Bombast: The Cincinnati Kid
Amalie R. Rothschild’s 1990 documentary Painting the Town: The Illusionistic Murals of Richard Haas contains a catalog of the trompe l’oeil works of Haas, a Wisconsin-born artist who made his name in the Seventies with a series of public art commissions that seemed to redress some of the damage wrought by so-called redevelopment and urban renewal by painting “architectural illusions” onto plain blank walls. Haas’s popular murals, inspired by traditional work in Munich and the Liguria region of Italy, are invitations to think on the squandered potential, short-sighted demolition, and deferred dreams that mark (or mar) public urban space, overlaying the ideal city onto the real city. Born of an essentially reactionary and revanchist impulse, they appeared and flourished at a moment when the triumph of bare, spare, ornament-free modern architecture, spearheaded by the likes of Mies van der Rohe, seemed to be complete—if no one could bring back the pilaster, the cornice, and the entablature, at the very least Haas was going to bring back simulacra of them.
The town of Homewood, Illinois, a distant suburb of Chicago, is something like Haas’s masterpiece, now containing 14 of the artist’s murals. The first, completed in 1983, was painted on the backs of the buildings in the downtown business district, matching them to their fronts. Among the buildings “twinned” was the Homewood Theater, a 600-seat Streamline Moderne venue opened in 1937 in a converted car repair shop. You can see the back of the Homewood in Painting the Town; the marquee promises “James Stewart,” “Donna Reed,” and “L. Barrymore” in It’s a Wonderful Life (46), that most beloved of American films, in which goodwill and community spirit carries the day against unchecked capitalist cupidity. Per The New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger, a frequent talking head in the film, Haas’s work conveys something of the same idealism: “a kind of rumination on the ideal city, pretending that a city is in fact better, more complete, more coherent. He’s more and more an architecture critic as time goes on. He wants to have his work make a real comment on the failings of architects and planners and builders to make the kind of civilized cities we want. I think he’s decided to say ‘Alright, if you guys are not gonna give us the monuments we need, I’m going to make them.’”
There is a Haas mural in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, from where I am writing this week, and where I saw a public projection of Painting the Town. Titled Homage to Cincinnatus, it was commissioned by the Kroger Company in 1983 to celebrate their centennial, and is currently undergoing a much-needed restoration. The mural depicts a monument which never existed: two stairwells ascend past a statue of the city’s namesake, the Roman general Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, to a burning brazier, its smoke rising through an aperture at the peak of a coffered dome very much like that of the Pantheon. Cincinnati has suffered from the ravages of renewal, more than some cities, less than others. It was, as I never tire of telling people, the backdrop for the greatest film about urban renewal ever made, Larry Yust’s oldsploitation masterpiece Homebodies (74); more recently, tax incentives and an impressive stock of well-preserved vernacular architecture from a number of different periods have made it relatively attractive to filmmakers. It has lately substituted for New York City in Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s forthcoming, unfortunately titled Miles Davis biopic, and Todd Haynes’s Carol, which I have been given to understand contains a scene in Maury’s Tiny Cove in Cheviot.
Not everyone is taken with the city’s picturesque splendors. A recent op-ed piece in the local Enquirer newspaper by architect Robert-Pascal Barone, written in a high-handed, frequently hilarious style meant to provoke a people prone to unquestioning civic pride, described Cincinnati as “a city that’s backward and invariably wrong with just about everything they do,” concluding that “Cincinnati had so much to work with in 1950 but through concerted effort and dogged determination decision-makers have managed to ruin it all and save the very worst examples from bad periods. It’s a city that’s crying out for the wrecking ball.” Among the buildings that come in for Barone’s abuse is the “vapid space” of the Westin Atrium, a truly appalling structure completed in 1981, which is all the more horrifying if you happen to know what occupied that space before it. This would be the E.F. Albee Theatre, a $4 million picture palace designed by Thomas W. Lamb, whose United Artists Midway (and the Haas mosaic that faces it) I discussed in my tour of the movie theaters of Queens. The Albee welcomed the first patrons into its 3,500-seat auditorium in December of 1927, opening with a screening of the Clara Bow vehicle Get Your Man!. The impression which it made on visitors is described in Allen J. Singer’s Stepping Out in Cincinnati: Queen City Entertainment 1900-1960, a volume in the Images of America series, as follows: “Cincinnatians marveled at the two-story stained-glass window, ornate plaster ceilings, and bronze staircases. It even contained a pool for aquatic acts.”
The RKO first-run house was never renovated, and so apparently retained its opulent character throughout the full five decades of its life. In the mid-Seventies, it was slated for demolition, an announcement that inspired some to rally to the theater’s defense. A commenter at the always-invaluable website Cinema Treasures posted a piece from the November 1974 Hamilton Journal-News, which quotes one of the theater’s defenders at a public hearing: “The Albee reflects a facet of our culture . . . It is important for its craftsmanship, its design and because it was a focal point for the community.” It’s a Wonderful Life is beloved for the positive image it presents of a community rallying together to protect their own, but life for the most part doesn’t work out like the miracle in Bedford Falls. The Albee came down.
So would practically all of the movie theaters in downtown Cincinnati: the RKO Palace (1919-70) on 6th and Vine, later known as the International 70, which hosted the world premiere of Phantom of the Opera (43); the RKO Schubert (1921-76) and Capitol Theatre (1921-70), both on East 7th, the latter a Cinerama theater late in life, and ultimately razed for surface parking; the Grand Opera House-cum-RKO Grand (1901-80), which briefly went a bit artsy (a Cinema Treasures commenter remembers seeing La Dolce vita and Rocco and His Brothers there); the Family Theater/RKO Family Theater/New Lyric Theater (1911-57), now the site of an Arby’s; the RKO Paramount (1931; demolished) and RKO Orpheum (1909; demolished), both north of downtown in the Peebles’ Corner district on East McMillan St., at the latter of which native son Tyrone Power purportedly was an usher, and which boasted a third-floor bowling alley; The Strand (1913-50) at 529 Walnut, which also wore the sobriquet of Gayety Family Burlesque Theater and Telenews Theater; the “Dixie” Theatre (Mid-30s-1964) and the African-American owned Lincoln (1913; demolished) on West 5th in the west end, whose proximity seems like a commentary on Cincinnati’s location on the border between Union and Confederacy; the Royal Theatre (1910-79) and Cinema X (1971-73), which briefly constituted the nearest thing the uptight city had to a Red Light District; the Art Deco Times (1940; demolished) on 6th and Walnut, which flourished through the Seventies as the downtown houses disappeared, only to be leveled in turn; and the two-screen Skywalk Cinema (1973-?) on Race St., which opened with The Day of the Jackal and Truffaut’s Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me, and hosted the “World Premiere Engagement” of Homebodies in winter of 1974. (An ad in the Enquirer includes hilarious faint-praise pull-quotes from local critics: “Cincinnatians will enjoy picking out the location shots” raves Jerry Stein in the Post!) So too did the Homewood Theatre in Homewood, Illinois go to its reward, in 1992. The official website of Richard Haas shows a new version of the Homewood Theatre mural, the marquee now advertising Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind at a “REVIVAL FILM FESTIVAL.”
Cinema Treasures has listings for 119 movie theaters in Cincinnati, Ohio. Of these, 16 are listed as still operating in some form or another. (They’re missing one—the Beaux-Arts Woodward, which stopped showing movies in 1933, has recently been reopened as a concert venue.) Few of these are antiques of any architectural interest, and of those that are, fewer still are in the business of showing movies. The venue that began its life in 1910 as the Nordland Plaza Nickelodeon and Vaudeville Stage stopped showing movies in the Fifties; today it is called Bogart’s, and is a rock barn with infamously dreadful sound that has never, to my knowledge, been improved; Raekwon and Ghostface will perform there next week. The prim, neat Deco Mount Lookout Theatre in the old eastern suburbs was briefly reopened as the Mount Lookout Cinema Grill when I was a teenager. For some reason I vividly recall seeing The Thirteenth Floor (99) there with my then-girlfriend, and eating a mediocre portabella mushroom burger; today it is a sort-of supper club called the Redmoor Event Center. (Built circa 1947, the Covedale, a neighborhood house topped with a lighthouse-type spire which is now a “Community Center,” also had its last hurrah as a dinner-and-a-movie joint.) Just to the north of Mount Lookout in the Oakley neighborhood is the even more impressive 20th Century Theater, opened in 1941 by impresario Willis Vance; it’s a very handsome structure, though I am cursed to forever associate it with Nineties swing revival concerts. The Bijou-Roxy-Ritz, built as a funeral home at the turn of the last century and converted to a three-screen theater specializing in art-house fare in the Seventies—a piece in the September 1976 Cincinnati magazine says it “features old and new classics, a good many of them foreign”—is now something called the 86 Club, which upon investigation proves to be a crypto-Christian plot to lure in youths with guitar music and smoothies. (The Bijou-Roxy-Ritz also had a bar, visible in a local commercial for Hudepohl beer.) Finally, there is the 188-seat Newsreel Theatre in the Union Terminal train station, designed so that travelers on a layaway could kick back with the latest The March of Time, which someone or another tried to operate as an art house called “The Video Theatre” for a spell in 1971, programs including “head” fare like Channel One’s Groove Tube and Dynamite Chicken, as well as Emile de Antonio’s Milhouse.
I take a perverse, wistful pleasure in looking at old newspaper movie listings, as I did this week on microfilm at the Cincinnati Public Library. (Which, incidentally, used to be a converted building intended for use as an opera house that looked like this, and now looks like this.) Skipping from decade-to-decade, one can track the changes in exhibition, from the near-monopoly of RKO theaters on Cincinnati’s downtown in the Forties to the rise of the suburban neighborhood houses and drive-ins in the Fifties and Sixties (Cauldron of Blood, Crucible of Horror, and Blood of Dracula’s Castle in summer of ’71 at the Oakley, where I would later see Crocodile Dundee), and the post-studio-system dominance of the Mid-States Cinemas chain. There are also, of course, concurrent changes in public morality. As early as July of 1967, one can find Loving Couples, billed as “An Adult Motion Picture from Sweden,” playing at the Guild, a Willis Vance house on Peebles’ Corners, which would achieve a measure of fame two years later when conservative activist Charles Keating, Jr. of the Citizens for Decent Literature filed obscenity charges against it for playing Russ Meyer’s Vixen!. Keating, who died last year, is probably best-remembered for his humiliation and chastisement in the savings-and-loan scandal, all the more enjoyable for the vast gulf between his public and private morality which it uncovered, though the local tradition of censorship that he established was still alive and well when I was a young man, and still then primarily the provenance of political conservatives. This was thanks in large part to the efforts of Hamilton Country Prosecutor and Sheriff Simon L. Leis, who prosecuted Larry Flynt on obscenity charges in 1977 and publicly opposed the Contemporary Art Center’s 1990 exhibition of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. (In films depicting these incidences, Leis was portrayed by James Carville and Craig T. Nelson, respectively.) These cases, as well as a 1994 incident in which a charge of pandering obscenity was leveled against the gay and lesbian bookstore The Pink Pyramid for renting a VHS cassette of Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, combined to give the city a reputation as a cultural backwater which I’m not certain it has ever fully recovered from. As native daughter Doris Day, née Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff, was sometimes cheekily referred to as The World’s Oldest Virgin, so too did these vigilant patrollers of public morality strive to keep their city in a case of eternal, blissful pre-adolescence.
To return to the movie listings: moving through the Seventies, one can also see the beginning of the multiplex era, with the partitioning of the Showcase Cinema Tri-County, a since-bulldozed neighborhood house which has very little to distinguish it, save for the fact that it is where I remember doing most of my childhood moviegoing. I was born in 1980, when the wrecking ball had already done most of its work in Cincinnati. The only one of the downtown theaters which I was ever privileged to attend while growing up was a venue that opened on September 2, 1970 as The Place, but which I knew as, first, The Movies, then, after a brief closure in 1991, as The Real Movies. It was, on opening, a Mid-States operated venue, located on Race St., near the Skywalk. The ad for its inaugural screening, the Robert Forster and Lauren Hutton vehicle Pieces of Dreams, quotes the same Jerry Stein who’d spoken to the picturesque qualities of Homebodies as calling The Place “a stunning theatre.” Later, Robert Mulligan’s Summer of ’42 (71) played there seemingly forever.
The Place, the last single-screen theater to be built downtown, folded sometime in the late Seventies. In October of 1980, it was reopened by Larry Thomas, a native of Oak Hill, West Virginia who came from a family in the exhibition business, who’d moved to Cincinnati in 1968 to work as a booker for 20th Century Fox. When I spoke to Thomas on the phone this week, he remembered the delectations of the grindhouse era in Cincinnati, taking in double and triple bills at venues like the Empire Theater and the Uptown in Over-the-Rhine, formerly a German immigrant neighborhood* which had begun to change hands to Appalachian and African-American migrants beginning in the 1950s. When Thomas opened his repertory house, an idea that had been percolating in his head for some time, there was a vacuum in the market. Alpha Fine Arts, one of the various incarnations of Park Theatre in Northside, had closed, leaving room for what was first called Moviola, then, after protest was filed by the editing-equipment manufacturer of the same name, The Movies Repertory.
Thomas fondly recalled putting together The Movies Repertory calendars with rubber cement and posterboard, mustering packed houses for the belated premiere of Abel Gance’s Napoleon or a complete Hitchcock, or arranging, in conjunction with the Cincinnati Film Society**, local appearances by the likes of Wayne Wang and John Sayles. He also recalled, not so fondly, losing premieres to multiplexed suburban theaters with more screens than they knew what to do with, as audiences daunted by downtown crime stayed away in droves. Thomas left The Movies in ’91, though it reopened later that year and struggled on until January of 1997, last under the operation of brothers Jamie and Mick Telkamp, the latter a former Thomas protégé. (Greg Dunn, the first manager of The Movies under Thomas, is now the COO of the Regal Entertainment Group.)
For an exceedingly brief period Thomas booked the Parkland Theatre on the far, far west side of the city, built in 1881 as a Vaudeville house, and the oldest functioning theater in Cincinnati. I trekked out there in 1999 to see On the Waterfront in a nearly empty theater—the print was circulating as part of a Columbia Pictures 75th Anniversary package. I remember this as I remember practically every off-the-beaten-path moviegoing experience that I had in years that I lived here, including Cincinnati Film Society screenings of Warhol and Bruce Conner movies in the lecture hall of the old Natural History Museum, and a one-off of House of Wax at the Emery Theater, part of an ongoing program by the American Theatre Organ Society, who saved the mighty Wurlitzer*** from the shuttered Albee and moved it over here.
I am talking about Cincinnati because it is the city I grew up in, though the story I’m telling is probably not vastly different, in general details, from that of any city of more or less equivalent size in these United States. The Golden Age of the movie palaces is followed by the rise of the art house and the grindhouse, which is followed in turn by the last, most moving phase, in which a few devotees try to keep the fires burning, like the brazier in Homage to Cincinnatus. It isn’t necessarily a tragedy that I’m recounting, but the story of a sea change in attitudes toward public space which, like just about everything, is deeply rooted in the subject of race and, in the case of film culture, is a combined product of white flight, home video, and corporate consolidation, as moviegoing has increasingly ceased to be, broadly speaking, a Catholic pastime (ceremonial, communal, and done in lavish surroundings), and has become more and more Protestant (usually private, and when communal, experienced in sparsely decorated buildings).
No city in the world, Cincinnati included, has fewer functioning screens than it did in 1927 or 1946 or 1970. They are smaller, but they are omnipresent—we are now, the vast majority of us, mobile cinemas, individual facets in a billion-sided apeirogon prism of screens. Nevertheless, there are those like myself who insist in believing that there is some essential value in that communal experience, and that its last vestige should not exclusively be the domain of the ruthlessly-contemporary chain multiplexes, and that access to alternatives ought not be exclusively available to the percentage of the population that live in the vicinity of a handful of major metropolitan areas, and that it is a cruel irony that the lone art form that Americans have historically dominated with Dream Team≠like one-sidedness is the one that we attach the least importance to preserving. Today the theater that was once The Place/Moviola/The Movies/The Real Movies houses The Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, one of numerous such heavily subsidized organizations that exist across the country because the National Endowment of the Arts, too timorous to possibly underwrite any potentially offensive fare after flaps like those I’ve described in Cincinnati, or your Piss Christs and Holy Virgin Marys, decided to heave money at the Bard instead.
I am in Cincinnati to present a program of experimental short films at a pop-up screening space called the Mini Microcinema, which is where I watched Painting the Town. The Mini will run through the summer in the People’s Liberty building at 1805 Elm St. in Over-the-Rhine, not far from the former sites of the Empire and the Uptown and the Findlay Theatre, of which little information exists today. Over-the-Rhine is one of the nation’s largest contiguous historic districts, noteworthy for its plentiful instances of 19th-century Italianate architecture built by émigré Bavarian beer barons. It had occasionally been used by filmmakers for the impression of a magnificent ruin that it gave: almost the whole of Homebodies was shot there, as was A Rage in Harlem (91), undercover thriller In Too Deep (99), and the “ghetto nightmare” segments of Soderbergh’s Traffic (00). Soon it will be difficult to point a camera in any direction without hitting a craft cocktail bar or a herd of pink-necked bros, or to make the neighborhood look anything other than prosperous and freshly-painted, for it has been gentrified at wildfire pace by an organization called 3CDC. (The process is described in greater detail than I can muster in this 2011 piece by James Pogue for n + 1, part of their “City by City” series.) Nick Lachey recently opened a sport’s bar in Over-the-Rhine. Assuming that sporadic eruptions of violence, some of it with racial overtones, don’t hit epidemic levels, the full monetization of the neighborhood should be complete in a few years. The attraction of urban public space returns when there’s a reasonable guarantee of not having to share it with people from a radically different class/racial background, just as it disappeared when that guarantee was endangered. If you still want a vicarious experience of how the other half lives, there’s always Quality Television.
After the Mini’s residency at People’s Liberty, another grant recipient will take over the space, and “Other” cinema in Cincinnati will be in the market for a new venue. Ten minutes walk away stands the Imperial, a former porn palace and shimmy shack, now fallen into disrepair, but with marquee intact—much as I would love to see it host a complete Straub-Huillet in 2020, I doubt I’ll even see that ideal realized in mural form. It remains to be seen if, after such a long dry spell, there remains an appetite for cinephilia in Cincinnati, or if one can be whetted. Given that this may be my only chance to program films in my hometown, I have made certain, in honor of Messrs. Keating and Leis, to include at least one film that contains scat play. I’ll let you know how it goes.
* For nearly a century after 1848, Cincinnati was a favored destination for German refugees. My old friend Adam Williams, who I first clapped eyes on at a midnight screening of the re-released Vertigo at The Movies, recently authored a fine piece on the UFA Theatre, a downtown theater which ran a program of German-language pictures in the early 1930s, and advertised through the local Freie Presse.
** The Cincinnati Film Society was founded in 1979, more or less contemporaneously to the opening of The Movies Repertory, by Cincinnati Post film critic Dale Stevens, presumably the replacement for the much-quoted Jerry Stein. Steven Rosen, an active participant in the CFS in the Eighties, remembers programs including a Tuesday Weld tribute, a “Shoebox Film Festival” composed of found footage, and many programs by Steve Gebhardt, who’d left Cincinnati to work for Jonas Mekas and John and Yoko Lennon, then returned in the late Eighties, where he picked up programming activity. The CFS never had a permanent home, but flitted between temporary venues which included the Newsreel Theatre at Union Terminal.
*** The Wurlitzer Company was founded in Cincinnati in 1853 by German immigrant Rudolph Wurlitzer, and remained there for nearly a century. The RKO Paramount was designed for Helene Wurlitzer, wife of Wurlitzer scion Howard, who would later create an artist’s residency in her name in her winter home of Taos, New Mexico. Rudy Wurlitzer, the cult novelist and author of the screenplays for Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (71) and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (73), was a fourth-generation descendent of Rudolph, born in Cincinnati in 1937.