A few weeks into El Topo’s successful run, none other than John Lennon, already a fan of the movie, bought the rights to it, and Berenholtz lost his plum. No problem: he’d created a need and he found ways to continue to fill it, with John Waters’s gross-out classic, Pink Flamingos (’71) and, when that had exhausted the audience, Perry Herzell’s The Harder They Come (’72). Other theaters began to copy-cat: The Waverly with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, for instance. That movie had been around for a while, since ’68, but Flamingos and Harder had arrived entirely via the midnight bracket, a slot that was ideal for the oddball, the surreal, or any movie that paired well with reefer.
At the St. George Theatre, a 2,672-seat movie palace I was involved in trying to fill the seats of in 1976, we booked Reefer Madness as our first midnight title, then some tamer fare: Yellow Submarine and Woodstock. It was the year Rocky Horror would make its debut — as a midnight movie and performance vehicle across the harbor at the Waverly — but we couldn’t get our hands on that kind of fare in Staten Island. For one thing, we couldn’t afford the deposit on any kind of fresh indie. Then there was Gabe; paying the projectionist to stay past midnight cost time-and-a-half, a shocking twenty dollars an hour, and that was a full shift — till six A.M. — whether he went home at 3 or not.
Despite the tameness of our midnight fare, just putting “12 AM” on the marquee as a start time caused concession sales to rocket.
People already ate dinner at our stand, which had, I am proud to say almost a half-century later, the highest per capita sales in all five boroughs of New York City. The hot dogs were all-beef Kosher, the rolls individual Italian breads baked fresh daily, the mustard Dijon, the popcorn, fresh-popped with real butter. Add in the Good ‘n Plenties, Charleston Chews, Snickers (frozen and otherwise), the Haagen Dazs and whatever. Then factor in the midnight hour and pot smoke thick enough to induce a contact high in non-smokers, and you have munchie heaven.
Case in point: a large wide-eyed patron in a leather jacket stumbles up to the glass case and slaps down a ten dollar bill. “Let me know when this is gone,” he declares. That bill would be worth $43.08 today. Needless to say, he had to have assistance carrying back into the auditorium the groceries he’d purchased. God bless reefer and Reefer Madness...
Midnight movies as a genre, the ones that lasted, wrapping lines around the block, were all cult films, building their campy reps on their late night success. There is no equivalent to the excitement they generated in the seventies, when simply going to a movie at midnight seemed illicit.
The Venn diagram of cult films and midnight movies has a large overlap: so a Bruce Lee action pic and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (‘94) and Eraserhead (’77) share places on a list I found at Mentalfloss.
The genre has mostly exhausted itself, but there are some exceptions, like The Room, 2003 (Tommy Wiseau) which the aforementioned Mentalfloss post cites as “a film so bad that you can’t help but be compelled by it.” Now that calls for forty dollars’ worth of concession stand groceries!
1. Ben Barenholtz, whose obit appeared in this most recent Sunday New York Times, had an interesting life, before and after he managed the Elgin Theatre. That he survived the Holocaust in an earlier phase of his life is remarkable.
2. After its acquisition by John Lennon, El Topo fell from box office grace. If you want the full story on that, here it is, well worth your time, a short beautifully produced piece with interviews: Jodorowsky, Barenholtz and others — worth it for generous clips from the movie itself.
3.The Elgin lasted as a movie theater until 1978, when it began its transformation into The Joyce, a venue for dance performance. For a good shot of it in its Elgin days, check out the youtube clip in Afterthought 2.
4. Just in case you have trouble getting your mind around the fact that going to a late-night movie was, back in the seventies, kind of edgy, consider late-night television. NBC’s The Tonight Show,which debuted on TV in 1954, had itself been a major experiment in programming. In his opening comments, Steve Allen thanked the viewing audience for being bold enough to stay up late on a week night and watch TV. It goes without saying, the streets outside were mostly empty.