Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Biograph Theatre 40th Anniversary

 With the Biograph Theatre's 40th anniversary coming up on Feb. 11, 2012, there's a party brewing. Meanwhile, what follows are excerpts of Biograph Times

My first good look at what was to become the Biograph Theatre was in July of 1971. Having gotten a tip from a friend that the DeeCee-based owners were considering the hiring of a local manager, I went to the construction site chasing the opportunity.

That day I met David Levy, one of six men who owned the repertory cinema operation that would be housed in the cinderblock building going up at 814 West Grace Street. Of the six, Levy would prove to have the deepest knowledge of film history, as well as the most hands-on knowledge of how to run a movie theater. At 33, Levy, a Harvard trained lawyer, was 10 years my senior.

A couple of months later I was offered what I saw as the best job in my neighborhood, the Fan District. The adventure that followed surely went beyond any expectations I might have had about becoming the manager of the Biograph Theatre.

On the evening of February 11, 1972, the venture was launched with a gem of a party. The feature presented that evening was a delightful French war-mocking comedy — “King of Hearts” (1966); Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates.

In the lobby, with its cinemascopic view of Grace Street through a glass front, the dry champagne flowed steadily. A trendy art show was hanging on the lobby walls. Hundreds of equally trendy invited guests were there. The local press was all over what was an important event for that bohemian commercial strip, just a stone's throw from the Virginia Commonwealth University campus.

During the 1960s, college film societies thrived. Knowing film was cool; it could get you laid. By the 1970s, many of the kids who had grown up watching old movies on television had learned to worship important movie directors.

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. Mixed and matched in double features and packaged into little festivals, such was at the heart of a repertory cinema’s style. In that pre-cable TV age, much of the current-release domestic product was viewed by the film aficionado in-crowd as laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupt.

Once I began to understand more fully what an opportunity my job offered, I wanted the Biograph Theatre to be a place both detached from its surroundings and a good neighbor; like nothing else in Richmond, but a part of the Fan District’s bohemian milieu.

The Biograph’s programs, printed schedules with film notes, covered about six weeks each. Program No. 1 was heavy on documentaries, featuring the work of Emile de Antonio and D.A. Pennebaker, among others. Also on that program were several titles by popular European directors, including Michaelangelo Antonioni, Costa-Gavras, Federico Fellini, and Roman Polanski.

Although most of what we did at the Biograph was standard practice in that era for art houses/repertory cinemas, we were somewhat of a trend-setter with regard to the development of midnight shows. While most of the basic style for what sort of product to exhibit within a repertory format had been set in the ‘60s, at 814 W. Grace St. we managed to get in on the midnight show phenomenon early enough to have played a small role in shaping America’s love affair with midnight shows in the ’70s.

Of course, late screenings were nothing new when the Biograph opened in February of 1972, and the term “midnight show” had been around forever. Still, the midnight show formula for how to do it consistently had not been established. Something as simple as playing the same program on both Friday and Saturday nights, only at midnight, was still not set in stone.

About two months after we opened, an underground twin bill of “Chafed Elbows” (1966) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964) was the first special late show we presented; I think it started at 11:30 p.m. Moving such presentations to midnight soon proved better, and over our initial year of operation we came to understand the sort of pictures that would work best in that limited role and how to promote them.

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 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 like the Biograph. “Mondo Cane” (1962), “Blood Feast” (1963) and “2,000 Maniacs” (1964) all played as Biograph midnight shows.

By the time we booked “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to play, 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 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 popped up in every neighborhood.

Sometimes, a successful midnight show run came along in the nick of time to pay the rent for the Biograph Theatre.

Starting with the second anniversary, the Biograph Theatre’s birthdays always meant a party. Some of the celebrations were promoted and open to the public, others were small affairs for the staff and friends. Former staff members were always encouraged to attend, so the parties served as reunions, too.

Six months after the theater’s second anniversary splash, with its infamous “Devil” prank, the same month that Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, the Biograph closed down for a month to be converted into a twin cinema. With construction workers toiling 24 hours a day that accomplishment remains a story of extremes, to itself.

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 Peerless carbon arc lamps.

On the day the exchange was made I got to see the same scene projected onto the screen with the two light sources. The light from the old system, which used two burning carbon rods, was whiter and gave the picture more depth and sparkle. The Xenon light was slightly yellow and had a flattening effect on the image.

As the edgy punk style began replacing the hippie culture that had ruled the Grace Street strip for the better part of a decade, none of us who were working at the Biograph Theatre had an inkling that the zenith of the repertory cinema era, nationally, was in the rear-view mirror.

There were a lot of crazy things that happened in the years of babysitting “Rocky Horror.“ Among them was the Saturday night we threw out the entire full house, because so many people had gone wild; bare-chested rednecks were hosing the crowd down with our fire extinguishers. Fights were underway when we shut down the projector and the movie slowly ground to a halt. Everybody got their money back.

Interestingly, after that melodramatic stunt, we never had much trouble with violence to do with “Rocky Horror” again.

However, there was no stranger night than when about six weeks into the run, a man in his 30s breathed his last, as he sat in the small auditorium watching “F.I.S.T.” Yes, that Sylvester Stallone vehicle was particularly lame, but who knew it was potentially lethal?

The dead man’s face was expressionless … he just expired.

When the rescue squad guys got there they jerked him out of his chair and onto the floor. As jolts of electricity were shot through the dead man’s body, down in Theater No. 1 “Rocky Horror“ was on the Biograph’s larger screen delighting a packed house.

The audience had no idea of what was going on elsewhere in the building. A couple of times, I walked back and forth between the two scenes, feeling the bizarre juxtaposition.

Learning just how much to allow the performers to do, what limits were practical or necessary, came with experience. John Porter’s leadership of the regulars was a key to keeping it fun, but not out of control. For his part John, a VCU theater major, was given a lifetime pass to the Biograph.

On Friday, March 1, 1980, with its 88th consecutive week, “Rocky Horror” established a new record for longevity in Richmond. It broke the record of 87 weeks, established by “The Sound of Music” at the Willow Lawn in the 1960s.

That night, with Porter’s help in front of the full house, I smashed a “Sound of Music” soundtrack album with a hammer, which went over quite well with the folks on hand. A couple of the regulars came dressed as Julie Andrews, in a nice touch to underline the special night‘s theme.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s sweetheart of a movie critic, Carole Kass, wrote a nice piece on the shenanigans. She was always a big help.

On Friday, February 12, 1982, the Biograph celebrated its 10th anniversary with a party that surrounded the Richmond premiere of “My Dinner With Andre.” It was especially fitting, because the artsy film had been shot for the most part in Richmond.

To prepare for the occasion we did some touch-up work on the big collage in the hallway to Theatre No. 1 and the entire lobby got a new paint job. To make the party more fun we brought in the caterer who had prepared the dinner for the characters featured in the film, Chris Gibbs, to serve our $25-per-head guests exactly the same dish. The whole shebang was a benefit for VCU’s Anderson Gallery.

Each day of the shooting of the Louis Malle movie in the old Jefferson Hotel -- it was closed at the time, soon to be renovated -- Gibbs had shown up with a platter full of Cornish game hens and bowls of wild rice, etc. That's what the actors, Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory, had for dinner in the movie’s imaginary restaurant, supposedly in New York City.

About a year-and-a-half before the Biograph’s movie premiere party had been imagined, I had gone with Gibbs to the set, to see how it all looked. For each scene, the production crew had to pick apart the fresh sets of meals to make them look eaten/aged to the point that they fit the timing in the story.

Now, 40 years later, my hope is for these excerpts of the Biograph’s history will pass along some sense of what we who worked there meant, when we referred to the “Spirit of the Biograph.” In short, that spirit could be found in the voice of the theater’s better angels.

Although this telling of the Biograph’s story has been through my eyes, the contributions of its staff were always a considerable part of why that cinema -- with the worst seats in town -- had such a loyal following. The guys who had my back, the dutiful and underpaid assistant managers -- Chuck Wrenn, Bernie Hall, Trent Nicholas and Mike Jones -- kept that theater on the road more than a few times, when I was asleep at the wheel. My stint as manager ended in June 0f 1983.

By the time the Biograph's pair of screens went dark, many art houses and revival cinemas not unlike it had already closed all over the country. Behind on the rent, Richmond’s Biograph was seized by its landlord and closed forever in December, 1987. That was two months shy of its 16th anniversary.

Over the first year of operation we screened over 200 different features for our patrons. In all, I don’t know how many films were thrown onto the Biograph’s screens in its 190 months of existence as a repertory cinema. What I do know is that the advice of those better angels, just mentioned, made a noticeable difference in Richmond, Virginia ... in Biograph Times.

To see information about the Biograph's 40th anniversary celebration on February 11, 2012 click here.

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