Thursday, August 25, 2016

Theater Roots, Pt. 3 - Off the Wall and Off the Street

In trying to dig up my Theater Roots, and try to trace just what and where got me hooked from my early years the way it did, I keep finding myself coming back to one point--I don't remember the cineplexes.  Growing up in MetroWest outside of Boston, I remember the big 8-12 screen 'plexes just off the highway in Framingham and Woburn, MA, but I only remember them for the films I saw there in the 80's and 90's...I don't remember what they looked like.  Which isn't much of a miss, since they were chains and designed to look exactly like all the others.
Talking about a small one-screen somewhere downtown in the coffee-town parts of the city immediately brings up images of small intimate arthouses, and the strange, obscure Sundance pictures that played them.  It hasn't done much for the image, and polarized the industry into believing that Bigger must be Better, in order to serve its "duty" as part of the corporate studio system, if you're going to get those A-list box-office weekends.

Off the Wall Cinema, in Cambridge, started out as one of those small arthouses, back in 1974.  It was a good time for small theaters to start up, since most commercial theaters were 1-3 screens too, and arthouses could compete with theaters on the same playing field if an acclaimed foreign film or documentary had enough breakout appeal--If you wanted to see a movie back then, it was just a question of where it was playing.  
The managers of Off the Wall lived up to their punny name by specializing in cult revivals, movies that didn't get a lot of play, but could be dug up with the right audience.  Situated in the Central Square stretch between Harvard and MIT, it had the perfect blend of odd, curious intellectual college audiences to play to, often with the new trend of art-rockumentaries, or restored silent films, or even just the culty sci-fi films from the fifties, that were just coming back into style with the mid-70's.
The name fit--It was a "Cinema art-cafe", which didn't have rows of seats, stadium or otherwise.  There were coffeehouse tables, where you could take your coffee and local-baked brownies/muffins or popcorn from the cafe' counter.  Local artists had their work exhibited as theater decoration, and the movie was shown, well, on the big screen that hung off the back wall.  Like most privately-managed arthouse theaters, it got by on supporter member subscriptions, and having your red card, that got you the discounted member price, was a badge of honor for searching out your Boston/Cambridge moviegoing.
In '79, it had become so much of a trendy Boston/Cambridge discovery, the theater tried to hit the "big time", and moved to the expiring Where's Boston theater in the downtown-Boston tourist-market of Faneuil Hall, where it would have the biggest crowd exposure.  Which was not a good move--In their Central Square spot, seated right smack between Cambridge's Harvard and MIT college-towns, they had been able to attract the right blend of intellectually curious audiences that wanted to blow off a Thursday night watching "The T.A.M.I. Show" or a John Hubley animation retrospective. Upscale-hotel convention tourists picking up a lobster or pot of beans, not so much.

When they returned to Central Square in the fall of 1980, OTW's programming was just in the right place at the right time for their big break--As a response to the big-budget (and muddily Altman-directed) Robin Williams "Popeye" movie that was all the rage that December, OTW's specialty in cult-cartoon festivals counter-programmed that same week with a festival of the original B/W 30's Dave Fleischer cartoons.  While it was just using their own strengths to compete with the big trend, you couldn't ask for a more rebellious, or, well, off-the-wall strike against the system.  The Boston Phoenix gave Williams two stars, but the Fleischer festival four stars, and this was a full eight years before knowing your classic cartoon stars was even remotely considered cool.  But in Cambridge, it became a lot cooler afterwards.
While I occasionally would take the train into town to see some of the cult screenings--like a "Golden Turkeys" showing of Robot Monster, or a "60's nostalgia" double feature of the Batman movie and the Monkees' "Head", OTW's annual "Magic Movies" summer-long festival of cartoons was an EVENT for Boston moviegoing.  July would feature a different week of classic cartoon retrospectives that only us odd grownups would be curious enough to appreciate--I remember seeing Channel 5's local-celebrity theater/movie critic Chuck Kramer sitting one table in front of me, showing his little girl the Fleischer Popeyes for the first time.  (And telling her not to be afraid of the giant Roc that carries Popeye away to the volcano in "Popeye Meets Sindbad", which Popeye returns from ten seconds later carrying a twenty-foot roast turkey.)  Everyone in 1988 who had gone to see "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" went on a pop-nostalgic baby-boom orgy that they now remembered Tex Avery's MGM cartoons, but in '82 or '83, Cambridge audiences, who had never heard of Avery outside of the local Ch. 56 Tom & Jerry cartoons, marked their calendar for the weeks OTW would be showing their Tex Avery and WWII propaganda/Private Snafu retrospectives, which were trippier in their own mad-genius way than anything you could get from the respectable theaters.

If I remember the collective creative-insanity of a group of willing art-folk getting together to watch Avery's "Who Killed Who?", I also remember the theater for being a small theater--It was, basically, a room.  As a storefront cafe space, just off the street, it might just as well be a cozy little bohemian coffeehouse, or drink-spot, just that this one showed movies.  And ones you didn't want to admit you were curious about, at that.
Sadly, one-screen theaters couldn't keep up with the real-estate, and as Central Square was more the "regular" residential part of Cambridge, the space was eventually sold to a senior center in 1986.
It could never happen again, I thought, not in the days when everything you want to see is on DVD, and Multiplexes ruled the earth.  Well, it could, but it wouldn't be easy--

In Amherst, MA--the college-town for UMass, and Emily Dickinson's town in more ways than one--the local arthouse is still doing well, as the main upscale 5-plex for the indie features, the festival Oscar-bait, the restorations and the touring activist documentaries.
The popularity has created a need to expand, and recently, the theater has branched out "the Amherst Studio Theatre"--Along the side corridor of the building, with a storefront restaurant, frozen yogurt stand and an architect's office leading from the antique front to the back theater, is the Amherst Theater's one-room extension, for smaller, more limited-audience screenings.  It's a storefront space, and the theater is, in a word...small.
Like, would thirty seats be considered "small"?  "It has its pros and cons," one employee joked when I asked him about it.  Depending on the movie, maybe "cozy" would be the better word.  "Studio", after all, is defined in the dictionary as "One room".
The larger plex, down at the end of the corridor, has plenty of room for those watching the current-flavor acclaimed film or a closed-circuit simulcast of the British National Theater--If you're showing a restoration of Orson Welles' "Chimes at Midnight", it won't attract the same crowds, though it may attract some.  The point is, when the movie's showing, the lights are off--You don't really know HOW many people are in the theater, or how big it is.  All you know is that there are people watching it.

When the local theaters moved out of town, multiplied their screens and became Multiplexes, they did bring some advantages with them:  A hit movie could play on as many screens as needed, and there was no more need to stand in line and worry if the Star Wars movie would be "sold out"...If a big movie flops the second week, its number of screens can be fluidly reduced, and make room for something else.  But going Bigger brought the idea that a theater must show EVERYTHING--It must offer every movie available that you could see if you were going out, and why go anywhere else?  It must be the one source of studio income, even if the crushing demand for studio ticket-sales percentages leaves the theater crushing under its own elephant weight for upkeep, overhead and employees, and supporting itself with ads, $7 popcorn and Coke in collectible tumblers.  But when it isn't a big movie season, bigger isn't better, and the glass that was half full now becomes half empty--Underperforming movies that used to leave town quickly now have to stay and fill space until something else shows up, even if it plays to empty screenings.  An old movie or classic revival could play just as well in the empty screen that was showing the "Ben-Hur" remake two weeks earlier--and arguably attract a few more audiences--but then the theater would be shirking its "duty" to provide the studio with those last weeks of sales.  A chain theater is not always in control of its own actions.
It's created in our minds the idea that a theater must be two miles out on the highway, or attached to a shopping mall, and that it be your One-Stop Location...It must offer More, to be able to offer Everything.  When in fact, the definition of a "theater" is simply a room where people go to watch movies.  That's all it ever was.
It can be a big room or a little room.  It can serve popcorn, or it can serve espresso.  It can be a big complex with acres of free parking just off the highway, or it can be a storefront on the local main street just next to the bookstore.  It can show Civil War, in 3D and Dolby surround-sound, or it can show Tex Avery or Orson Welles on a makeshift wall.  It all comes down to a question of what will attract enough people that want to see what's playing.

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