Sunday, February 11, 2018

Biograph Times: Chapter One: The First Year

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.
 
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