Friday, February 7, 2014

Feature: A Prank for the Ages: Biograph's 2nd Anniversary in 1974

Detail from 1974 Staff Art Show sign
by F.T. Rea 

On a pretty day in July of 1971, I went to a construction site on the north side of the 800 block of West Grace Street. It was mostly a big hole in the orange ground between two old brick houses. A friend had tipped me off that she’d heard the owners of the movie theater set to rise from that hole were looking for a manager who could write about movies. Most importantly, she said they wanted to hire a promotion-savvy local guy.

Chasing the sparkle of that opportunity I met David Levy at the construction site. He was the Harvard-trained attorney who managed the Biograph Theatre at 2819 M Street in Washington. D.C.

Levy was one of a group of five men who had opened Georgetown’s Biograph in what had previously been a car dealership in 1967. Although none of them had any experience in show biz, they were smart young movie lovers whose timing had been impeccable -- they caught a pop culture wave. The golden age of repertory cinema was waxing and they picked the right town.

With their success in DeeCee a few years later they were looking to expand. In Richmond’s Fan District they thought they had discovered the perfect neighborhood for a second repertory-style cinema.

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 cinderblock building just a stone’s throw from VCU’s academic campus for the Biograph partners to rent. The cinema's owners had decided to use the same longtime cinema-related name in Richmond as they had in Georgetown. If it was good enough for D.W. Griffith it was good enough for them a second time.

Some 10 weeks after my first meeting with Levy he offered me the manager’s position. I don’t remember how many competitors he said I beat out, but I can remember trying not to reveal just how thrilling the news was. At 23-years-old, I couldn’t imagine there was a better job to be had in the Fan District. At the time I was working for a radio station, so I had to keep it a secret for a while.

Levy and I got along well right away and we became friends who trusted one another. He and his partners were all about 10 years my senior.

Three years after Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia had merged to become Virginia Commonwealth University in 1968, there were few signs of the dramatic impact the university would eventually have on Richmond. Although film societies were thriving on campus in 1971, the school was offering little in the way of classes about movies or filmmaking. A few professors 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 offered hope to optimistic film buffs that even in conservative Richmond the times were indeed a-changing.

My manager’s gig lasted until the summer of 1983. Grace Street’s Biograph Theatre closed four years later. A hundred miles to the north the Biograph on M Street closed in 1996. David Levy died in 2004.

In 2014 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 venture was launched with a gem of a party. In the lobby the dry champagne flowed steadily as the tuxedo-wearers and those outfitted in hippie garb happily mingled. 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 the 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 stories about the party trumpeting our arrival the next night we opened for business with a double feature: “King of Hearts“ was paired with “A Thousand Clowns“ (1965). Every show sold out.

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 few programs covered about six weeks.

Baby boomers who had grown up watching old movies on television had learned to worship important movie directors. 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. As I read everything I could find about what was popular, film-wise, in New York and San Francisco I learned the in-crowd viewed most of Hollywood’s then-current products as either laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupt.

Or both.

What my job would eventually teach me was how few people in Richmond actually saw it that way in 1972. 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.

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 customers from beyond the immediate neighborhood.

That gave me an opportunity to do more with a project Levy had put me in charge of developing, using radio to promote it -- Friday and Saturday midnight shows.

By trial and error we learned it took an offbeat movie that lent itself to promotion. 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).

With significant input from the theater’s assistant manager, Chuck Wrenn, who was a natural promoter, off-the-wall ad campaigns were designed in-house. There were two essential elements to those promotions:
  • Wacky radio spots had to be created and run on WGOE, a popular AM station aimed directly at the hippie listening audience.
  • Distinctive handbills needed to be posted on utility poles, bulletin boards and in shop windows in high-traffic locations.
Dave DeWitt produced the radio commercials. In his studio, Dave and I frequently collaborated on the making of those spots over six packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Most of the time we went for levity, even cheap laughs. Dave was masterful at producing radio commercials; the best I‘ve ever met.

Now DeWitt lives in New Mexico and is known as the Pope of Peppers. He has written dozens of cookbooks and countless articles about food.

Handbill for the event
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 had been 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 Alan 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 DeeCee 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. While we had played a few films that were X-rated, 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. Although I can’t remember whose idea it was to play “Deep Throat” in the first place, it may have been mine. But I’m pretty sure it was Levy who wanted to add “Un Chien Andalou” to the bill.

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.

Handbill for the Richmond premiere in 1973

Even more telling, over the early spring of 1973 a series of imported first-run movies crashed and burned. The centerpiece of the festival was the premiere of the Buñuel masterpiece, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972). In what Levy and I then regarded as a coup, gambling it would win the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, he booked it in advance to open in Richmond two or three days after the Oscars were to be handed out.

We had guessed right, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” took the Oscar, but it flopped in Richmond. The one-year-old cinema’s management team was more than bummed out.

We were stunned by the extent of our miscalculation.

Money had been put up in advance to secure a print, which was in demand because it was doing brisk business in most other cities. The failure of this particular booking and the festival that surrounded it finally forced a serious reassessment of what had been the original plan. The Georgetown Biograph couldn’t prop up its Richmond counterpart forever.

*

To stay alive Richmond’s Biograph needed to make adjustments in it’s booking philosophy. After much fretting on the phone line between M Street and Grace Street the Faustian deal was struck -- another film was booked that had been made by the director of “Deep Throat,” Gerard Damiano. Significantly, this time the picture's distributor imposed terms calling for “The Devil in Miss Jones” (1973) to play as a first-run picture at regular show times, every night, rather than as a midnight-only attraction.

At this point no one could have anticipated what we were setting in motion by agreeing to expand the availability of “adult movies” beyond the midnight hour. As we hadn't been promoting our midnight shows in the same way we did our regular fare, for the first time the title and promotional copy for a skin flick was included on a Biograph program.

Then an aggressive young TV newsman took Biograph Program No. 12 to Richmond's new Commonwealth’s Attorney, Aubrey Davis. The reporter asked Davis what his office was going to do about the Biograph’s brazen plan to run such a notorious film, especially in light of the then-freshly-minted Miller Decision on obscenity by the Supreme Court. (Miller basically allowed communities to set their own standards for obscenity.)

Eventually, the provocateur got what he wanted from the prosecutor -- a quote that would fly as an anti-smut sound bite. Other local broadcasters jumped on the bandwagon the next day. By the mid-summer evening “The Devil in Miss Jones” opened in Richmond it had already become a well-covered story.

Once again I saw what publicity could do. Every show sold out and a wild ride began. Matinees were added the next day.

On the third day all the matinees sold out, too. By the fourth day the WRVA-AM traffic-copter was hovering over the Biograph in drive time, giving live updates on the length of the line waiting to get into the theater. The airborne announcer helpfully reminded his listeners of the upcoming show times.

Well, that did it!

The following morning a local circuit court judge asked for a personal look at what was clearly the talk of the town. Management cooperated with his honor’s wishes and the print was schlepped down to Neighborhood Theaters’ private screening room, at 9th and Main Streets, for the convenience of the judge.

As Judge James M. Lumpkin admittedly hadn’t been out to see a movie in a theater since sometime in the 1950s, this particular moving picture rubbed him in the worst way. Literally red-faced after the screening, the outraged judge looked at Levy and me like we were from Mars.

Maybe Pluto.

Lumpkin promptly filed a complaint with the Commonwealth’s Attorney and set a date for issuing a Temporary Restraining Order, to halt further showings as soon as possible.

The next day a press conference was staged in the Biograph’s lobby to make an announcement.

Every news-gathering outfit in town bought the premise and sent a representative. They acted as if what was obviously a publicity stunt was news because it served their purpose to play along. After DeWitt -- who was then representing the theater as its ad agent -- laid out the ground rules and introduced me to the working press, I read a prepared statement for the cameras and microphones. (No record of this performance is known to exist.)

The gist of it was that based on demand -- sellout crowds -- the crusading Biograph planned to fight the TRO in court. Furthermore, the first-run engagement of “The Devil in Miss Jones” would be extended -- it was being held over for a second week.

During the lively Q & A session that followed, when Dave scolded an eager scribe for going too far with a follow-up question, it was tough duty holding back the laughing fit that would surely have broken the spell we trying to cast over the reporters.

The TRO stuck, because Judge Lumpkin still had all the say-so. “The Devil in Miss Jones” grossed about $40,000 in the momentous nine-day run the injunction halted. Technically, the legal action was against the movie, itself, rather than anyone at the Biograph. Which obviously suited me just fine.

The trial opened on Halloween Day. Lumpkin served as the trial judge too. I was surprised that the person whose original complaint to the Commonwealth’s Attorney had set the whole process in motion could then hear the case. Objections to that affront to justice fell on Lumpkin’s deaf ears.

*

On November 13, 1973, Lumpkin put all on notice: If you dare to exhibit this “filth” to the public, then stand by for certain criminal prosecution. So it was that “The Devil” was banned by a judge in Richmond, Virginia.

The plot to answer the judge's decree was hatched in early January of 1974 in the office on the second story, next to the projection booth. Having finished the box-office paperwork, or whatever, I was browsing through a stack of newly acquired 16mm film catalogs.

As it was after-hours, the scent of recently-burned marijuana may have been in the air when a particular entry -- “The Devil and Miss Jones” -- jumped off the page. It was instantly obvious to me the title for that 1941 RKO light comedy had been the inspiration for the banned X-rated movie’s title -- “The Devil in Miss Jones.”

It should be noted that the public had yet to be subjected to the endless puns and referential lowbrowisms the skin-flick industry would eventually use for titles. This was still in what might be called the seminal days of the adult picture business. Culturally, because there was still a blur in the line between edgy underground films and outright porn the somewhat oxymoronic term "porno chic" was in currency. It didn't last long.

The prank's plan called for using the upcoming second anniversary as camouflage. Early on, DeWitt and the theater’s resourceful assistant manager, Bernie Hall, were in on the scheming/brainstorming in the office. Then, in a deft stroke -- suggested by Alan Rubin over the phone -- a Disney nature short subject, “Beaver Valley” (1950), was added to the birthday program, to flesh it out.

The stunt’s biggest problem was security. The whole scheme rested on the precarious notion that the one-word difference in the two titles, which spoke of the Devil's proximity to Miss Jones, simply wouldn’t be noticed. It was something like hiding in plain sight. We believed people would see what they wanted to see, but the staff fully understood the slightest whiff of a ruse would mean our undoing.

Thus, absolutely no one outside our group could be told anything. No one.

The Biograph announced in a press release on DeWitt’s ad agency letterhead that its upcoming second anniversary celebration would offer a free admission show. The titles, “The Devil and Miss Jones” and “Beaver Valley,” were listed with no accompanying film notes. Birthday cake would be free, too!

Somehow, a rumor began to circulate that the Biograph might be outmaneuvering the court’s decree by not charging admission. The helpful rumor found its way into print -- the street gossip section of The Richmond Mercury. I don't know if they knew what was really going on, or not.

The busier-than-ever staff fielded all inquires, in person or over the telephone, by politely reciting the official spiel, which amounted to: “We can tell you the titles and the show times. The admission will be free. No further details are available.”

The evening before the event the phones were ringing off the hook. Reporters were snooping about. One, in particular, stuck around trying to claw his way toward the key to the mystery. In the lobby, as I manned my familiar post at the turnstile, in a conspiratorial tone he said: “It has something to do with the title, doesn‘t it?”

Uh-oh! He was getting too close. To fend him off I decided to take a chance.

So, talking like one spy to another, I told the newsman that what was going to happen the next day would be a far better news story than a story of spoiling it the day before -- that is, if there really is a trick of a sort in the works.

Gambling that it would work, I asked him to leave it alone and trust that once it all unfolded he wouldn't regret it. Fortunately, he agreed to say nothing and he kept his word. His identity must remain a secret.

Feb. 11, 1974: 800 block of W. Grace St.
Up until the box office opened no one else outside our tight circle appeared to have an inkling of what was about to happen. Amazing as it may sound, the caper’s security was airtight. It was absolutely beautiful teamwork!

On the day of the event the staff decorated the lobby with streamers and balloons. We laid out the birthday cake. We tested the open keg of beer, just to make sure it was good enough for the patrons waiting in line to drink. Spurred on by hopes the Biograph was about to defy a court order, by lunch time the end of the line along Grace Street was already reaching Chelf's Drug Store -- which meant about 500 people.

It was suggested to me that we could eventually have a riot on our hands. What would happen if we lost control of the situation?

Nobody knew. That’s what made it so exhilarating!

My collaborators on the staff that one-of-a-kind night on the job were: Bernie Hall (assistant manager); Karen Dale, Anne Peet and Cherie Watson (cashiers); Tom Campagnoli and Trent Nicholas (ushers); Gary Fisher (projectionist). Some dressed up in costumes. Trent wore a clown mask. In case trouble broke out he wanted to be able to take it off and disappear into the lynch mob.

The box-office for the 6:30 p.m. show opened at 6 p.m. By then the line of humanity stretched almost completely around the block. It took every bit of a half-hour to fill our 500-seat auditorium. We turned away at least six or seven times that number.

The sense of anticipation in the air was electric as the house lights in the auditorium began to fade. Outside, on the sidewalk, many of those who couldn't get in to the first show stayed in line for the second show at 9 p.m.

The prank unfolded in layers. Some caught on and left while “Beaver Valley” was running. Most stayed through the first few minutes of “The Devil in Miss Jones.” Only about a third of the crowd remained in their seats through both movies. Afterward, there were lots of folks who said it was the funniest prank that had ever happened in Richmond.

Of course, a few hardheads got peeved. But since admission had been free, as well as the beer and cake, well, there was only so much they could say.

Even though those in line for the second show were told about the hoax by people leaving the first show, the second show packed the house, too. By then it seemed a lot of people just wanted to be in on a unique event, to see what would happen and be able to (honestly) say they were there.

The rush that came from living in the eye of that day’s storm of activity was intense, to say the least. After the second show emptied out, gloating over the utter success of the gag, as the staff and assorted friends finished off the second keg, was as good as it gets in the prank business.

The birthday cake (by Wendy Andriot) was free while it lasted

Meanwhile, thoroughly amused reporters were filing their stories on what had happened at the Biograph. The next day wire services and broadcast networks picked up the story. We returned to business as usual with an Andy Warhol double feature.

A few days later NPR’s All Things Considered went so far as to compare the Biograph’s second anniversary prank to Orson Welles’ mammoth 1938 radio hoax. Which was fun to hear, but I had the good sense to tell the interviewer that in comparison our stunt was "strictly small potatoes."

Congratulatory mail came in from all over the country. Six months later the Biograph closed down for a month to be converted into a twin cinema. With two screens to fill the manager’s job became more complicated. As an independent exhibitor, prank or no prank, it wasn’t always easy to rent enough product to fill two screens. The repertory “mission” become increasingly blurred over the next few years.

Thinking back about what an effort it took just to keep the Biograph's doors open in those days, now it seems like it was all sort of an elaborate stunt … pranks for the memories.

*   *   *

Ed. Note: This piece (both words and art) is an excerpt of F.T. Rea's "Biograph Times," a work in progress.