Grindhouses In and Out Of Dreams
It took a long time for grindhouse to become a dirty word. Google it today and you’ll find any number of tawdry definitions. A downtown movie theater - in disrepair since its glory days as a movie palace of the '30s and '40s - known for "grinding out" non-stop double-bill programs of B-movies. Fanboy experts, few of them born before such places vanished, differ but slightly when describing venues largely the product of wishful imagination --- A grindhouse is a movie theatre that specializes in playing movies that feature over the top violence and sexual imagery. Suddenly everyone’s an authority on a trade term largely unknown outside exhibition circles until director Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez reasserted it with their recent "double-feature" homage. Real grind showmen, at least those operating through the sixties, would cringe in the face of demeaning labels post-modernists have attached to their modest line of exhibition. Must be that word grind, and nasty connotations it entails. Once a simple term to describe theatres running continuous through the day, grind meant opening your doors, usually before noon, and playing without interruption till closing. There were plenty of first-run palaces within this classification. In a day when patrons entered halfway through shows, then stayed into the next to catch up, grind was all but a business necessity. Few theatres profited on dark screens and lengthy breaks between programs. No one called the Liberty a grindhouse --- Ivan Anderson and Colonel Forehand would have been mortified at the thought of having their venue lumped in amongst company so unworthy as that celebrated by Tarantino’s crew --- yet we sat out many a 60’s Saturday while two and three features unspooled without a moment’s break. I remember calling the boxoffice to ask when Tarantula would start. Whenever the one before it ends was the cashier’s brusque reply. A ratings system and resulting ugly product, plus the closure of studio exchanges (with resulting loss of available prints), gave grindhouses their scurvy name. By the early seventies, we’d been cast out of Eden. So much of theatre going after that was like arriving at the fairground after the circus left town.
I’ve alluded to the National Theatre in previous posts. It was an 1800 seat survivor of the silent era (built in 1921) that somehow managed to keep its lights on through December of 1966. A single fuzzy picture here was all I could find. People around Greensboro, North Carolina have forgotten it except those lucky enough to spend Saturdays there. The National was a grindhouse I’d have gladly pitched a tent in. A 1967 wrecking ball denied me the pleasure of seeing it first hand, but ads shown here and recollections I’ve gathered from youthful patrons of the era convince me that if there was a filmgoing heaven on earth, the National was surely it. Consider the week of January 1-7 in 1964. Thursday and Friday was a triple bill of The Three Stooges In Orbit, Jack The Giant Killer, and Jason and The Argonauts. Saturday and Sunday brought Horrors Of The Black Museum and House On Haunted Hill, followed by The Bravados and The Naked Spur on Monday and Tuesday. This was but a typical week at the National. Shows like these were possible because studio exchanges in Charlotte kept old prints on hand and thus in service. Grindhouses like the National could book features going back to the thirties, and often did. Gunga Din, They Died With Their Boots On, The Grapes Of Wrath --- all played there in 1964. Local audiences still accepted black-and-white in theatres as virtually none of them had color television at home (there were only 1.3 million sets in American homes that year). The fact many of these pictures played day and date with TV was little deterrent. Admission to the National was thirty-five cents for kids. The one I spoke to is fifty-five now. He used to ride city transit to the front door each Saturday and stay till nightfall. He’d watch three movies at least once (from an 11:00 AM start) and catch the same bus home after dark. The theatre was clean and safe (notwithstanding a single wharf rat observed near the front row on one occasion). No drunks nor threat of molestation. Mostly kids. Seldom packed, but always healthy attendance. Richard saw Elvis there in person and fell asleep during his show. It was February 6, 1956. Who knew? He caught The Lone Ranger first-run and virtually all the notable sci-fi pics. There was a carnival atmosphere about the place. Posters were everywhere. He remembers long walks to the boy’s room. Halls were low-lit. A one-sheet for I Was A Teenage Frankenstein gave him a start during one of those. The place was cooled by enormous fans that blew right in your face. You might come out on an August evening feeling like Stuart Whitman at the end of Sands Of The Kalahari. There were actually box seats along the left and right wall, but no one sat in them. You could have remade Chaney’s Phantom here. They’d let kids bring bag lunches in. Who wouldn't gladly eat grass for the kind of triple features they routinely got?
There were other grindhouses in North Carolina, perhaps more than old newspaper microfilm reveals. Most ran ads sparingly … some not at all. The Belvedere in Charlotte stands to this day, but the theatre closed years ago. They seated 460 and ran back-to-back shows to die for. These tattered samplings I clipped at age ten represent the limit of their promotional budget. Ads in The Charlotte Observer ran high when your maximum ticket price was fifty cents. I’m betting there were more grindhouses in Charlotte. They just operated below the radar. A very pleasant recurring dream of my youth involved rounding a corner to find a hitherto unknown theatre. I go to visit the projectionist and his booth is filled with 35mm prints of many favorites. Upon my request for a Hammer film I’d not seen, he says Certainly, Sir, and down I go to join an audience much like the ones for whom such dreams came true in venues like the Belvedere. Smaller communities made do with fewer screens. Grindhouses were generally for towns at least big enough to have a TV station. One exception was Hickory and its legendary Catawba Theatre, notorious outpost for features pinched out of depots and salvaged off dump trucks. My friend Norman loved movies, but shunned the Catawba. Just why is a mystery, for this was one square lot seemingly suspended in time. It was operated by the selfsame pool hall operator from whom I’d (much) later score that 35mm print of Horror Of Dracula. He’d get prints and keep them. The Catawba dared not advertise lest exchanges be alerted. Norman would pass the marquee in the mid-sixties and see Yankee Doodle Dandy and Rebel Without A Cause sharing a bill. Was this place the realization of my recurring dream? It was closed and torn down by 1972 when I started college in Hickory, but there would be those who spoke of fabulous treasures within those parched walls.
Our closest grindhouses were a two-lane hour’s drive to Winston-Salem. There were three that flourished there in the sixties, but all were gone by 1970. The Lincoln, Center, and Lafayette were classified as Negro houses, as these were the only integrated hardtops in town. They’d list in the Sunday Showcase column of The Winston-Salem Journal. Otherwise, you’d have no idea of what played and when. I could look at their schedule and hope, but no way was anyone going to drive me 58 miles for movies often predating my conception. The one remarkable (nay pivotal) day that proved an exception occurred in July 1966 when somehow I persuaded my mother to carry us down for the Center’s triple dollop of Pit and The Pendulum, Premature Burial, and Tomb Of Ligeia (note the Journal’s Showcase listing for the week as shown here --- clear to see the grinds were running well ahead of mainstream lobster houses). Surely there was another mission that took us to Winston that day (a visit to my children’s dentist?), but this is the part I remember. Here was my one and only visit to a real live grindhouse in full flowering. The Center was no crumbling edifice. Spanking clean, if a bit careworn, its entrance area pulsated with three-sheets towering above us. Rotisserie hot dogs twirled behind a well-stocked concessions counter. Grindhouses may well have been hazards elsewhere, but I felt safe at the Center, so much so as to ask the friendly manager if he’d please mail me that Pit and The Pendulum one-sheet once he was done with it. Certainly, Sir, said he, and the address I tendered on a scrap of paper was carefully printed so as to avoid the remotest possibility of delivery confusion. Alas, the parcel never came. Our postman tactfully refrained from asking why I met him street side for the remainder of that summer. Having dealt previously with the likes of Gothic Castle and The Captain Company, my patience was eternal.
NC grindhouses might have survived a little longer if television hadn’t gobbled up product so voraciously. By the late sixties, windows between theatrical and free TV were but a sliver, especially for the kind of movie grinds depended on. Hercules In the Haunted World opened January 1965 at the Lincoln. By October, it was playing Late Shows at home. 1968 found color sets penetrating an estimated third of American homes. What reason to go out and pay when you could see all the merchandise right there in your den? Studio exchanges bailed out of Charlotte through the seventies, leaving thousands of prints landfill bound. No longer could you book MGM oldies like The Bribe and Carbine Williams for double action bills. All those Killer Shrews and Invaders From Mars crowding the National and Center marquees were junked for good. The Charlotte Observer newspaper trucks that used to deliver prints through piedmont and western NC were carrying first-run titles and nothing but. My friend at the old Crown Cinemas in Hickory (you there, Geoff?) had to book through New York and California when he played a classics series in 1984. Shipping costs alone killed their profit. The old Catawba would have had these squirreled in its attic, or at the least scored what they needed for a twenty-dollar rental out of Charlotte. Exhibition took a mighty hit when those exchanges closed. Grindhouses would henceforth go urban dwelling, and from there gather up moss of disrepute we now associate with them. Outside of titles with rural themes, we never even got much of the stuff that played 42nd Street environs. Double features were extinct by the eighties. The last one I recall around here was when Fox tried to combo Aliens with their remake of The Fly, and that was at least twenty years ago. I don’t wonder at audience indifference (if not bafflement) over Tarantino’s film --- combo bookings are as foreign to kids today as theatrical "B" westerns were to my generation. As Samuel Goldwyn said, we’ve passed a lot of water since then. The poster art for Grindhouse did at least manage to evoke window cards of yore. I wonder if North Carolina’s own Benton Card Company is aware of the tribute paid it by 2007 poster artists for Grindhouse, as they obviously borrowed the design of Die, Monster, Die!/Planet Of The Vampires as shown here. AIP used Benton Card for all their 14X22 displays --- that business out of Benson, NC still has inventory remaining and presumably available to collectors.
Varied ads for the National and Belvedere reflect imaginative selling even within tiny spaces dictated by non-existent marketing budgets. The Center infrequently called attention to first-runs they (seldom) had, but the Lafayette and Lincoln never once showed up in my perusal of theatre advertising from those waning days of Winston-Salem grindhouses. Indeed, the Lafayette was first to be shuttered in the Spring of 1964. Aforementioned photo of the National was taken only weeks before they closed down in December 1966, but the venerable old palace was going out with a retro bang --- She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Wake Of The Red Witch! Other images are of grindhouses in various states. Here’s the first-run Fox Warfield opening Black Sabbath and The Evil Eye in San Francisco … and note grind neighbor Crest Theatre with its triple bill of The Comedy Of Terrors, Kid Galahad, and The Wild and The Innocent.