A messy intersection of film journalism and the revival-house business. 2,153 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The thousand injuries of Flicker Weekly I had borne as best I could, but when they insulted Orson Welles, I vowed revenge. It had already been a long and stressful year since I had refinanced my house, cashed out my 401K and bought the elegant ruins of the Casbah.
The movie theater had been empty for nearly a decade when I spied it. It was like seeing a once great beauty with her front teeth knocked out. The screen was miraculously intact, hidden behind a cheap curtain, and the seats were all there. But the projection booth was full of pigeons, and something far less pleasant had been living in the men’s room. The whole place smelled of damp and rot and mold and despair.
“I’ll take it,” I said. That was a year ago,
Designed by the esteemed Rapp & Rapp, the motion picture palace had been built in 1924 in the faddish “Moorish” style, influenced by then-popular melodramas of exotic oases and desert passions. Intricately cut archways framed every interior door; turquoise tiled fountains bubbled invitingly outside the ladies’ and gents’ lounges. A painted azure ceiling replicated a limitless North African sky, and pictures of leafy palms waved from the walls. Patrons who bought a ticket bought a dream.
That, at least, was what it had been like during those bygone days when Vilma Banky was still being pursued by The Son Of The Sheik (1926), and gentleman thief Ronald Colman was stealing Raffles (1930) right out from under the haughty nose of Kay Francis.
But by the 1950s, like the glorious film studios themselves, the movie theater had become a victim of bad management and that dreadful new creature, the post-war suburbanite, a fatuous paterfamilias who only wanted to park his formidable posterior on a plastic-wrapped couch and laugh at clumsy television clowns. While, of course, his pimply progeny headed to the “passion pit,” a glorified outdoor parking lot with a battered screen, execrable speakers and automobile backseats ready-made for quick and slippery seductions.
It was the beginning of an attack on a glorious moviegoing tradition, and it succeeded. By the 1970s, the Casbah, like so much of our country, had succumbed to lowered standards and philistine assaults. New owners knocked down its statues of Moorish kings to cram extra candy counters into their niches; fountains were sledgehammered into oblivion and replaced with pinball machines. The grand auditorium itself was cut and carved into three separate theaters; in the two new mezzanine rooms, a painted sky that had once seemed endless was now, literally, within reach of the grubbiest fingers.
The palace had fallen to the Visigoths.
After that, its final decline was rapid. The Casbah spent another decade as an all-night grindhouse, carelessly unspooling trash triple-features to slumbering tramps. It eked out a few more years as an “adult” theater, taking in the sticky dollar bills of trench-coated perverts. Finally, it was bought by the Church Of God With Love In Christ, a Pentecostal denomination of dubious theology. They ripped out the old separating partitions, at least, and replaced the now loathsomely stained carpeting, but finally defaulted on the mortgage when their embezzling pastor absconded to the Caribbean.
And then I bought it and became a punching bag for Flicker Weekly, one of those free entertainment rags whose ugly plastic boxes pockmark our downtown street corners. Their reporter took a large photograph of the theater at its worst, surrounded by teetering piles of the garbage I’d already hauled out. “The Last Picture Show?” screamed the predictable headline. Inside the paper there was another small picture, lit from underneath to make me look like George Zucco, and a rather insulting profile by reporter Tony Fortunato who identified me as “a former academic and eccentric fan of old movies.”
But no matter. At least the story let me announce my intentions, and put out a call for volunteers. And, over the next six months, they wandered in. But, once they saw the work expected of them, often ran out. Brass hardware had to be tiresomely polished, and seat cushions sprayed for vermin. Toilets had to be unplugged, and bathroom tiles scrubbed with bleach. A hundred blown-out bulbs had to be replaced in the marquee; pounds of pigeon feathers and guano had to be scraped from the projection booth floor.
Despite the discouragements, eventually the theater came back to life. I put together an inaugural program of RKO musicals — avoiding, of course, the dully familiar Astaire/Rogers pictures. Once all was confirmed, I mailed Flicker Weekly’s Fortunato a carefully footnoted package of program notes, accompanied by rare production stills from my collection. Just to be politic, I placed a small ad.
The night of the grand opening, I outfitted several of our hardcore cadre of film buff volunteers in vintage usher’s uniforms, put on a sober blue serge suit and waited by the door.
Yes, a few souls wandered in: passersby or curiosity seekers or drunks. But they were not my audience. They were no one’s audience. Determined to prove themselves superior to anything they saw on the screen, they laughed at the most romantic moments, and sat stonily through even the maddest capers of Eric Blore. At least they were silent during the dance numbers. Had they snickered at those, I would have calmly massacred them all.
But I wasn’t thinking about murder. Not then.
The RKO series was scheduled to run a month, and word of mouth did draw in a few extra patrons over the next few weeks. Occasionally, there was even someone who appreciated what I was trying to do. Still, their applause sounded as desperate in that nearly empty palace as the proverbial whistling in a graveyard. In fact, during the screening of Flying Down To Rio, one audience member’s walker collapsed on his way back from the lavatory and sent him tumbling to the floor during “The Carioca.” So, for the next month’s programming, I searched for something that might appeal to a wider and, yes, younger crowd.
I decided some saucy pre-Code films might offer a nice change of pace for our patrons. I put together several Lee Tracy double-bills and devoted an entire weekend to the comedy of Joe E. Brown. Of course, I included some of the era’s more daring melodramas – Baby Face, Employees’ Entrance – to entice randy college students. I worked hard to avoid any titles that the general moviegoer might have heard of. And I fashioned another detailed promotional package, which this time I delivered in person.
Flicker Weekly’s offices were downtown, and although I knew newsrooms had changed a bit since The Front Page (even since Deadline U.S.A.) I was still not prepared. The building was an inexpertly converted cracker factory, and the editorial, advertising and circulation departments all shared one giant open space on the second floor. Naturally, I was rather startled not to hear ringing phones and shouting editors. Instead men and women, many of them sporting more tattoos then the Wild Man Of Borneo, sat tapping silently on laptop computers. Occasionally someone would smirk at a screen, then slap it closed and walk away. Nobody spoke.
I dimly recognized Fortunato, a well-upholstered goateed fellow in cargo shorts. When I walked to his desk with the press release package, he was visibly startled.
“I can’t believe you came down here,” he said after I introduced myself. “Just email listings to flicker.com. There’s a form you can fill out to upload your jpegs and everything. We don’t need to meet.”
I handed him the materials. “Well, the last press release I sent in got lost so I thought I’d put these into your hands personally. How about writing a big feature, with a listing of all the films? Perhaps even an interview? Were you to commit to a cover story, I might be able to get you Joan Blondell’s son on the phone. Of course I’d have to…”
He quickly shoved the materials back into the envelope.
“Emailing is best. This, I’m just going to lose. Whatever you mailed here before probably got thrown out.”
I felt the color rise in my cheeks. “I believe this is worth more than just a listing,” I said sharply.
“Oh, I know you do,” he said, leaning back and putting two dirty, checkerboard-patterned sneakers on his desk. He grinned. “I never knew one of you people who didn’t. ‘Hey, how about a big story on this month’s Renaissance Faire?’ ‘What about a nice spread on Marionette Mania?’ ‘Did you know the East Side Community Players are about to do ‘Come Blow Your Horn again’?’” He snorted. “Oh please.”
“I really don’t think that…”
“We’re an alternative arts weekly for lifestyle pioneers,” he said, and it was clearly a speech he had given before. “We serve a post-college, pre-suburban audience that interfaces with an interactive culture 24/7. And what they consume is everything we do, from personality-driven podcasts to advertorial special sections to sponsored networking events. But you know what we don’t do?” He threw my envelope back at me. “Old movies.”
“When the theater opened…”
“I thought it was maybe good for a goof. It’s not anymore.” Fortunato went back to his laptop. “Like I said, go online, fill out a form.”
Was it then that I decided on murder? No, not then. Not quite then.
Instead I went back to work.
I designed a flyer for the pre-Code film series, and ran off a hundred copies at an office supply store. Half of them I left at coffee shops and delis to put in their windows; the other fifty I gave to one of our volunteers, along with a staple gun, and asked him to decorate the local telephone poles. (I never saw him, or the staple gun, again.) Because I had first believed – mistakenly – that an arts weekly would be my best source for coverage, I hadn’t contacted the city’s daily newspaper before. I tried that now but succeeded only in leaving various phone messages, none of which were ever returned. I did, finally, manage to get a tiny story in the college paper. A small victory, I suppose, even though the student correspondent consistently misspelled ZaSu Pitts.
Gritting my teeth, I deigned to phone the Flicker Weekly offices again and bought another ad. Which they then, again, buried in the back of their paper near pictures of women promising what I can only assume were illegal services.
This time the turn-out for the series was even worse. I admit my one rather reluctant attempt to engage the less discerning members of the audience – a pre-Code double-feature of the horror films Freaks and The Island of Lost Souls – was moderately successful, and for once the audience didn’t dare snicker. But I took no pride in stooping to this gruesome programming, and the occasional clank of bottles and acrid smell of marijuana convinced me this particular audience had already put itself in a deliberately uncritical state.
By now I had owned the theater for more than half a year, and the only thing that was increasing were my debts. I won’t bore you with the financial details, nor all the lengths to which I went to deliver ever more exciting programming. But we then did a month of Lubitsch – obviously avoiding the better-known sound films to concentrate on his silent work, particularly from Germany. Another month was dedicated to that unsung form, the short subject, with special attention paid to travelogues and newsreels. There was a classic comedy program – Wheeler and Woolsey, of course, and Olsen and Johnson, and the sublime Ritz Brothers. And, in what I admit was a final desperate plea for attention, another month’s program was built around “Hollywood’s Golden Year: 1937” (1939 having been so tediously done to death).
Ticket buyers were as sparse as mourners at an agent’s funeral.
I knew audiences would flock to these wonderful films if they only knew about them; clearly the problem was getting the word out. But my worsening financial situation made any further advertising impossible, and my pleas for media coverage went unheard. Flicker Weekly was supposed to be the city’s arts weekly and yet its cinema stories consisted of such lists as “17 Evilest DC Super Villains” or “Seth Rogen’s Toastiest Stoner Scenes.” This new world of journalism left me flummoxed.
Girding my loins, I even went down to the public library, where I laboriously went online and uploaded the weekly’s listings form and downloaded my pictures. Or was it the other way around? In any case, it didn’t matter. Flicker Weekly never printed them. And although I continued to keep the theater open most nights, sometimes the only person watching was me from the projection booth. People seemed to have forgotten the Casbah even existed.
Except, of course, the bank, which had already begun foreclosure proceedings.
Part Two tomorrow