In the 1970s, during what was the Golden Age of Repertory Cinema, the presenting of midnight shows was an integral aspect of the programming for many movie houses of that ilk. Although films are still being shown in theaters at the midnight hour, the cultural significance of such screenings has been in steady decline since the end of the ’70s. As with most pop fads, there are plenty of reasons why.
Richmond’s Biograph Theatre might be remembered for many things, some of them good. Most people, who remember it at all, probably flash back onto scenes from favorite films they saw there during its nearly 16 years of operation (1972-87).
Perhaps the hodgepodge of double features that was central to the format of a repertory cinema had something to do with a sense of postmodern license. Although most of what was done at the Biograph was standard practice in that era for art houses/repertory cinemas, it was somewhat of a trend-setter with regard to the development of midnight shows.
As has been noted at the Bijou Backlight in previous posts, I managed the Biograph, 1972-83. While most of the basic style for what sort of product to exhibit within a repertory format had already been established when we opened at 814 W. Grace St. in 1972, 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.
Of course, late screenings were nothing new when the Biograph opened. 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, had not yet been set in stone.
About two months after we opened, a twin bill of so-called "underground" films, “Chafed Elbows” (1966) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964), was the first special late show we presented. I think it actually started at 11:30 p.m. Moving such presentations to midnight soon proved better.
Over our initial year of operation we came to understand the sort of pictures that would work best in that special role and how to promote them. Although “The Godfather” (1972) was a critical success and a popular film the year the Biograph opened, it was not the sort of movie that would draw a late crowd. “Fritz the Cat” (1972), released the same year — but barely remembered today — was a good draw as a midnight show.
When we premiered “El Topo” (1970) during regular hours in the spring of 1973 it flopped. Later as a midnight show it did well.
A bootleg print of “Animal Crackers” (1930), a Marx Brothers romp that had been out of release for decades, played well at midnight. Some rock ’n’ roll movies worked, others didn’t. Same with thrillers and monster flicks. The most successful midnight shows needed a cachet of something slightly forbidden, perhaps underground.
In that light, a Marx Brothers title that couldn’t be seen on television or in a standard movie theater had an extra luster. We rented it from a private collector who had a beautiful 16mm print.
We promoted midnight shows with radio spots on WGOE-AM and with handbills posted on utility poles and in shop windows. We relied on little or no newspaper advertising for midnight shows in the early days. We usually didn’t list them in our regular printed programs, which displayed the titles and some film notes for the movies we exhibited during regular hours.
By showing “Animal Crackers,” we may have been breaking some sort of copyright laws. But the Fan District wasn’t Manhattan or Malibu, so no one who had any interest in the obscure battle over the rights to an old Marx Brothers feature film was likely to notice.
In our first three years of operation we occasionally rented short subjects, old TV shows and even feature films from private collectors who acted as distributors. Some titles were in the public domain, which meant no one actually had the “exclusive rights” to the rent out prints of the movie. “Reefer Madness” (1936) was such a title. Others were like “Animal Crackers,” which, due to a legal dispute, wasn’t in general release.
My bosses at the Biograph in Georgetown and I talked about the propriety of showing bootleg prints of films with murky rights issues several times. I came to agree with them that we weren’t denying the artists or the original production company any money. We weren’t denying the rightful distributor a nickel, either. Instead, we were liberating those films for people to see.
Anyway, we didn’t get caught.
A few years later the issues that had kept “Animal Crackers” out of release were resolved. So we booked a nice 35 mm print from the proper distributor. It didn’t perform at the box office nearly as well as it had before, when it was forbidden.
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. “Mondo Cane” (1962), “Blood Feast” (1963) and “2,000 Maniacs” (1964) all played as Biograph midnight shows. In the ’80s that sort of movie began to routinely skip a theatrical run and go straight to cable television.
By the time we booked “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (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 had popped up in nearly every neighborhood.
Sometimes, a successful midnight show run came along in the nick of time to pay the Biograph's rent. On the other hand, as a promoter, there were times when I bit off more than I could chew.
On October 22, 1982, “The Honeymoon Killers” (1969) opened as a midnight show. I had seen it somewhere and become convinced it would appeal to the same crowd that loved absurd comedies by Luis Buñuel and Robert Altman, plus those trash culture aficionados who had adored previously popular midnight shows, such as “Eraserhead” (1977), or “Harold and Maude” (1971).
A droll murder spree movie in black and white, it turned out “The Honeymoon Killers” mostly appealed to me … when I was in a goofy mood. Unlike most people, I saw it as a comedy. Mostly, nobody else saw it at all.