WRITTEN FOR THE
"STYLE" SECTION OF THE WASHINGTON POST ON THE OCCASION
OF THE CLOSING OF THE BIOGRAPH
by Jef. Hyde
time I visited the Biograph Theatre was in high school. It was
1968. I went with some friends to see "YELLOW SUBMARINE".
From the moment I walked in and saw the freaky-looking box-office
cashier, the autographed photos on the wall, and heard rock music
playing in the lobby, I had a great feeling about the place.
"Far out! I bet this would be a cool place to work,"
I thought. (We actually thought that way in the 60s, as
I recall) Well; I was right! A few years later, I was hired as
Assistant Manager. It would be my salvation from working in the
real world and my second home for years to come. I never had
to pay to see a movie again. It forever spoiled me for other
My prior work experiences had been for people I either feared
or loathed. To suddenly find myself in an environment where the
powers that be were a couple of mensches named Alan and Lenny--two
guys who were more like uncles than bosses--was unique. You don't
find too many employers who will pay your bail and also explain
the mysteries of using a credit card. I learned from them; I
got to spread my wings and exercise my creativity. I became part
of something special and exciting: Show Biz!
Well, it wasn't all glamour. I had to open the theatre, making
sure the house was clean, the popcorn was fresh, the concession
stand was stocked and the cash drawer was set correctly. Next,
I had to make sure we had the films we planned to run that day,
and haul the heavy cans up to the booth so the projectionist
could splice them on to larger reels for the nightly screenings.
Then I'd dash back downstairs, check everything again, switch
on all the lights and unlock the doors for the waiting line of
moviegoers, and spend the rest of the night selling tickets and
Sometimes there were accidents: During a Classics Of Literature
And Drama festival, a double bill of STEPPENWOLF and ULYSSES
opened not with Milo OShea on the streets of Dublin, but
Kirk Douglas and a gang of loincloth-clad Italians doubling for
Greek adventurers. Hey; it said "ULYSSES" on the film
can! How could I tell it was a sword-and-sandal epic and not
the deathless prose of James Joyce? Fortunately, the audience
had a sense of humor, and we suffered only a few refunds.
After a couple of years of this, I moved on from the day-to-day
operation of the theatre, and became involved in a number of
behind-the-scenes activities. Soon I was helping Alan and Lenny
create our programming, coming up with ideas for themed festivals
and double features (once pairing NIGHT OF THE HUNTER with A
DOUBLE LIFE, just to see Shelley Winters get murdered in both
pictures) and producing the EXPOSE YOURSELF programs--showcases
for local filmmakers. We ran everything from X-rated midnight
shows to The French New Wave. Classic Hollywood movies were interspersed
with festivals of films from Australia, Italy, Germany, Japan,
Great Britain and The Soviet Union. We had festivals that explored
Romance, Mayhem, Novels, Science Fiction, Comedy, and The Western.
People appreciated our creative approach to presentation.
We took some chances, and sometimes we got angry reactions. Our
decision to book Godards HAIL MARY offended some Catholics;
BIRTH OF A NATION was denounced by many African-Americans. Yet,
this was a place where art, history, and politics collided on-screen.
If it was available on film, and we felt it had a legitimate
place in one of our festivals, we ran it. We were not in the
business of stifling expressionwe showed movies. It was
like having your own screening room where you could show fun,
interesting, challenging stuff all the time, and changing shows
2 or 3 times a week meant there was no such thing as "routine".
We were constantly re-inventing our environment. To be able to
make a living doing this was heady stuff for a young man. How
lucky can you get?
Over the years we have been visited by hundreds of thousands
of people. Scores of protesters slept on our floors during the
May Day demonstrations when we kept the house open all night
to accommodate the crowds; I was tear gassed trying to get home
from work that morning. Marion Barry, John Waters, John Denver, Ondine, members of the PLO and
The Langley Punks are but a few of the celebrities who have schmoozed
and partied in our lobby. Dustin Hoffman, in town shooting ALL
THE PRESIDENTS MEN, dropped by to see a show one night.
Apparently his hectic shooting schedule, combined with the cool
darkness of the theatre conspired to relax him: we found him
asleep in the back row at closing time. Resisting the temptation
to take some unglamorous Polaroids of the star snoring, we gently
woke him. Sheepish and flustered, he made his exit, apologizing
profusely for having kept us.
Part of "THE EXORCIST III" was shot there. It was the
scene in which the detective, played by George C. Scott, meets
with his friend, the priest (the late Ed Flanders) at their favorite
movie theatre. In typical Hollywood fashion, they took tremendous
liberties with the geography of D.C., suggesting from exterior
shots and jump-cuts that the Biograph was actually located somewhere
on Wisconsin Avenue. But, what the heck? We've been immortalized
on film, and thats only fitting for a place that will live
in many peoples memories as the best movie theatre that
I went back to the Biograph for a couple of nights last week
to see my old pals, The Langley Punks, with whom I'd done some
film and recording projects. As I sat there watching myself on-screen,
I couldn't help thinking how most of my old haunts are now gone.
Here we are in the dark, sharing one last laugh in the place
where it all started. The Biograph is about to join that growing
list of Places That Used To Be, and here we sit
really be planning to turn this shrine into a CVS drugstore,
for Gods sake? Is nothing sacred? We who have worked and
played here--grown up here--loved this place. I don't want it
to be gone. Man; I really don't want it to become a drugstore.
I think of what Holden Caulfield said in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE:
"If you want to know the truth, I don't know what I think
Dont ever tell anybody anything. If you do,
you just start missing everybody." Perhaps in years to come
they'll find me after closing time, sitting again in the dark
in the new CVS, amidst the Dristan and the Vicks--just about
where the old boxoffice was. When the police ask me what I'm
doing, I'll quietly reply: "I just started missing everybody."