Have you ever had a fantasy about running and programming your own repertory cinema? Any self-proclaimed film buff probably has and for me it became a slowly emerging fantasy from the time I was seven or older. Unlike those kids who wanted to be firemen, astronauts, professional athletes or other revered professions, I pictured myself as a movie theater owner who could show what I wanted and print availability or attendance was never a concern. While this fantasy faded over the years as I became aware of the realities and headaches of film distribution and theater management, the love of programming movies always stayed with me and for a brief period (Feb. 1980 – Dec. 1981), I ran an invitation only film series out of my home in Athens, Ga. on Pulaski Street that I called Secret Cinema.
The name was inspired by Paul Bartel’s 1968 short The Secret Cinema (it was later remade as an episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories series for television). In Bartel’s original version, Jane, a secretary in a New York City office, struggles through one mishap after another. From daily humiliations at the office or on the street to being abandoned by her boyfriend, her increasing paranoia leads to a startling discovery. She is being secretly filmed and her life is the subject of a comical serial, shown in weekly installments at an undisclosed location attended by her much amused friends and colleagues. One of the great movie premises of all time, The Secret Cinema doesn’t quite live up to its potential in either version but it seemed like the ideal name for a film series that was basically underground in terms of community awareness. From the beginning, I had no illusions that Secret Cinema would make money or that it would be more than a hobby. And 16mm film rental was relatively inexpensive in the early ‘80s if you knew all of your options; my bible was the R.R. Bowker publication Feature Films: A Directory of Feature Films on 16mm and Videotape Available for Rental, Sale and Lease by James L. Limbacher. You could rent movies for a 1-2 day period for as little as $25 or less, not including shipping, from such sources as Ivy Films, Budget Films and other affordable distributors. College media centers were also a cheap source for rentals. The University of Michigan Media Resources Center, for example, had an impressive library of films for rental which would have been unaffordable from their original distributors such as New Yorker Films or Cinema 5. This was during the pre-Blockbuster video boom, of course, and my intention was to show film, not video.
So I plunged into it and scheduled Secret Cinema’s first showing, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), along with the award-winning claymation short, Clay (1965) by Eliot Noyes, Jr..
Phyllis, my wife at the time, designed some of the flyers after my pitiful first attempt and we invited a group of friends to the screening. As a University of Georgia employee, I was able to borrow a 16mm projector from their media center and the theater space was our old, rambling WWII-era house in a working class neighborhood of Athens. The den, with its high ceiling and wide beige walls, was the ideal screening room space and I set up the projector in the galley kitchen at the back of the house for a good visual throw.
Secret Cinema had an auspicious beginning and the novelty of it alone ensured that at least 20 or so friends showed up to experience I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Clay. The $1.50 admission I requested was never mandatory and more of a suggestion to help cover the film rentals. That was probably a good idea because several of our first time attendees would probably have asked for their money back that night. While everyone loved Noyes’ playful animated short about evolution, I quickly learned that my love of horror movies, particularly the low budget variety, was not shared by everyone except for one or two fellow film nerds. Still, there was something uniquely irresistible about seeing our den full of people gazing upon mad scientist Whit Bissell yelling at his hideous creation, “Speak! I know you have a civil tongue in your head because I sewed it back myself.”
Most of the dialogue was unintentionally hilarious and I especially love that final stock footage shot of an alligator in a tank chomping on some laboratory jacket (presumably Mr. Bissell) under The End credits. When the lights came up, there was faint applause and our friend Martha said, “You know, this is a great idea but next time, why don’t you show something that is actually GOOD?” Well, my intention was to show all kinds of films and that I did. But my own personal tastes would usually dictate the size of the audience as I quickly learned. Certainly I had self-serving reasons for showing some films – I simply wanted to see them. Other times I wanted to expose my friends to movies they might love and create some new cinephiles in the process.
Here are some of the highlights and low points of my Secret Cinema adventures:
I experimented with showing collections of short films. One program included George Melies’ The Conquest of the Pole (1912) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp (1915). Another one featured Robert Enrico’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962) and the Claes Oldenburg art short, Sort of a Commercial for an Iceberg (1969).
Based on positive responses to these, I tried to offer something a little more adventurous featuring early work by Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Roman Polanski and Pascal Aubier. It turned out to be one of my largest attended events with more than 30 people crammed into our den on a sweltering summer evening. Despite the humidity and heat, everyone seemed completely attentive to these imaginative mini-movies which were not as well known as the directors’ more famous features. The wild card in the bunch was Pascal Aubier’s 32 minute Monsieur Jean Claude Voucherin (1968), the most experimental of the bunch. The first half of the film, shot in a static manner with only sound effects and a fixed viewpoint, focuses on the compulsive-obsessive title character who is going through a daily desk organizing ritual of lining up sharpened pencils and arranging stacks of paper. Just when you think this exercise in minimalism is about to lose its absurdist edge, it transitions into a completely different movie, freeing this character from his office and following him into the streets as an off-kilter score kicks in on the soundtrack. The result is unexpectedly exhilarating.
It was a good warm-up for Les Mistons (1957), Truffaut’s affectionate and nostalgic paean to puberty with Bernadette Lafont as the object of desire among some schoolboys (she also appeared in Monsieur Jean Claude Voucherin). Godard’s lighthearted romantic short Tous Les Garcons S’Appellent Patrick (1959, aka All the Boys Are Called Patrick) showed us a side of the director rarely seen in his later work. And Polanski’s Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958) was appropriately stark and surreal in contrast to the other three shorts, and introduced themes of violence, cruelty and humiliation that would figure prominently in the Polish director’s later work.
The films sparked a lot of lively discussions and comments along the lines of “Godard’s political films are unwatchable”….”Truffaut is the most sentimental of the New Wave filmmakers”…”Roman Polanski is a creepy genius,” etc.
I also received the suggestion from more than one person that I open a repertory cinema in Athens. Funny thing is…I actually went through the motions of investigating this idea and learned that even then a repertory theatre was a costly and risky venture in Athens. The Chameleon, a local nightclub had already attempted a weekly screening series that was more eclectic than successful – screenings of Jan Kadar’s Adrift (1969) and Jess Franco’s 99 Women (1969), among others had barely lasted a year. I had another large turnout for William Castle’s infamous thriller Homicidal (1961) and was surprised to learn that many of my friends had heard of but never seen any of Castle’s films such as House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler. Yet, despite the low budget look of the film and Castle’s unsubtle directing style, everyone seemed fascinated with the characters of Warren and Emily, a bizarre married couple who never appear together on-screen and are actually the same person. The film has an amusing sex change/Christine Jorgensen connection and builds to a creepy climax in a dark mansion. The print even included the original 60 second “fright break” gimmick that was advertised in the film’s theatrical release. In the coming weeks when I ran into people who had seen Homicidal at my house, they were still puzzling over details of Castle’s absurd, slapdash effort to imitate Hitchcock’s success with Psycho. More people actually took the farfetched premise more seriously than I ever imagined. William Castle would have been delighted. Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (1974) had been an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Film and was a movie my wife wanted to see. I was curious as well about this intimate tribute to 73 year old musical conductor Antonia Brico, which was produced by singer/songwriter Judy Collins, directed by Jill Godmilow and depicted her struggle for work and recognition in a male-dominated profession. The bigger revelation, however, was the co-feature, Anthony Korner’s delightful Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls (1973), which I credit with introducing me to Bollywood movies and Helen, one of its iconic stars who has appeared in over 500 features. There were plenty of tantalizing clips from some of Helen’s films interspersed with a playful behind-the-scenes interview with her as she practices yoga, puts on make-up and arranges her hair. I have since become a huge Helen fan and hardily recommend you watch her hyperactive gyrating in such eye-popping gems as Gumnaan (1965) and Teesri Manzil (1966).
Most of my generation had grown up watching Laurel and Hardy comedies on television as kids so Way Out West (1937), one of the duo’s finest features, was an easy choice for an audience-pleasing program. In a movie full of iconic moments, the boys’ dance to “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” received enthusiastic applause and the scene where Stan is almost tickled to death by gold-digging saloon singer Sharon Lynn got the biggest laughs.
Once again, however, it was the opening short, Elliott Erwitt’s Beauty Knows No Pain (1972) that generated the most word of mouth in the ensuing weeks. People who were there that night can still quote dialogue to me from this subversive little documentary that dispensed with any voice-over narration and let the subjects speak for themselves. In this case, it was Miss Gussie Nell Davis and members of her famous dancing drill team, the Kilgore College Rangerettes. The 26 minute short depicts the events in a two-week summer camp competition in which the finalists will be inducted into the elite cheerleading corps. One of the more memorable moments was when Miss Gussie had her girls stand, legs exposed, against a prickly holly hedge without grimacing, commanding them to smile naturally, hence the title. This short generated as much, if not more, laughter than Way Out West but some film critics have pointed out more a more disturbing subtext. Amos Vogel in his landmark book Film as a Subversive Art, wrote, “…in its portrayal of false values instilled and the over-all insipidness of an enterprise undertaken with utmost seriousness by its perpetrators – it must be read as a corrosive critique of bourgeois America…the ‘message’ resides in the visuals (and montage) and will be decoded by the viewer in accord with his own value system.”
Stormy Weather was another high point. While this 1943 musical has a threadbare, uninspired storyline like so many Hollywood musicals of its era – singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) refuses to give up her career to marry and settle down with fellow performer Corky Williamson (Bill Robinson) – the movie is a landmark in other ways for showcasing so many major musical legends in one movie. You can see the immortal Fats Waller on the piano performing “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, Cab Calloway is on hand to lend his unique scat singing style to “Geechy Joe,” and Lena Horne transforms the title song into a show stopping production number accompanied by the fantastic Katherine Dunham dance troupe. But it is The Nicholas Brothers who steal the film in their wild, gravity-defying leapfrog dance number down a giant staircase. The people who witnessed this the night of the screening gave the number a standing ovation and demanded that I roll the film back and play it again which, of course, I did. Most of my friends had never seen Lena Horne in a starring role either and this movie was one of her rare leading lady opportunities along with Cabin in the Sky. By this point, Secret Cinema had a new location. I was now divorced and renting a room in the upper floor of a friend’s house on S. Pope Street though Phyllis continued to help with designing the flyers. Candle had a large, sloping backyard with an elevated screened-in porch that when covered with a king size white bed sheet made a fine outdoor screen. I would run an extension cord from the backyard toolshed and set up the projector and speakers at the bottom of the yard, projecting onto the makeshift porch screen. When weather permitted, it was the next best thing to a drive-in theater without the cars. For this program, I rented most of the titles from Kit Parker Films, a specialist in offbeat shorts and underrated B movies. Going Hollywood (1948) was in the tradition of the infamous Dogville animal shorts which were produced by Warner Bros. and still a cult sensation on TCM today. Part of the Paramount “Speaking of Animals” comedy short series, Going Hollywood features real animals with cartoon mouths speaking in human voices and cracking corny jokes. The Follies (1926) was a burlesque short (considered risqué in its day) in which a pudgy topless dancer tries to seduce the viewer with her bold shimmying. The All-Star Bond Rally was a nostalgic 1945 time capsule hosted by Bob Hope with cameo appearances by Harpo Marx, Carmen Miranda, Bing Crosby, Harry James and His Orchestra and Frank Sinatra performing, “Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week.”
The most offbeat selection of the night was Candy is a Health Food (1927), a silent promotional film for the Euclid Candy Factory in which mass produced chocolate assembled as Love Nest candy bars with peanuts added looked a lot like something else which is not so yummy…if you know what I mean. I also showed Betty in Blunderland, a classic 1935 Betty Boop cartoon, and The Philips Broadcast of 1938 was probably the first time my attendees had seen a George Pal puppetoon short with its distinctly stylized animation and glistening Gasparcolor. Almost every short was a hit, from Flop House (1932), featuring the cartoon character Scrappy to Ub Iwerks’ Merry Mannequins (1937), which was part of Iwerk’s popular Columbia “Color Rhapsodies” series. The evening ended on a joyous note with Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party (1935). Any time I could work Cab Calloway into a program, it was usually a good luck charm. Of course, not all of the Secret Cinema events were successful in terms of attendance or execution. Some of the major disappointments include Burn Witch Burn aka Night of the Eagle (1962), which I programmed on the day after Halloween. Only my next door neighbors, Tyler and Leigh, showed up but it was still a treat. An underrated and atmospheric supernatural chiller, Burn Witch Burn has impressive special effects considering the low budget, excellent performances and an ingenious storyline (based on Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife) in which a witch coven unleashes its evil on a small university campus. The scene where the stone eagle comes to life and pursues the film’s hero (Peter Wyngarde) is particularly memorable and Tyler, who was a Famous Monsters of Filmland devotee from an early age, liked it so much we watched it again the next day.
I had a small gathering for Diabolique (1955) – maybe 8 people – but the problem this particular night was the projector I had borrowed from the UGA media center. There was a problem with the sound system and the dialogue sounded like people gargling underwater. Luckily, the print was in French with English subtitles so everyone could follow the storyline but not being able to clearly hear the voices of the main players – Simone Signoret, Vera Clouzot and Paul Meurisse – was frustrating. Still, the dark, sinister setting of the rundown boarding school where the action takes place and a murder plot involving the cruel headmaster of the school came through with its power undiminished, especially that famous final apparition rising from the bathtub.
I could almost always count on a decent turnout for any program of shorts, but when I tried to add a feature length film to the mix, especially a documentary, the results were less predictable. And when the documentary choice dealt with serious and controversial subject matter…well, it wasn’t most people’s idea of a fun night out. I should have learned this from my earlier screening of The Quiet One (1948), Sidney Meyers’ semi-documentary account of a disturbed young African American boy and his rehabilitation at the Wiltwyck School for Boys. Co-written by James Agee, Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb and Sidney Meyers and narrated by Gary Merrill, The Quiet One was more apt for a university film study class and not the regular Secret Cinema crowd who wanted to be entertained. But I had wanted to see Cinda Firestone’s documentary Attica since its initial release in 1974 and rented it thinking others might share my interest in this critically acclaimed film about the infamous Attica prison uprising in 1971; the incident ended in violence with 200 people wounded and 43 killed (including 11 hostages) in a massacre ordered by Governor Nelson Rockefeller and carried out by state troopers and National Guardsmen.
Part of my interest in Attica had been sparked by Tom Wicker’s first hand account, A Time to Die; he was a New York Times reporter at the time who was requested by inmate spokesmen to come and observe the negotiations between the authorities and prisoners and report it to the world. Today, younger audiences may know Attica only from John Travolta crying out the name repeatedly with clinched fist in Saturday Night Fever (1977) in imitation of Al Pacino reciting the same mantra in 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon (The latter film was based on a real life incident in 1972 in which bank robber John Wojtowicz actually used the defiant “Attica, Attica, Attica” cheer to stir up the crowds and paint the cops as fascist oppressors). At any rate, not one person came to the Attica screening and I watched it alone in Candle’s backyard. Despite this, I was grateful to be able to see this film which never got a theatrical release in Athens. The other films in the program included Shevard Goldstein’s 7 minute tragicomedy, Krasner, Norman: Beloved Husband of Irma (1974) and Insomnie (1963), a 17-minute horror satire by French film comic Pierre Etaix, and Serbian filmmaker Aleksander Ilic’s 11 minute wildlife featurette, The Owl (1973). There are certainly worse ways to spend an evening alone. Looking back, the Secret Cinema years marked a great period in my life when I organized regular gatherings of friends for the communal act of watching movies together, something that seems to be a lost art today as people privately stream movies on their computer or sample them in bits and pieces on digital devices. It was great fun rediscovering in a group setting certain films like the 1920 German silent The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the educational classroom favorite Dating Do’s and Don’ts (1949), and stars such as Judy Holliday; I showed two of her films, both directed by George Cukor, It Should Happen to You (1954) and The Marrying Kind (1954). I also took a certain pleasure in introducing friends to directors like Abel Gance (I showed the documentary Abel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite, 1963) and Peter Watkins (The War Game, 1967), a documentary-like reenactment of a future nuclear war, which I programmed with two shorts, Braverman’s Condensed Cream of Beatles (1974) and Richard Lester’s The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film (1959).
The final program of Secret Cinema took place on December 19, 1981 in the upstairs den of Candle’s house (I converted the small adjoining kitchen into the projection booth and hung a sheet at the far end of the room.) The lineup included Come Take a Trip on My Airship (1930), a Max and Dave Fleischer bouncing ball sing-a-long cartoon; The Little Broadcast (1942), another George Pal puppetoon musical; Turkish Delight (1949), in which Nejla Ates, accompanied by the W.W. Morrison Costa Rican Sextette, demonstrates how to belly dance; Elvis on Ed Sullivan which featured kinescopes of Presley’s original appearances on the variety show between 1955-57; Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943), a wild juke joint of a cartoon with broad caricatures by animator Bob Clampett (It was withdrawn from television distribution in 1968 for racial stereotyping with ten other WB cartoons such as Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs which became collectively known as “The Censored Eleven”); and Cavalcade of Girls (1950), a Robert Youngson newsreel about women in unlikely professions – lumberjacks, railroad conductors, aerial daredevils, etc.
The last short in the program had everyone howling and is one of those embarrassing live moments captured by the TV cameras long before the days of YouTube notoriety. This one enjoyed a cult reputation on the 16mm circuit for years – the 1958 Foreign Press Awards. In this excerpt, hosted by Ronald Reagan, Mickey Rooney has a close encounter with the buxom Jayne Mansfield as he accepts an award on behalf of Mexico’s famous comic, Cantinflas. At the time, I didn’t realize this would be my final Secret Cinema program but it was a fitting end to a labor of love. (You can view the Foreign Press Awards footage at this link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDhdg0yWC2Q).
A new work opportunity changed everything and I soon moved to Atlanta to work for Films Inc., one of the largest non-theatrical film distributors at the time (Its major competitor, Swank Pictures, is still in business). It was like being let loose in a candy store. I was given a 16mm projector and access to a warehouse packed with hundreds of movies as part of my job of renting films to colleges and universities. I was in a much better position to launch a Secret Cinema in Atlanta but instead I devoted more time to exploring the vast Films Inc. library (which included the Janus Collection) and eventually gave up the idea of running a film society since George Lafont’s The Screening Room, The Rhodes Theater (operated by Landmark Theaters at the time), the High Museum film series and other venues were doing a fine job of it. But I would still occasionally return to Athens to surprise friends with private screenings of Rock ‘n Roll High School, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Caddyshack and other often requested titles.
Those were high times and I didn’t foresee how the film-going experience was going to change drastically with the arrival of home video. It pretty much put a stake in the heart of repertory cinema across the country. More people began staying home and binge-watching VHS tapes from their local video store. Today, repertory cinemas are a rarity in most major cities though New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and a few others still offer a few alternative venues. Part of the problem is the increasing fragmentation of the movie-going audience due to technological advances but communal film experiences involving classic movies projected on film still occur at public events like the Telluride Film Festival and the annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Those are important events to support but I would love it even more if cinephiles took up the torch and started their own secret cinemas. * This is a revised and updated version of a blog that was first published on the TCM Movie Morlocks website.