Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Pranks for the Memories

My first good look at what was to become Richmond's version of a repertory cinema, the Biograph Theatre, was in July of 1971. At that point it was a few cinderblocks in a hole in the ground. Having gotten a tip the DeeCee owners were considering hiring a local manager, I went to the construction site chasing the opportunity.

A couple of months later I was offered what seemed then to be the best job in the Fan District. The adventure that followed went far beyond any expectations I might have had, at age 23, about becoming the manager of the Biograph Theatre.

On the evening of February 11, 1972, the new venture at 814 West Grace Street was launched with a gem of a party. The local press was all over it. The first feature presented was a delightful French war-mocking comedy -- “King of Hearts” (1966). On Richmond’s newest silver screen, Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates. In the lobby, as flashbulbs popped the dry champagne flowed steadily.

During the ‘60s, college film societies thrived. Knowing film was cool; it could get you laid. By the ‘70s, many of the kids who had grown up on television worshiped classic movies, some had become connoisseurs of the moving image. Popular culture, in general, was becoming a subject for serious study on campus for the first time.

So it was the fashion of the day elevated many foreign movies, certain American classics, and selected underground films above their more accessible, current-release, Hollywood counterparts. In that pre-cable TV age, much of the mainstream domestic product was viewed by the film buff in-crowd as laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupt.

Although none of them had any prior experience in Show Biz a group of five men, then in their mid-30s, opened Georgetown’s Biograph Theatre (1967-96) in 1967. They were trendy, smart guys and at least one of them knew a lot about foreign films and film history. They caught a wave. A few years later those same young owners were successful, confident and looking to expand. In Richmond’s Fan District they thought they had found a perfect situation for a second repertory-style cinema, another Biograph.

Local players, filthy rich Morgan Massey and deal-maker Graham “Squirrel” Pembrooke, built the Biograph building from scratch for the Georgetown group. Significantly, Pembroke managed to get a 20-year lease for $3,000-a-month rent guaranteed by a federal program for at-risk neighborhoods, in case the edgy concept didn’t fly and the operators went belly up. Thus, when the Biograph closed in 1987 the building’s owners were then able to collect the rent from Uncle Sam until 1992.

Knowing they could walk away easily, if the business fizzled, the Biograph’s creators -- chiefly David Levy (who later owned The Key on Wisconsin in Georgetown) and Alan Rubin -- inked the deal and borrowed money to buy a load of very used seats and projection booth equipment, which included ancient Peerless carbon arc lamps to back up a pair of rugged Simplex 35 mm projectors.

Biograph programs, printed schedules with film notes, covered about six weeks each. Double features were the staple. Program No. 1 was heavy on documentaries, featuring the work of de Antonio and Pennebaker, among others. Also on that program were several films by revered European directors, including Antonioni, Costa-Gavras, Fellini, and Polanski.

After the opening flurry, with long lines to every show, it was somewhat surprising and disappointing when the crowds shrank dramatically in the third and fourth months of operation. As VCU students were a substantial portion of theater’s initial crowd, the slump was chalked off to exams and summer vacation.

In that context, the first summer of operation was opened to experimentation aimed at drawing customers from beyond the borders of the immediate neighborhood. The brightest light in the mix of celluloid offerings was just such an experiment that caught on -- Friday and Saturday midnight shows.

By trial and error, the way of drawing a late crowd was gleaned from experience. Most importantly, we learned it took an offbeat movie that lent itself to promotion; early 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).

With significant input from the theater’s promotion-savvy assistant manager, local Hall-of-Fame bartender and Rock ‘n’ Roll promoter, Chuck Wrenn, off-the-wall ad campaigns were designed in-house to set the tone for the somewhat anti-establishment movies that seemed to work best. There were two essential elements to those promotions -- wacky radio spots on WGOE, a popular AM station aimed directly at the hippie listening audience, and distinctive handbills posted in strategic locations. Dave DeWitt, now the widely read guru of hot food, produced the radio commercials, many of which were rather humorous in their day.

In the September “Performance” (1970), an overwrought but well-crafted musical melodrama -- starring Mick Jagger -- packed the place a couple of weekends in a row. Then a campy, docu-drama called “Reefer Madness” (1936) sold out four consecutive weekends. Sometimes nearly as many people were turned away as could be seated.

*

To follow “Reefer Madness” what was then a little-known X-rated comedy, “Deep Throat” (1972), was booked. As the feature ran only an hour, master prankster Luis Bunuel's surrealistic classic “An Andalusian Dog” (1929) was added to the bill, just for grins. (If anybody else ever ran that double feature, well, I didn't hear about it.)

A couple of weeks after “Deep Throat” began playing in Richmond it got busted in Manhattan. The national media became fascinated with the film. Its star, Linda Lovelace, actually appeared on network TV talk shows. Watching Johnny Carson tiptoe around the premise of her celebrated “talent” made for some giggly early-‘70s television.

To be sure of getting in to see the show, patrons began showing up an hour early. Standing in line on the sidewalk for the Biograph’s midnight show became a party as some brought libation to liven up the wait. There were nights the line resembled a tailgating scene at a pro football game. A band of Jesus Freaks frequently stood across the street issuing bullhorn-amplified warnings to the drinking, eating, smoking folks in line.

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

Its grosses conveniently made up for the disappointing box office generated by an eight-week package of venerable European classics, including ten titles by the celebrated Ingmar Bergman. The same package of art house workhorses -- we bicycled prints back and forth -- played extremely well at the Biograph in Georgetown, underlining what was becoming a painfully underestimated contrast between the two markets.

Then, even more telling, over the spring a series of imported first-run movies crashed and burned. The centerpiece of the festival was the premiere of the popular Bunuel masterpiece “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972). In what we regarded as a coup, gambling it would win the award, we booked it in advance to open in Richmond two days after the 1973 Oscars were to be handed out.

We guessed right, it took the Oscar in for Best Foreign Film, but it flopped in Richmond anyway.

Management was more than bummed out, we were shocked. Money had been put up in advance to secure a print, which was in demand because it was doing brisk business in many cities. The failure of this particular festival forced a serious reassessment of what had been the original plan.

To stay alive the Biograph needed to make adjustments.

*

After much fretting on the phone line between “M” Street and Grace Street the Faustian deal was struck -- another film from Throat’s director, Gerard Damiano, was booked. However, this time the film’s distributor imposed terms that called for “The Devil in Miss Jones” (1973) to play as a first-run picture at regular show times, rather than as a midnight-only attraction.

At this point no one could have anticipated what we were setting in motion by agreeing to expand the availability of “adult movies” beyond a midnight audience. For the first time, the promotional copy for an XXX-rated feature was included on a Biograph program and in newspaper ads.

The circus began when an aggressive young TV newsman took Biograph Program No. 12 to the City’s new Commonwealth’s Attorney, Aubrey Davis. The reporter asked Davis what his office was going to do about the Biograph’s brazen plan to run such a notorious film, especially in light of the then-freshly-minted “Miller Decision” on obscenity by the Supreme Court.

Eventually, the provocateur got what he wanted from the newly appointed prosecutor -- a quote that would fly as an anti-smut soundbite. The other local broadcasters jumped on the bandwagon the next day. By the lazy mid-summer evening “The Devil in Miss Jones” opened it had already become a well-covered local story.

Every show sold out and a wild ride had begun.

Matinees were added the next day. On the third day all the matinees sold out, too. The WRVA-AM traffic-copter hovered over the Biograph in drive time, giving live updates on the length of the line waiting to get into the theater. The airborne announcer helpfully reminded his listeners of the remaining show times for that night.

Well, that did it: The following morning a local circuit court judge asked for a personal look at what was clearly the talk-of-the-town.

Management cooperated with his honor's wishes and schlepped the print down to Neighborhood Theaters’ Downtown private screening room, so he could avoid being seen entering the Biograph in its bohemian neighborhood.

As Judge James M. Lumpkin admittedly hadn’t been out to see a movie in a theater since the 1950s, this goofy/sleazy stag film rubbed him in the worst way. Red-faced after the screening, the judge looked at David Levy and me like we were from Mars, maybe Pluto.

Lumpkin promptly filed a complaint to the Commonwealth's Attorney and issued a Temporary Restraining Order, himself, in an attempt to halt further showings. The next day a press conference was staged in the theater’s lobby to make an announcement.

Every news-gathering outfit in town bought the premise and sent a representative. They acted as if what was obviously a publicity stunt was actually 24-carat news, because it served their purpose to play along. Yes, I went to school on that. After Dave DeWitt -- who represented the theater as its ad agent -- introduced yours truly to the working press, a prepared statement was read for the cameras and microphones. The gist of it was that based on the demand, the crusading Biograph would fight the TRO in court and ‘The Devil in Miss Jones” was being held over for a second week.

During the lively Q & A session that followed, when Dave scolded an eager scribe for going too far with a follow-up question, it was tough to hold back the laughing fit that would have surely broken the spell.

The Devil's spectacular run ended at nine days. It grossed $40,000. Technically, the legal action was against the movie, itself, rather than anyone at the Biograph. The trial opened on Halloween day. Judge Lumpkin, whose original complaint to the Commonwealth’s Attorney had set the process in motion, served as the trial judge, too.

Objections to that quizzical affront to justice fell on the determined Judge Lumpkin’s stone cold deaf ears. On November 13, 1973, Lumpkin put all on notice: If you dare to exhibit this “filth” to the public, then stand by for certain criminal prosecution. Effectively, “The Devil” was banned in Richmond.

*

The plot was hatched in early January 1974. It was after-hours in the Biograph's office, next to the projection booth on the second story. Having finished the box-office paperwork, your narrator was browsing through a stack of newly acquired 16mm film catalogues, and probably enjoying a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon. The scent of recently-burned marijuana may have been in the air.

A particular entry -- ‘The Devil and Miss Jones” -- jumped off the page. Instantly, it was obvious that the title for that 1941 RKO light comedy had been the inspiration for the X-rated movie’s title. It should be noted that the public had yet to be subjected to the endless puns and referential lowbrowisms the skinflick industry would later use for titles. This was still in what might be called the seminal days of the adult picture business.

The plan called for using the upcoming second anniversary as camouflage. Wise guy DeWitt and the theater’s resourceful assistant manager, Bernie Hall, were in on the early scheming. Then, in a deft stroke -- suggested by owner Alan Rubin -- a Disney nature short subject, “Beaver Valley” (1950), was added to the bill.

Obviously, the stunt’s biggest problem was security. The whole scheme rested on the precarious notion that the one-word difference in the titles wouldn’t be noticed. The conspirators, who by this time included the entire staff, all accepted that the slightest whiff of a ruse could be our undoing. Thus, absolutely no one could be told anything.

The theater announced in a press release that its second anniversary birthday party would offer a free admission show. The provocative two titles were listed matter-of-factly; free beer and birthday cake would be available as long as they lasted. Somehow, a rumor began to circulate that the Biograph might be out-maneuvering the grasp of the court’s decree by not charging admission.

The rumor found its way into legit print. That was sweet.

The busy staff fielded all inquires, in person or over the telephone, by politely stating, “We can only tell you the titles and the show times. Yes, the admission will be free. No further details are available.”

The evening before the event the phones rang off the hook. Reporters were snooping about, asking questions. Yet, up until the last minute no one outside our tight circle appeared to catch on to what we were actually up to. Amazing as it may sound, the caper’s security was airtight.

It was, in truth, absolutely beautiful teamwork.

The line began forming before lunch. As the afternoon wore on and the thousands lined up, it was suggested more than once that we could eventually have a riot on our hands. What would happen? Nobody knew. The box-office for the 6:30 p.m. show opened at 6 p.m. By then the line stretched more than three-quarters around the block. It took a full half-hour to fill our 500-seat auditorium. We turned away at least six or seven times that number.

The sense of anticipation in the air was electric. Once the cat sprang from the bag ... well, actually it was a beaver, then some otters, some in that night’s crowd said they thought it was a wonderful occasion. Still, right away about a third of them left to go to a bar. The rest stayed on through the short.

Maybe about a third of the house stayed all the way through the feature. There were several people who said it was the funniest thing that had ever happened in Richmond. Of course, a few got angry. But since everything was free there was only so much they could say.

Meanwhile, a thoroughly amused press corps was filing its reports on the hoax. The wire services promptly picked up the story, as did the broadcast networks. The rush that came from living in the eye of that day’s storm was exhilarating, to say the least. Gloating over the utter success of the gag, as the staff and assorted friends finished off the second keg, was as good as it gets in the prank business.

*

The next day CBS News ran a story on the stunt. NPR’s All Things Considered went so far as to compare the Biograph's wee prank to Orson Welles’ mammoth 1938 radio hoax. Also the next day, the Biograph returned to business as usual with an Andy Warhol double feature.

The staff went back to work on “Matinee Madcap,” a 16mm film project in production. VCU film professor Trent Nicholas, then one of the theater’s ushers and later an assistant manager, shared the directing credit with me. The rest of the staff and many friends of the Biograph appeared as players. The plot, calling for a good deal of slapstick chase-scene footage, set the action in the movie theater, itself.

Although post-prank life seemed to fall back into a familiar routine, big changes were on the horizon. With Watergate revelations in the air and the Vietnam War ending, the intense interest in politics and social causes on American campuses began to evaporate. In 1974 “streaking” replaced anti-war demonstrations as the students’ favorite expression of defiance.

Six months after the theater’s second anniversary splash, the same month that President Nixon resigned, the Biograph closed down for a month to be converted into a twin cinema.

Automating the change-overs from one 35mm projector to the other was essential to controlling costs. Among other things that meant xenon lamps, high intensity bulbs that could be ignited by switches, had to replace our out-of-date, manually operated carbon arc system.

On the day the exchange was made I got to see the same scene with the two light sources. The light from two burning carbon rods was white and gave the picture depth and sparkle. Xenon light was slightly yellow and flat.

The manager’s job at the Biograph became more complicated with two screens to fill with flickering light. The theater’s mission became steadily less clear. After the summer of 1974, every aspect of what had seemed to be life’s absolutes became steadily less clear for the dreamer who thought he had the best job in the Fan.

-- 30 --

-- Word and photos by F.T. Rea

3 comments:

Kevin said...

That was an awesome read...

Bruce said...

Man, it was stunts like that and people like those at the Biograph that made Richmond such a fun place to be in those days. As a young VCU student, I still remember "Devil in Miss Jones" as my first adult movie...and the only one I ever took a date to.

Paul H said...

Anybody want to throw in with me on an oldtime movie house near downtown?

Cartoon, westerns, MGM lions and stuff like that? Throw in a bunch of classics, silent movies and "Our Gang" reruns?