But wonder of wonders, by four o’clock, lines had begun to form around the block, and by nightfall our 2,672-seat hall had filled nearly to capacity –twice. People told us later it was the dark mysterious cave of our auditorium that had drawn them, with its rich red velvet and gold statuary. Most had already seen the movie first run, but imagined the light of certain key scenes, playing on gilding and drapes, and so they lined up. The first time they’d seen it had been for the movie, the second time for the theater.
What’s the relationship between a movie theater and its movie? In this age of streaming, it’s a good question to ask.
Last week, I wrote about a certain pop-up theater on the upper west side of Manhattan that has come to be because the constituents miss the closed Lincoln Plaza across the street. They miss watching art house classics, but also something more; the very drabness of the lobby, with its portrait of Humphrey Bogart as Rick from Casablanca, its smoked salmon sandwiches and the proprietors’ daughter’s artwork, at the derelict and empty Lincoln Plaza they hope will one day re-open. This loss has drawn them to rent an auditorium and seek publicity, with hopes.... It’s the Lincoln Plaza they loved, as much as the movies that it showed.
In a memoir workshop I facilitate on Saturdays at the local library, a writer brought in a piece on Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1971. Although her piece was dedicated to the link between the sense of smell and memory, with a nod to the Necco Wafers factory, which dominated the neighborhood with its toothsome scents (chocolate on Wednesdays for example), she broadened it to describe other aspects of the community, including an intriguing reference to Central Square Cinemas, one of two art houses then in the neighborhood. The movie theater blogger in me sat bolt upright when she read the following sentence, “Another indoor space that Necco Wafers could not penetrate was the Central Square Movie Theater. It reeked of popcorn and salt. This venue showed the same picture, The King of Hearts, for five years.”
Five years? Clearly they were desperate for product! A 1966 film, The King of Hearts, in those days something of a failure, would definitely have been rentable as a B pic, dodging the necessity of booking weekly features — which would require a deposit-and-percentage arrangement. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, launched a little later at The Waverly in Manhattan, had, I’d assumed, been the standard-bearer for ritual viewing, the first of its kind, Now I know better.
If Rocky Horror was more-or-less launched as a cult film by repeat performances at The Waverly, The King of Hearts was largely pulled out of the viewing trash heap by Central Square. Its reviews in 1966 had been dismal. Without those five faithful years of presentation, and the word-of-mouth that ensued, Hollywood might never have been forced to cut fresh prints.
A bio of Henry Sheehan, film critic and native of Boston notes, “...Further down Mass. Ave. were the twin Central Square Cinemas, though they almost didn’t qualify as a twin, since Philippe De Broca’s King of Hearts took up one screen for at least three years (no joke; there’s some kind of record involved).”
I have been looking hard for evidence of this official record, haven’t found it, but in the process of looking, found the following, in the annals of The Harvard Crimson (1980), “The 1967 film 'King of Hearts' starring Alan Bates, directed by Philippe deBroca, began its run in 1971 as a ‘fluke,’ assistant theater manager David C. Skinner said Sunday. The film began as a co-feature in the double-screen theater, only to skyrocket to a five-year engagement that became a Cambridge classic.
Joseph W. St. George, a film programmer, Sunday said he attributes part of the movie's success to ‘being anti-war when Nixon was invading Cambodia.’ He added, ‘It was absurd, beautiful and warm-hearted. It didn't offend your sensibility. It didn't make you think.’’’
No doubt it was the anti-war theme of the movie during the darkest years of the Vietnam War that drew people to it initially. Then word-of-mouth, followed by the tradition of attendance at Central Square made it a “Cambridge classic.” In other words, a ritual of attendance.
Have we lost this important link, between attendance and theater? Or, as I mentioned earlier, in an age of binge-watching and streaming, attendance at any theater?
Closed since 1980, Central Square Cinemas’ original site is, apparently, a Quest Diagnostics storefront these days. Farther down Massachusetts Avenue, the Orson Welles, the more serious art house in Cambridge, survived another six years, succumbing on May 24, 1986 to a fire which started, sadly, in the popcorn machine. Thus do movie theaters end, either in conflagration, via fire, or in the ice of troubled booking and no attendance.
1. Chris Cato, whose piece, “Scent and Memory,” I’ve referenced (thanks Chris!), also notes, “The Orson Welles Cinema included a record shop, bookstore, and a restaurant that notoriously required strangers sitting at the same table to order the same meal. I ate there only once.” Odd place, Cambridge in 1971!
2. Here’s another intriguing entry from The Harvard Crimson (1975) on booking troubles at Central Cinemas.