Saturday, June 09, 2012

Banjo Conmen

Upon hearing the news of Earl Scruggs’ death earlier this year (Mar. 28, 2012), my thoughts went straight to a 36-year-old memory connected to a movie that played for two weeks at the Biograph Theatre (which I managed at the time) in January of 1976. The film was “Banjoman” (1975).

As “Banjoman” had only been in release for a couple of months when it played at the Biograph, the two young independent producers/distributors of the movie starring Earl Scruggs said they were learning their business on the fly. When their 105-minute movie opened at the Biograph they were there, too ... they had brought the 35mm print with them. It was their monster-sized sound system that we used to present the film to our patrons.

Richard Gilbert Abramson and Michael Varhol are credited as the production’s directors. Although I’m not certain, I think they were the two guys I dealt with in the story that follows.

The filmmakers were my age (I was 28 at this time). And, I almost think there was a third guy, but I’m not sure. My bosses in DeeCee had booked the film sometime after meeting one (or more) of the filmmakers in a social situation; I don‘t remember the details.

Traditional distributors, like Paramount, Warner Bros., and so forth, generally shipped the prints of their films by way of a courier accustomed to handling them. Although it was unusual for people to travel with a print of a movie in the trunk of their car, it was not unprecedented. As an independent exhibitor the Biograph booked product from various sources that a large movie chain would have routinely ignored.

“Banjoman” was just such a situation and its distributors actually hung around at the theater during screenings. They seemed like nice enough guys.    

It was unusual when my bosses had me pay the distributors directly in cash from box office receipts. But I didn’t question it. We even advanced them some money against anticipated receipts, when they had to leave after the first week to work in another city. 

Since they didn’t have much in the way of pressbook materials, ad slicks, etc., I created the Biograph’s display advertisements for the newspaper using stills from the film I had half-toned and setting a little type. That led to me agreeing to create similar materials for them to use in other cities. We agreed upon my price. It was something like $250, plus what it cost me to produce a stack of different sized ad slicks for them to use in the future.

At that point I think they had two other prints of their movie (with sound systems) working on the road. We kept in touch by telephone. They were anxious to get their new promotional materials from me for their other playdates. I did a rush job for them which they said they greatly appreciated.

Then came the day to ship their print and sound system to them in another city. The run at the Biograph was over. When the truck driver came by the theater he told me his helper wasn’t with him, so he said I needed to put the equipment on his truck. Well, at the time, I was the only one in the building and I was nursing a slipped disc in my lower back.

Unless I wanted to be laid-up for a spell, I couldn’t lift the stuff.

When the driver asked me how long it would take to get somebody there, to do the lifting, it annoyed me. I told the driver it was his job to get that junk on the truck, just to come back the next day with a helper. Yet, as I spoke with him I suddenly had a hunch that something was wrong. 

The truck driver shrugged and said, OK, he’d come back tomorrow. When I told one of the “Banjoman” guys what had happened, he said there was still plenty of time to get the equipment set up for the next engagement. So shipping it out the next day would be fine. Later that day the mailman delivered a bank notice that a $200 check they had written to me had bounced.

At this point, in addition to that check, they owed me another $600, or so, most of which I owed to a printer. And, they owed the Biograph maybe another $300, because in the second week of their film’s run it didn’t live up to expectations, so it failed to cover the advance in rental they had received.

By coincidence, I talked with my friend Dave DeWitt right after I got the rubber check in the mail. Dave had moved from Richmond to Albuquerque about a year earlier. At this time he was hosting a late night movie program on television there. When I told him about the check and about my hunch not to ship the equipment, he said he’d heard about the guys who had produced "Banjoman."

Dave told me he wanted to do a little checking up on them; he called back soon to tell me the jokers I’d been dealing with had left a trail of angry people behind them out in the West, back when they were shooting concert footage of Scruggs' tour. It seemed they had found ways to do a lot of things without paying up front. They had also ripped off a movie theater that had played "Banjoman," just a month before.

After that unsettling news I told the guys who had been conning me that until they settled up, I was keeping their sound equipment and print of "Banjoman." They threatened me with legal action. After a couple of months with no word from them I sold off their sound equipment, it was the sort of stuff a band might use.

Then some time later, maybe another couple of months, I was indeed served with legal papers. They sued me for about $90,000. Don't remember how that figure was generated. I laughed and offered them their print and about $800, which was what the equipment brought in, minus what they had owed the boys in DeeCee and me.

Over the telephone line the Banjo Conmen huffed and puffed again. I went ahead and sent them their print right away, cash on delivery, of course. After a few weeks of silence, they agreed to take the $800. My guess is most of that dough went to their local attorney. 

Ever since this oddball episode, whenever I hear Earl Scruggs’ banjo, I can't help but think of the weaselly Banjo Conmen; maybe after writing this account of their skulduggery that particular haunt will fade into the mists. RIP, Earl.      

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