In the 1970s, during what was the Golden Age of Repertory Cinema, the midnight show was close to the heart of many such specialized movie houses. Although theaters still show films at the midnight hour, clearly, the cultural significance of their 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 (1972-87) 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.
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. What I can say is that the Biograph presented over 200 different films, not counting shorts, in its first year of existence.
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 been set 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, was still not set in stone.
About two months after we opened, an underground twin bill of “Chafed Elbows” (1966) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964) was the first special late show we presented; I think it started at 11:30 p.m. Moving such presentations to midnight soon proved better, and 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.
As far as favorites go, I doubt anyone who worked at the Biograph would put “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” on their personal top five. We got wa-ay tired of it long before it finished its five-year run. That said, my five favorite midnight shows which played at the Biograph during my stint as its manager (1972-83) are as follows:
“Eraserhead” (1977): Directed by David Lynch; Cast: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allan Joseph.
“Monterey Pop” (1968): Directed by D.A. Pennebaker; Cast: Big Brother and the Holding Co., Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Mamas and Papas, Otis Redding, The Who.
“Phantom of the Paradise” (1974): Directed by Brian De Palma; Cast: William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper.
“Putney Swope” (1969): Directed by Robert Downey, Sr.; Cast: Arnold Johnson, Stan Gottlieb, Allen Garfield.
“The T.A.M.I. Show” (1964): Directed by Steve Binder; Cast: The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Rolling Stones.
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.
So, playing a Marx Brothers title that couldn’t be seen on television, or in a standard movie theater, gave it an extra luster. We rented it from a private collector who had a beautiful 16mm print. We promoted it with radio spots on the top hippie station, 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 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 underground 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.
By the time we booked “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to play, 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 were in every neighborhood.
Sometimes, a successful midnight show run came along in the nick of time to pay the rent for the Biograph Theatre.