The Lee Art Theater: A Forgotten Cinema Treasure

As a lifelong film lover, I have fond memories of my movie-going youth in Richmond, Virginia. There were not only distinctly different neighborhood venues like The Westover Theater, the Willow Lawn and the Westhampton but also much more opulent movie palaces in the city like the Byrd, the Loew’s and three first-run hardtops, which were situated on one Broad Street block known as Richmond’s Theater Row – the State, Colonial and the National; the latter was later renovated and rebranded the Towne. B-movie double features, sword and sandal epics and English dubbed European genre films were more likely to show up at seedier theaters like The Grand and the Venus. There was even a theater that catered solely to black audiences – The Booker T – and a plethora of drive-in theaters scattered around the city like the Sunset, Rose Bowl and Twin Pines which exhibited some of the most obscure and bizarrely titled films of the period as witnessed by marque headliners Invasion of the Animal People, Daughter of the Sun God and other oddities. But the most eclectic of all was The Lee Art Theater on West Grace Theater, which often paired racy adult features (Russ Meyer’s Lorna, Paris Ooh-La-La) with serious art house dramas (The L Shaped Room, Breathless).

Every theater seemed to have its own specialized programming niche. For example, you could almost always count on the Loew’s to show the latest James Bond adventure, agent 007 ripoffs (Where the Spies Are, Masquerade) or the most talked about new release (Blow-Up, The Graduate, etc.), Road show attractions would often premiere at the Willow Lawn (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, How the West Was Won) and the Capitol was good at alternating the latest William Castle release (Zotz!, 13 Frightened Girls) or Japanese monster flick (Mothra) with something more mainstream like To Sir, With Love.

Among my favorite movie houses were the Byrd (local musical legend Eddie Weaver would rise up out of the floor playing the organ and introduce the evening movies), the Grand with its fun double bills of The Minotaur and Revolt of the Slaves and like-minded fare, and the Westhampton, which must have been run by an Anglophile since it always played the recent British comedies and anything with Peter Sellers and Margaret Rutherford. By far the best bang for your buck was the Sunset Drive-in with its dusk-to-dawn line-up of five unrelated features. But I never got to attend the movie house that intrigued me the most.  The Lee Theatre had been in operation since 1935 but closed in 1963 – Carry On Teacher was its final film showing. It then reopened in September 1965 as the Lee Art Theater. I immediately became fascinated by the theater’s new programming slate and provocative ad promotions.

Even as a pre-teen, I always had a keen interest in movie promotions in the newspapers. I would study the poster image, the featured actors, the taglines and slogans, the title treatment, even the font style if it imparted any kind of information about the movie’s essence. Consider, for example, the title treatment for A Man Could Get Killed in which the two L’s in Killed are represented by dead men with their legs up in the air.

The Lee Art Theater was my first real introduction via the newspaper of “art house” cinema as it was in the mid-sixties, a mixture of serious adult-themed foreign language films (Sweden’s A Stranger Knocks, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion) and sordid exploitation films (Russ Meyer’s Mudhoney, Mondo Freudo), none of which I could see because admission was restricted to patrons over the age of 18.  So of course I became obsessed with many of the movies that played there, longing to see them and eventually catching up with some of them years later such as Radley Metzger’s Therese and Isabelle and Time of Indifference (Italian title: Gli Indifferenti), a brooding 1964 melodrama about a decadent aristocratic family based on Alberto Moravia’s novel and starring Claudia Cardinale, Tomas Milian, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters and Paulette Goddard! 

From 1965 until 1968, the Lee-Art Theatre ran some of the most eclectic double features I’ve ever come across and formed my opinion of what a true art cinema should be – a mixture of the highbrow, the lowbrow and the controversial with a distinct sense of humor balancing the programming. I don’t think there was a theater anywhere else in the world that ran double features like Sinderella and the Golden Bra and the Oscar nominated English drama, This Sporting Life, directed by Lindsay Anderson.  Or John Huston’s Beat the Devil and Radley Metzger’s Warm Nights and Hot Pleasures

The programmer was clearly targeting couples with a guilty pleasure as bait but offering a respectable or even critically acclaimed title to validate their attendance. Unfortunately, the Lee Art Theatre never quite achieved that “art house” respectability or regular attendees and was eventually forced by financial necessity to cater to the raincoat crowd with softcore movies like The Girl From S.I.N. and Olga’s Dance Hall Girls.

Eventually they were running X-rated films exclusively and “made history in a U.S. Supreme Court case entitled LEE ART THEATRE v.VIRGINIA, 392 U.S. 636 (1968). The Supreme Court overturned a lower state court decision that had convicted the owners of the theater of “possessing and exhibiting lewd and obscene motion pictures.” The Court wrote that the warrant originally issued to seize the films “fell short of constitutional requirements.” (One of the seized movies was Angelique in Black Leather). So, X-rated films continued at the Lee Art and by 1971 it was billing itself as “Richmond’s First Adult Theater.”

The Lee Art Theatre was eventually closed in 1993 and after extensive renovations was reopened in February 1996 as a performing arts center with the name The Grace Street Playhouse. l never did get a chance to attend any films there – the unique programming had ended by the time I was old enough to gain admission. But I have The Lee Art Theater to thank for an unconventional movie education by exposing me via the daily newspaper to international films and actors and even a more worldly vocabulary. I pondered terms like “For broad-minded adults only” or slogans like “Where Love Goes Skin Deep” or “A violent drama of profane love” or “Incredibly voluptuous….too much for one man.” What I would give to see a theater marquee now playing double bills like The Mark (with Stuart Whitman in an Oscar nominated role as a pedophile) and The Fourth Sex….or how about Fanny Hill and Carry on Cleo?  

Just up the street from the Lee Art Theater, a genuine repertory cinema opened in 1972 called The Biograph at 814 West Grace Street. It offered double features of international classics, golden age Hollywood favorites and now famous cult titles. The Biograph was where I got my first exposure to the films of the French New Wave, especially the work of Francois Truffaut and Alain Resnais. It was also where I encountered Night of the Living Dead for the first time (it was paired with Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers) as well as other counterculture favorites like Performance starring Mick Jagger and James Fox and the concert film Monterey Pop. The theater even programmed such notorious porn classics as Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones to sold out crowds of baby boomers. Unfortunately, attendance declined in the mid-eighties due to the rise of home video (Blockbuster) and cable (HBO, etc.) and it closed in 1987.

Still, for many years West Grace Street was the go-to destination for film buffs and it all started with the Lee Art Theater, which paved the way with some of the most adventurous film programming I’ve ever seen.

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