In the 1970s, during what was the Golden Age of Repertory Cinema, the presenting of midnight show 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 long-lost 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, I don’t know. Although most of what we did at the Biograph was standard practice in that era for art houses/repertory cinemas, we were somewhat of a trend-setter with regard to the development of midnight shows.
While most of the basic style for what sort of product to exhibit within a repertory format had already been established in the ‘60s, at 814 W. Grace St. 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 in the ’70s.
Of course, late screenings were nothing new when the Biograph opened in February of 1972, 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, an 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 limited 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 were probably 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 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 like the Biograph. “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.
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 rent.
Once I began to understand more fully what an opportunity my job as manager of the Biograph Theatre offered, I wanted the theater to be a place both detached from its surroundings and a good neighbor; like nothing else in Richmond, but a part of the Fan District’s bohemian milieu.
As a promoter, I wanted the Biograph to have an underdog personality that was likeable beyond whatever movie might be playing that particular day. I suppose an adman today would call all that stuff “branding.”
Still, I learned the hard way that when I made a mistake there would be a price to pay. When the wrong movie was booked, or if I didn’t promote a festival or midnight show properly, it led to losing money. If I hired the wrong person, we all had to live with the negative effect it had on the staff’s morale. As with any team effort, morale was one of the keys to whatever success we hoped to enjoy.
Too many bad decisions and I could lose the manager’s keys to the funhouse. Learning just how far to push the envelope in Richmond, how to be ahead of the local curve without being too scary to the wrong people, was one of the keys.
Radio played a large role in the early days at the Biograph Theatre. For a couple of years we had a sweet deal with WGOE-AM, the most popular station for the under-35 set in the Fan District. For 30-second spots we were paying a dollar or two for each airing.
In the fall of 1973, David Levy, then the most significant managing partner of the Biograph Theatres in Georgetown and Richmond, asked me to look at a film to evaluate its potential. From time to time, he did that for various reasons. In this case he had a new 35mm print of “The Harder They Come” (1972) shipped to me.
In those days at the Biograph, we used to have after-hours screenings of films we obtained in one way or another. Usually on short notice, the word would go out via the staff and our friends that we would be watching a movie at a certain time. These gatherings were essentially movie parties.
A couple of times it was 16mm boxing films from a private collection. Sometimes films that were in town to play at a film society, or a VCU class, would mysteriously appear in our booth. In those cases the borrowed movies were always returned the next day, before they were missed ... so I was told.
Although I don’t remember any moments, in particular, from that first screening of “The Harder They Come” at the Biograph, I do remember the gist of my conversation with Levy the next day. After I told him how much I liked the Jamaican movie, he asked me how I would promote it.
Well, I was ready for that question, because I’d done some brainstorming with friends after the screening. So, I told him I’d have an open-to-the-public, sneak preview free showing of the movie. I said I’d use radio only to promote it. He loved the idea.
So, on a Friday morning in November the deejays at WGOE began reading announcements of a free showing of “The Harder They Come” at the Biograph that afternoon at 3 p.m. Then, each time, they would play a song by Jimmy Cliff, the film’s star, or perhaps one by Toots and the Maytals. This pattern was continued maybe three times an hour, for four or five hours, leading up to the screening.
As I recall, some 300 people showed up and they loved the movie. It must be noted that at this time Reggae music hadn’t hit its stride in Richmond, yet. Although it was building a following in America, it was still a year, or so, away from becoming huge, nationally. Of course, Reggae was being heard in Richmond before that screening, but it was clearly still on the periphery of popular culture.
After the audience at the Biograph reacted so well, Levy wanted to book it to run as a regular feature, rather than as a midnight show. In most previous runs in other markets, it had been treated more or less as an underground movie. As it was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for its American distribution, it had a grainy, documentary look to it. Given our confidence in our reading of the test-screening’s effect on the audience, the Biograph’s brain trust decided to try playing it at regular hours.
It all worked like a charm. While, it didn’t set any records for attendance, “The Harder They Come” returned to play subsequent dates at the Biograph in Georgetown, as well as the one in the Fan.
Levy became a sub-distributor for “The Harder They Come” and when he rented it to theaters in other cities within his region, he urged them to use the same radio-promoted-free-screening tactic.
Over the next few years Reggae music became ubiquitous. It crossed over from niche to mainstream. For me, in this case, it was fun being in a position to see -- from the inside, out, to some extent -- how popular culture was developing, flying by the seat of its pants.