Hollywood Vampires: The Birth of Midnight Movies on L.A.'s Sunset Strip is a three-part series of essays by Tim Concannon.
PRAISING ARIZONA: LOUIS K. SHER VS. THE CENSOR, THE CASE OF LES AMANTS
"Whenever I hear the word cinema, I can't help thinking hall rather than film."
kiva. noun. An underground or partly underground chamber in a Pueblo village, used for ceremonies or councils. Origin: Hopi.
Arguably, before El Topo played at the Elgin in New York's West Village in 1971—and before trans performance troupe the Cockettes performed their Nocturnal Dream Shows for film director, impresario, and protégé of Salvador Dalí, Stephen F. Arnold, at the Pagoda Palace Theatre on San Francisco's Russian Hill—midnight movies began at a theatre adjoining Santa Monica Boulevard, where the Underground Cinema 12 film festival run by Mike Getz played to packed houses of L.A.'s Freaks in 1969.
Getz's uncle, Louis K. Sher, was a distributor, theatre proprietor, film and Broadway producer, a tireless opponent of censorship, and an occasional client of Alan Dershowitz. (Dershowitz's first US Supreme Court appearance, in 1969, making the transition from being the youngest tenured professor in the history of Harvard Law School to a high-profile civil-rights lawyer, was representing the manager of Boston's Symphony Cinema Scraphim Karalexis, who was defending his exhibition of the Swedish pornographic film I Am Curious—Yellow. Taking on US government censors in defence of the First Amendment was something Dershowitz had in common with Sher. Famously, Dershowitz also handled the successful 1976 appeal of Deep Throat star Harry Reems, who was initially convicted on federal charges of conspiracy to transport the film over state lines).
Despite exerting an invisible influence over the development of modern cinema, like his Kiva Theatre in Scottsdale Arizona, Sher's name is barely recalled today. When he is remembered in Scottsdale, as I discovered on a 2011 trip there to visit where his cinema had once stood, it's with a wry smile and a certain amount of fondness.
Scottsdale is about 390 miles east of Hollywood. The I-10 route takes you there directly, in effect. The seven hour drive goes through Palm Springs, the desert, past Joshua Tree National Park. It's a beautiful landscape of wild desert and untamed freeways, even prettier than Fresno and Bakersfield to the other side of Los Angeles, where James Dean died too young. There aren't as many bends on the road driving to Phoenix. It's a soothing, arid vista.
Scottsdale has attracted movie stars and record company executives close to burn-out for many decades. Buster Crabbe—Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers—retired here. Nowadays a few porn stars are residents, such as Priya Rai who does live appearances in town sometimes. It's starting to feel like an overly manicured retirement home, despite the large number of arts festivals the town runs and the many museums open in Downtown during tourism season.
When I visited the wooden building that stands at 7125-7219 E. Main Street, Scottsdale in 2011, the few shop units that were occupied sold the jewelry and Native American bead work that are the staples of the tourist trade in this part of the United States. It was once the Kiva Theatre, where the underground stream of Art House, exploitation, cult and midnight movies overlapped with the imagination of a 14 year old boy originally from Cincinnati, Ohio (by way of Haddon Township, New Jersey), who made Super-8 adventure movies with his friends, and loved to spend his Saturdays at the movies…
If motion pictures constituted the undeclared religion of the 20th century, the unassuming strip mall in Scottsdale, Arizona would qualify as one its most important shrines. In 1960, Steven Spielberg was one of a small gang of kids entering the modest wooden structure, past the scarlet-striped box office in the foyer, from which a woman called Mary Anne sold candied popcorn in mind-altering colors to shoppers and tourists passing by until a few years ago. The box office was the last remaining sign that this had ever been a movie theatre, let alone the one from which the popular cinema of the Seventies sprung from the overactive mind of movie nut Steven Spielberg, and which also gave rise to midnight movies by way of being the HQ to the Art Cinema Guild.
The theatre Spielberg knew as a child was originally called the Tee Bar Tee, and had been since Scottsdale's first mayor, Malcolm White, built it in the Fifties. This all changed in 1962 when the building was acquired by Louis K. Sher. Originally based in Cleveland, Ohio, Sher moved his operations to Arizona when his wife developed diabetes and a doctor recommended the desert climate for her health.2 "Kiva," is a Pueblo term for round ceremonial halls in the South West associated with the groups such as the Anasazi who live north of Scottsdale, nearer to Flagstaff. The two major peoples who lived in Scottsdale before Europeans took over were the Hohokam and then their descendants, the Pima. Sher's choice of "Kiva" as a name was pure romanticism, much as cinemas were called the "Luxor" or the "Grenada."
The young Steven Spielberg bought a 50-cent ticket every Saturday morning to see marathon matinees: two features, usually both B-movies—Westerns, science fiction, monster and Tarzan films—ten cartoons, and occasionally classics like John Ford's The Searchers and Huston's Moby Dick. "It was a great Saturday," he later recalled. "I was in the movies all day long. I saw Tailspin Tommy and Masked Marvel and Commando Cody and Spy Smasher—serials like that."
As an adult, Spielberg has paid affectionate homage to the movies he saw at the Kiva theatre on Scottsdale's Main Street, sitting in the darkness with the friends he made monster movies with on Super-8 cameras.3 "I've seen absolute duplicates in Spielberg movies of scenes we used to see back in the 1950s at the Kiva," remembered his friend and fellow Super-8 movie maker, Barry Sollenberger. "When Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark rides his horse down the hill and jumps onto the truck carrying the ark, Spielberg got it from the 1937 serial Zorro Rides Again, with John Carroll."4
"There's something magical," Spielberg told Mark Kermode in a 2006 interview, "about having something as primitive-sounding today as twenty four pictures a second moving past a shutter gate with a light beam projecting on a big silver or white screen. It's magic. And it's our forefathers."5
Over the three decades in which Sher ran his Art Theatre Guild from Scottsdale he fostered artistic and technological innovation in American cinema-exhibition, cosmopolitan taste in the midst of cultural scarcity, and smut. Mostly smut, it must be said.
That his contribution to world cinema culture has barely been acknowledged is in large part due to the fact that he spent much of his career showing soft-core pornographic movies, with unequaled commercial success. As Executive Producer of the 3D skin flick The Stewardesses,6 Sher oversaw the highest-grossing 3D film of all time. Made on a budget of $100,000, it eventually grossed over $27 million in 1970 money. This makes it one of the most profitable films ever, in terms of a ratio of investment to return, only superseded by James Cameron's Avatar.
For Sher, sleaze and innovation went hand in hand, the results of which were rarely comfortable for his business. On 7th March 1964, the Hollywood Vice Squad busted his nephew, Mike Getz, in possession of a print of Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising and charged him with lewd exhibition. The subsequent trial (Getz's conviction was overturned on appeal) was covered in the first issue of the L.A. Free Press, with articles by Seymour Stern and Jonas Mekas relating his own prosecution for showing Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures. It was one of the emerging film counterculture's early skirmishes with censorship and police oppression.7 The Scorpio Rising bust in L.A. covered in the first edition of the Freep was neither the first nor the only time that Sher's business stood up to the censors. He fought and won a landmark legal case in the Fifties that went to the Supreme Court and established the limits of obscenity and artistic freedom in the USA. America was then, as now, considered by the global industry to be the most important single market for motion pictures, which gives Sher's risk-taking an even broader significance.
On 13th November 1959, Nico Jacobellis, an Italian immigrant managing Sher's Heights Art Theatre in Cleveland Heights exhibited Louis Malle's Les amants.8 Tame by today's standards, it's typical of the kind of titillating imported fare on which Sher established his chain. Brigitte Bardot's table-top tango in Roger Vadim's ...And God Created Woman was another defining image of this period, when the self-censorship of Hollywood and the Conservative values of middle America dictated what could and couldn't be shown in cinemas.
Les amants contained scenes equally as shocking to moral guardians as Bardot's sultry badinage: Jeanne Moreau has an orgasm on screen, and leaves her husband and child to run off with her lover. Jacobellis knew what he was doing (managing another of Sher's Cleveland theaters, the Continental, he baited censors once again with the 1967 Swedish film I Am Curious—Yellow, which eventually led to the case in Boston and Dershowitz acting on Karalexis's behalf as his legal advocate). In 1959, Les amants was too much for the forces of public decency. Jacobellis was prosecuted for obscenity, and Sher and his lawyers fought the US Government censor all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1964, the court overturned his conviction with a landmark ruling that obscenity could not be based on a community standard, but required a nationwide standard that could be applied universally. In the course of the case, Justice Potter Stewart made the now-famous remark as he struggled to find a judicial definition of hard-core pornography. "I know it when I see it," he wrote, "and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."
Sher is overlooked in histories of film not only due to the eventual decline of his business into lowest common denominator logic, but also because his contribution to cinema was mainly as a businessman—albeit a huckster of genius, as well as taste and refinement—rather than as a director, writer or performer. Nonetheless, his business instincts were pivotal to shaping popular tastes and finding audiences for new filmmakers and genres.
In the early Sixties, Sher brought foreign art films and bizarre fare like Mondo Cane to post-beatnik hipsters in the South and Midwest, during a period of endless cowboy and Jerry Lewis movies. ("If You Never See Another Film, You Must See Mondo Cane!" Sher's newspaper ads at the time declared. Famously, Mondo Cane—which went on to spawn a franchise of exploitation travelogues—featured an old Italian woman breast feeding a baby pig.)
In the Fifties and Sixties, while the theatre showed old kiddie pictures on Saturday mornings, the Kiva had a reputation for showing bawdier fare to an adult audience in the evening. By night, sharp-suited hipsters and their girlfriends in elegant imported dresses stood at the ticket window, eager to check out foreign films featuring European starlets in various states of undress. By the Sixties, Scottsdale's cognoscenti attended the Kiva to see the latest underground and hippie films from the East and West coasts. Traders along Main Street recall the Kiva Theatre with a smile. That there was a cinema showing adult films for almost three decades until 1993, on a row of stores selling Native art, cowboy boots and snacks, adds a frisson to an otherwise unprepossessing row of tourist shops. Sher's chain of theates had been the thinking man and woman's archly knowing version of midnight "spook" shows; though hokey Frankenstein monsters and "glamour ghouls" were as absent at Sher's cinemas as they would have been at one of Hugh Hefner's cocktail parties. By the Seventies, the bathycolpian extremities were out in the audience like a guy in a gorilla suit, thanks to stereoscopic tits.
With the growing pressure of home video in the Eighties, the audience simply wasn't there for classy European films featuring nudity and outré content. This meant that Sher had to show increasingly more hardcore material at his theatres. The line between pushing boundaries and pandering to the masses is always a difficult one to delineate, and even a supremely shrewd entrepreneur found it impossible to remain at the end of the spectrum where Russ Meyer and Bettie Paige would have felt more comfortable.
Nobody I talked to in Scottsdale in 2011 knew that this building was the same place as the cinema where the young Spielberg went to Saturday morning matinees, though they were generally delighted and surprised to be told this. They knew the story that he went to a movie theatre somewhere in town, but not that it was the one on Main Street, and definitely not the one with a reputation for showing racy films into the early 1990s. Not that this information caused anyone to bat an eyelid. This surprised me, in a community known for its self-consciously Christian values and strongly Republican leanings.
"You have to be relaxed in Arizona, it's so hot," one trader opposite the Kiva told me, jokingly. "We're all tourists here. When I came in 1958 it was a town of five thousand people. New people coming in were relaxed about it, but felt an adult theatre wasn't really the done thing."
Unlike the Reseda drive-in in the San Fernando Valley featured at the end of Bogdanovich's Targets, or the Garden of Allah Hotel, and Pandora's Box on the Sunset Strip, Sher's legacy of film-exhibition on the margins of culture hasn't even left a celluloid record of some kind to act as a placeholder, a push-pin in people's memory. The Kiva, The Los Angeles Cinema Theatre and the other buildings in his Art Theatre Guild chain were instrumental not only to midnight movies but to cultivating an interest in transgressive, experimental but popular cinema of all kinds. Sher's cinemas exist now more as fragments of stories, shards of velum from a shattered Dead Sea Scroll of American film-going. The splinter in your eye is often the best magnifying glass. The very difficulty we have in reconstructing these stories is often what gives them value and meaning.
Sher died in 1998 and received a short but complimentary obituary in the New York Times.9 He deserves another epitaph, I think: 'Louis K. Sher, proprietor, Art Theatre Guild of America. Not gone, but forgotten.'