with his iconoclastic uncle, an unemployed writer.
The owning partners were all there at the first-ever Biograph party. Other than the projectionist, Howard Powers -- who was supplied by the operators union -- I had hired the theater's opening night's staff: The cashiers were Cathy Chapman and Susan Eskey. The ushers were Bernie Hall and Chuck Wrenn. A few weeks later Chuck was promoted to be assistant manager and Susan Kuney was hired as a third cashier. I think Joe Bumiller replaced Chuck as an usher.  

The Biograph’s printed schedule, Program No. 1 was heavy on documentaries. It featured the work of Emile de Antonio and D.A. Pennebaker, among others. Also on that program, which had no particular theme, were several titles by popular European directors, including Michaelangelo Antonioni, Costa-Gavras, Federico Fellini, and Roman Polanski.
Feb. 21-23: Double Feature:
“Z”  (1969): Color. Directed by Costa-Gavras. Cast: Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Irene Papas. Note: A political assassination’s cover-up in Greece spawns a compelling based-on-truth whodunit, with sudden plot twists, all told at a furious pace.

"The Battle of Algiers" (1966): B&W. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Note: This account of the cruel tactics employed by both warring sides during the Algerian revolution is part documentary, part staged a suspenseful recreation. Unforgettable. It will tattoo your mind.
Like the first one, which offered mostly double features, each of the next few programs covered about six weeks. At this point Alan Rubin, who worked in the Georgetown office, did all the mechanical art for those programs, as he had been doing for the D.C. Biograph. 

Baby boomers who had grown up watching old movies on television had learned to worship important movie directors. Knowing film was cool; it could get you laid. The fashion of the day elevated certain foreign movies, selected American classics, a few films from the underground scene, etc., to a level above most of their more accessible Hollywood counterparts.
Mar. 17-20: Double Feature:  
“Gimme Shelter” (1970): Color. Directed by Albert Maysles and David Maysles.  Performers: The Rolling Stones, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Tina Turner and more. Note: A documentary with much concert footage and one murder.

“T.A.M.I. Show” (1964): B&W. Directed by Steve Binder. Performers: the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Lesley Gore and more appear in concert footage. 
In reading everything I could find about what films were respected and popular, especially in New York and San Francisco, it was easy to gather that the in-crowd viewed most of Hollywood’s then-current products as either laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupt. Or both. Coolest of all foreign films were those considered to be part of the French New Wave, which began in the late 1950s with the early features made by Louis Malle, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

What my time on the job would eventually teach me was how few people in Richmond wanted to see the best imported films in 1972. After the opening flurry of interest in the new movie theater, with long lines to nearly every show, it was surprising to me when the crowds shrank dramatically in the months that followed. 
Apr. 12-13: Double Feature:
"Bell Du Jour" (1967): Color. Director: Luis Buñuel. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli. Note: Beautiful Severine loves her successful husband. With him she’s frigid. Her kinky fantasies lead her to the oldest profession … only by day.

"A Man and a Woman" (1966): Color. Director: Claude Lelouche. Cast: Anouk Aimée, Jean-Louis Trintignan. Note:

As VCU students had been a substantial portion of the theater’s initial crowd the slump was chalked off to warm weather, exams and then summer vacation. In that context the first summer of operation was opened to experimentation aimed at drawing more customers from beyond the immediate neighborhood. That gave me an opportunity to do more with a project my bosses had put me in charge of developing, using radio to promote it -- Friday and Saturday midnight shows.
June 1-7: Double Feature:
“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1969): Color. Directed by Robert Altman. Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie. Note: With Altman, gambling, prostitution and power struggles in the Old West take on a different sort of look. More grit. Less glory. All random.

"Klute" (1971): Color. Directed by . Cast: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Roy Scheider. 
By trial and error I learned that offbeat movies that lent themselves to promotion performed better at the box office. Early midnight show successes were “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (1971), and an underground twin bill of “Chafed Elbows” (1967) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964). Most of the failures have been forgotten.

With significant input from the theater’s assistant manager, Chuck Wrenn, who was a natural promoter, quirky non-traditional ad campaigns were designed in-house. There were two essential elements to those midnight show promotions:

1. Wacky radio spots had to be created and run on WGOE, a popular AM station aimed directly at the hippie listening audience.

2. Distinctive handbills needed to be posted on utility poles, bulletin boards and in shop windows in high-traffic locations. 

Dave DeWitt produced the radio commercials. We happily shared the copy-writing chore. In his studio, Dave and I frequently collaborated on the making of those spots with a steady supply of cold Pabst Blue Ribbons and whatnot. Most of the time we went for levity, even cheap laughs. Dave had a classic announcer's voice and he was quite masterful at physically crafting radio commercials. He was more of a nitpicker for perfection than I was, so we made a good team. 

Now DeWitt lives in New Mexico and is known as the Pope of Peppers. He has written dozens of cookbooks and countless articles about food.

June 29-July 2: Double Feature:
"Dr. Strangelove..." (1964): B&W. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens. Note: Surprisingly, this outrageous, nuke-mocking black comedy worked like a charm at the height of the Cold War.

 “M.A.S.H.” (1970): Color. Directed by Robert Altman. Cast: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman. Note: This cynical comedy about doctoring in the field, near the pointless battles of the Korean War, is funnier than the television show that followed it.

On September 13, 1972, a George McGovern-for-president benefit was staged at the Biograph. Former Gov. Doug Wilder, then a state senator, spoke. We showed "Millhouse" (1971), a documentary that put President Richard Nixon in a bad light.

Yes, I was warned that taking sides in politics was dead wrong for a show business entity in Richmond. Taking the liberal side only made it worse. But the two most active partners who were my bosses, Levy and Rubin, who was a geologist turned artist, were delighted with the notion of doing the benefit. They were used to doing much the same up there. So with the full backing of the boys in D.C. I never hesitated to reveal my left-leaning stances on anything political. 

Also in September “Performance” (1970), a somewhat overwrought but well-crafted musical melodrama -- starring Mick Jagger -- packed the house at midnight three weekends in a row. Then a campy, docu-drama called “Reefer Madness” (1936) sold out four consecutive weekends.

The midnight shows were going over like gangbusters. To follow “Reefer Madness” what was then a little-known X-rated comedy, “Deep Throat” (1972), was booked as a midnight show. By then the Georgetown Biograph was experimenting with playing naughty midnight shows. While in Richmond we had played a handful of films that had earned or perhaps deserved an X-rating, they had been more artsy than they were vulgar. This was our first step across the line to hardcore porn.

*

As “Deep Throat” ran only an hour, master prankster Luis Buñuel’s surrealistic classic short film (16 minutes), “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), was added to the bill, just for grins. It should be noted that like "Deep Throat," Buñuel’s first film, was also called totally obscene in its day. Still, this may have been the only time that particular pair of outlaw flicks ever shared a billing ... anywhere.

A few weeks after “Deep Throat” began playing in Richmond, a judge in Manhattan ruled it was obscene. Suddenly the national media became fascinated with it. The star of "Deep Throat," Linda Lovelace, appeared on network TV talk shows. Watching Johnny Carson pussyfoot around the premise of her celebrated “talent” made for some giggly moments.

Eventually, to be sure of getting in to see this midnight show, patrons began showing up as much as an hour before show time. Standing in line on the brick sidewalk for the spicy midnight show frequently turned into a party. There were nights the line resembled a tailgating scene at a pro football game. A determined band of Jesus Freaks took to standing across the street to issue bullhorn-amplified warnings of hellfire to the patrons waiting in the midnight show line that stretched west on Grace Street. It only added to the scene.

Playing for 17 consecutive weekends, at midnight only, “Deep Throat” grossed over $30,000. That was more dough than the entire production budget of what was America’s first skin-flick blockbuster.

The midnight show’s grosses conveniently made up for the disappointing performance of an eight-week program of venerable European classics at regular hours. It included ten titles by the celebrated Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. The same package of art house workhorses played extremely well up in Georgetown, underlining what was becoming a painfully underestimated contrast in the two markets.

On the theater's first anniversary I made a list of all the titles we had presented. A few noteworthy shorts films were on the list, such as Chris Marker's "La Jetée" (1962), but I omitted most shorts. The list, which I had printed as a flyer to hand out, was over 200 titles long.

In 52 weeks, to establish what we were, the Biograph had presented over 200 different films, some in a couple of runs. Split weeks with doubles features, plus midnight shows, chewed up a lot of product. By the end of the first year Levy, Rubin and I knew we needed to make some changes in our programming.

The Fan District was not becoming Georgetown and in spite of what some folks were predicting, maybe it never would. To be successful in Richmond we realized we had to do more to cultivate the audience here to appreciate the sort of films we loved and most wanted to present. And, in the meantime, we had to figure out how to stop losing money at an alarming rate.

To start, maybe fewer old Bergman flicks.  

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