Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Flashback: Thanks, Aimee

Note: This piece was first published 14 years ago by (Feb. 16, 2000).  


Anniversaries are knives that can cut both ways. Although we may raise the glass to remember certain events, sometimes we end up drinking to forget. Since I tend to dwell on the calendar more than I should, last Friday afternoon I was in a somber mood.

Then, shortly after 4 p.m., I received an e-mail from a friend who lives in D.C. Until then, I hadn't realized that I had been fretting all day over the notion that I was alone in remembering that it was the Biograph Theatre's 28th anniversary. Upon looking at the e-mail, I smiled.

On Feb.11, 1972, the Biograph Theatre at 814 W. Grace St. was set in motion by a gem of a party. The first feature presentation was a French war-mocking comedy, "King of Hearts" (1966). On the screen, Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates. In the lobby, the Fan District's version of the beautiful people were assembled. The champagne flowed and the flashbulbs popped.

As the new cinema house's first manager, at 24, this yarn's recounter was convinced he had the best job in town.

Repertory movie theaters such as the Biograph became popular in large cities and college towns in the late '60s and early '70s. The fashion of the era, driven by a film-buff in-crowd, elevated many foreign movies, certain American classics, and selected underground films above their current-release Hollywood counterparts. A repertory cinema's regulars viewed most of the product coming out of Hollywood then as naïve or corrupt.

For me, the gig lasted nearly 12 years, including five years of Rocky Horror midnight shows. Four years after my departure, seven years after the arrival of cable TV in Richmond, the Biograph's screen went dark in December '87. Times had changed and the theater could no longer pay its way.

But in that little independent cinema's heyday, Feb. 11 meant something to those familiar with the nightlife in the VCU area. The Biograph's second anniversary was the party that established the occasion of the theater's birthday as a date to mark on the calendar. That was the year of The Devil Prank.

Following a circuit court judge's well-publicized banning of a skin flick, "The Devil in Miss Jones" (1973), we booked an old RKO light comedy with a similar title - "The Devil and Miss Jones" (1941) for a one-day event.

A press release announced that the theater was throwing a party to celebrate the anniversary of its opening day, admission would be free, and the titles of the movies were listed. (A Disney nature short subject - entitled "Beaver Valley" - was added to flesh out the program.)

As planned, no one at the theater answered any questions from the public or the media about the nature of the shows. The people who didn't notice the difference in the two titles merely were left to assume whatever they liked.

On the day of the party the staff decorated the lobby with streamers and balloons, laid out the birthday cake, and tested the open keg of beer. Spurred on by news reports of the Biograph's supposed intention to defy a court order, hundreds were in line by lunch time.

By show time, 6:30 p.m., the line of humanity stretched almost completely around the block. Thousands of people were waiting to see a notorious X-rated movie without knowing a Jean Arthur/Bob Cummings comedy was going to be shown instead.

The atmosphere was electric when I unlocked the box office. Only the first 500 in line could be admitted because that was the auditorium's seating capacity. Contrary to what I had expected, the audience didn't all get the joke at once. The realization came in waves.

Most of those who got inside enjoyed the night, one way or another. The movies had to be funnier in that context than ever before, as long as you could laugh at yourself. To wash down the taste of the hoax, free beer was available.

Of course, there were a few people who were still miffed, but so many more loved being in on such a massive joke that the grumbles hardly mattered.

The story of the stunt hit the wire services and it appeared in newspapers all over the country. NPR did a piece on it. Needless to say, the frothy publicity only added to the luster of what was truly a unique night.

In subsequent years, the occasion of the annual party served as a reunion for everyone who had ever worked or hung out at the theater. Sometimes special films were brought in for a screening, or a band would play after hours.

Another anniversary that was rather unusual was the tenth. In 1982, a Louis Malle film that had been shot in the Jefferson Hotel was in its initial release. We booked the picture to open on Feb. 11 and combined with VCU's Anderson Gallery to stage a party that served as a benefit for the art gallery.

"My Dinner with Andre" was a movie about two friends talking over dinner. The actual meal they ate in the movie was provided by a local caterer named Chris Gibbs. He also created restaurants such as Gatsby's, Fifth Avenue, and Winston Churchill's. Each day of the movie's shooting schedule, the flamboyant Gibbs would show up at the set with another batch of Cornish Hens and wild rice for the actors to pick over as they spoke their lines.

For our party, Gibbs served the art movie/art gallery patrons the same dinner as the actors on the screen were having. It went over like gangbusters. The local media ate it up, which of course validated the notion that a good time was had by one and all.

Naturally, since then, the theater closed and the tradition has atrophied. There was a small party for the 20th anniversary even though the cinema's screens had long been dark.

Back to the e-mail that made my day - here's how it worked: A few weeks ago, Style Weekly ran an interview with singer/songwriter Aimee Mann, a Richmond native and former lead singer of the '80s New Wave band 'Til Tuesday. The article mentioned her recent success with the song "Save Me" from the movie "Magnolia." Among her fond memories of Richmond, she spoke of having enjoyed going to the Biograph as a teenager.

Aimee looks familiar, but I don't really remember her from her Open High School days (in the late '70s). I sent the article to the friend I mentioned, Ernie Brooks, because I knew he was enthusiastic about "Magnolia."

Brooks, a regular at the Biograph in the '70s, subsequently attended Mann's recent performance at the Birchmere in Alexandria. During a break, he presented her with an almost never-worn Biograph T-shirt from his collection.

Ernie claims she was nearly overwhelmed by his gesture. However, in spite of what my experience tells me about such stories, I'm choosing to believe him.

In turn, she autographed a copy of her "Magnolia" CD for him. Ernie then e-mailed me a scan of it attached to an account of his conversation with Aimee.

On the cover art she had written - "To the Biograph, many memories, Love Aimee."

Upon seeing her simple message, my frame of mind changed instantly. Instead of letting mid-February's inevitable dreariness continue to bum me out, it even occurred to me how lucky I was to have been in on the adventure the Biograph was.

Because of a quirky art-movie connection, facilitated by way of an old friend of the Biograph, a willowy blond from the past beamed me a pleasant mood swing: a virtual happy anniversary present.

Thanks, Aimee. And congratulations on your Best Original Song Oscar nomination for "Save Me." I'll be watching to see what you are wearing on Oscar presentation night.

Ain't life grand?

-- 30 --

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