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Though some believe Washington was provincial 30 years ago, on Sept. 30, 1967, the day the Biograph Theater opened, foreign films were all over town: King of Hearts, A Man for All Seasons, The 400 Blows, Ulysses, and I, a Woman were playing at theaters ranging from Georgetown to H Street NE. The only multiscreen cinema in town was the Janus, where A Man and a Woman was about to hit the six-month mark, playing on both screens. While the Circle was playing a U.S./Anglo double bill of The Endless Summer and The Ipcress File, the Biograph’s debut offering was Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin/Féminin and Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, a pairing that pointedly combined the cutting-edge with the classic.
Virtually none of the moviehouses operating in Washington that day have survived unaltered. All of the grand downtown theaters (Trans-Lux, Palace, Playhouse, Keith’s, Town) and most of the neighborhood houses (among them the Apex, Atlantic, Atlas, Booker T, Capitol Hill, Georgetown, Kennedy, Langston, Ontario, Penn, Republic, Savoy, Takoma, and Tivoli) have been torn down or shut down. Others have added screens (MacArthur, Avalon), been converted to live performances (Warner, Lincoln) or rebuilt entirely (Dupont). Multiplexes, national chains, and suburban shopping malls have redefined moviegoing. In slightly less than 30 years, almost everything has changed, and the Biograph has gone from upstart to institution. On June 30, it will be a memory.
Since 1967, the repertory cinema business has changed as much as the mainstream movie industry. The programs that drew young people to the Biograph’s edge-of-Georgetown location in its early days—a mixture of rock ’n’ roll, classic Hollywood, and “underground” cinema—lost much of its appeal as the boomers aged. Even more fateful was the widespread acceptance of the VCR, which eliminated the interest in regular showings of Casablanca and The Philadelphia Story. Still, the Biograph was undone not by the VCR, but by CVS.
The Biograph isn’t closing because it loses money, cautions Alan Rubin, who’s been one of the theater’s co-owners since it opened. “These last five or six years have been really our best years, financially and probably creatively, too,” says Rubin. “Everyone always thinks we’re on the edge [financially], but we’ve never had a losing year. We’ve had 29 years in the black.”
That profit wasn’t sufficient, however, to allow the Biograph to purchase its building, an old Nash automobile showroom built in 1925. “We tried to buy it over the years, but they never would sell it,” says Rubin. Since the building’s original owners, Nash dealers Williams and Baker, didn’t want to lose a tax advantage by selling as long as one of them survived, the Biograph was able to continue extending its lease for 26 years. With Williams still alive in 1993, the theater was able to arrange a three-year extension. “The day I signed the lease,” Rubin says, “Williams died.”
That put the building on the market, where it was bought by CVS for
an estimated $1 million. (The chain also recently took over the site of
the Franz Bader Gallery, another venerable Washington arts institution,
at 15th and K NW.) “If CVS hadn’t bought it, we’d still be here,”
The big M Street display windows still make the Biograph look like
an automobile showroom, but much else has changed at the theater since
it was opened in 1967 by Rubin and his partners Leonard Poryles, David Levy, Paul Tauber, and Neil Cohn. Most of them were employed by
the federal government then—trained as a geologist, Rubin worked at
the U.S. Geological Survey—and only toiled at the theater once every
“[Before the Biograph existed] there were huge numbers of films that just never got played [in D.C.],” Rubin says. “We opened the doors and people came. It was successful right away.
“Initially, the programming was kind of slapdash. We ran [Godard’s] Pierrot le Fou one week, and then the Marx Brothers,” he remembers. Rock was a major draw: The theater played Let It Be and Woodstock, and Monterey Pop lasted for 30 weeks.
“We were the first theater in Washington to do regular midnight shows,” Rubin notes. “We ran Pink Flamingos at midnight for a year, and we would pack the place every weekend for midnight shows.”
The theater’s success led the partners to open a second Biograph in Richmond, which they operated “for about 15 years.” They also started the Shirley-Duke (now the Foxchase) in a west Alexandria shopping center, a three-screen cinema that is still owned and operated by Rubin and Poryles, the only two remaining partners.
David Levy left in 1973 to open the nearby Key, which upon the closing of the Biograph will be the only independently owned first-run theater in the Washington area. Levy had been doing the booking, which Rubin then shouldered. In the mid-’70s, he began doing “festivals” of related films, many of them older Hollywood movies. “It was pretty easy running those,” notes Rubin. “You didn’t have to get reviews. Everyone knew who Bogart was.”
Within a few years, however, the VCR began to threaten the box-office receipts for both classics and midnight movies. (“Six people can rent a $2 video and get stoned and sit home and not have to come out of the house,” notes Rubin.) To compensate, the festivals started to range further from the familiar: Such series as “Great Leading Ladies,” “Sci-Fi,” “Literature on Film,” and “Westerns” were replaced by the French New Wave and the New Australian cinema. Despite the hostility of Gary Arnold, then the influential reviewer for the Washington Post, toward the New German directors, the theater successfully ran the work of Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders. Mike Jeck, who now programs the American Film Institute, started to do regular Japanese series. “Alan was just willing to take a lot of chances,” says Jeck appreciatively.
The first Japanese series, which Jeck says featured “wall-to-wall classics,” did well, leading to more obscure Asian fare, including a series by important (but not commercially established) director Shohei Imamura. These series even led to Jeck’s becoming a distributor, after deciding that buying the rights would be the only way he could ever show Zatoichi Versus Yojimbo, a film he’d been trying to book for years.
Later, the Biograph became a center for Japanimation and Hong Kong action films, the latter booked by HK buff Matthew Jones. “Something I don’t know anything about, I’d just as soon someone else do it,” says Rubin.
The Biograph remains, as it was in the ’70s, what exhibitors call a “calendar house,” one that books films for set runs and depends on its program rather than advertising to draw customers. Like other such cinemas around the country, it has had to create a new niche for itself in the last 15 years; it’s become the place to see such “uncommercial” fare as Theremin, The Mahabharata, and The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.
“Gradually, we got into a new kind of programming,” notes Rubin. “I really had to relearn programming.”
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Sometimes, such films have become significant hits. Among the Biograph’s most successful films of the last decade are Sherman’s March, an eccentric first-person documentary about a filmmaker’s search for love; Strangers in Good Company, a partially improvised Canadian film about older women who tell their life stories as they wait for their bus to be fixed; and Hail Mary, Jean-Luc Godard’s rapturous, modestly heretical retelling of the virgin birth. (The latter’s appeal was boosted by the regular lineup of protesters outside the theater.) Currently, the British animation anthology, Wallace and Gromit, is still drawing large crowds two months after it opened.
Rubin now finds himself the commercial link in an art-film chain that includes such nonprofit local repertory theaters as AFI, the National Gallery, and the Hirshhorn. “The film community now is more arty in a way,” he says. “When I first came into the business there was a whole different film community. There were over 20 distributors in Washington. There were the majors, and then there were a lot of subdistributors. In each of those offices there were a couple of bookers, there was a chief salesperson, a print person, a cashier, a branch chief, an assistant branch chief. Multiply that out, and there were hundreds and hundreds of people.
“Then there was the Circle Chain, the Roth chain, K-B, Neighborhood Theaters, and Showcase Theaters, and a lot of individual people, 15 to 20 theater owners. So there was a real community. We’d hang out together, we’d schmooze, we’d have parties. Then one by one, through technology and consolidation [into the national chains], all the independent theater owners disappeared. And the distributors are all gone. Now they just have L.A. and New York. They just have to make four or five phone calls to book the whole city.”
Rubin says he could profitably accept the new system. “We could play Sense and Sensibility for 20 weeks. We could play five films a year, the five biggest art films. But it wouldn’t be as much fun. It just wouldn’t be the same theater. One constant of this theater is that we’ve always had a point of view and a focus of what we did.”
Of course, the Biograph would have to fight for arty powerhouses like Sense and Sensibility and The Postman, which are distributed by a handful of major studio operations, notably Sony Classics and Disney-owned Miramax. The rise of Miramax “has probably affected me more than anything,” says Rubin, who rarely hears from the distributor. “Maybe twice they’ve called me for some dogs,” he laughs.
“A long time ago I decided I can’t get crazy about not getting a film,” he says.
As the ’70s festivals faded, booking the theater “went from pretty easygoing to a huge amount of work, to find the films, to screen them, to promote them, to get the critics down every week.” Still, Rubin is satisfied with how things have turned out. “It was probably the most exciting time, the last five or six years. It was more satisfying in a lot of ways.”
Adding to Rubin’s burden has been Poryles’ marriage and move to Paris, where his two young children have contributed to a diminished interest in film. “He’s still very involved on the financial side,” explains Rubin, but Poryles now works only “maybe a third of the time.” It would be useful to have someone in Paris watching for potential films to book, Rubin admits, “but that’s not how it works.”
These days more of the responsibilities fall to Rubin and his wife, Susan, as well as manager/projectionists Paul Bishow and Pierre Deveaux. Most of the program notes are still written by Jef. Hyde, as they were during the 12 years he managed the theater. For a decade Hyde also produced the “Expose Yourself” series, which brought attention to Washington’s fledgling filmmakers, both talented and otherwise. “It was the best working experience of my life,” says Hyde of the Biograph. Rubin and Poryles “were more like uncles than bosses, and I was doing something I loved.”
“I loved meeting and talking with the regulars. They were people like us,” adds Hyde, who went on to manage the AMC Courthouse Theater—where moviegoers were “unhappy, cranky consumers”—and now works for a Northern Virginia computer firm. “The Biograph spoiled me for life in the real world,” he says affectionately.
Though it still plays a lot of offbeat material, the Biograph no longer has a generational identity. “The people who seem really interested in film seem a little older now,” says Rubin, who abandoned distributing such hippie-era public-domain howlers as Reefer Madness in the ’80s. “The audience used to be generally younger before the age of VCRs. Now it just bounces around, depending on what I’m playing.”
Rubin has learned how to use that bounce to his advantage, carefully scheduling films that appeal to different audiences. “The order in which these films play is very important. I try to do older demographics, then younger, older, younger. If something like Strangers in Good Company is a hit, the following week I’m playing something with a younger demographic. Those people will come out at 9 o’clock to see something and I can play early shows of Strangers in Good Company and get senior citizens to come at 5:30.”
At its most extreme, this strategy has led to the theater playing four or five different films a day on weekends. “It just evolved that way,” says Rubin. “But if you look at the other single-screen art houses, they all do that. It’s just economic necessity.” Playing a film only once a day, he explains, “concentrates” the audience for that film in a single screening.
Rubin says he looks for a “core audience, whether it’s Chinese, or Jewish, or gay” when contemplating a possible booking. The theater’s most loyal audience, though, is the indie-film audience that has developed nationwide. “We all trade our programs,” says Rubin of the country’s other remaining calendar houses. “We all talk.” Increasingly, he also talks to the people who program the local nonprofit theaters, all of whom lament the Biograph’s passing.
“I consider it a real calamity for the Washington film community. Too few commercial venues have the kind of commitment to independent cinema that the Biograph has shown,” says Peggy Parsons, who programs the National Gallery’s theater. “Alan’s had a good eye. He’s brought a lot of things to Washington that wouldn’t have gotten here otherwise.”
Though the noncommercial houses will continue to book challenging films, Parsons says it won’t be the same. “When people pay money, they are making their own personal commitment to this kind of cinema.”
“They were the first ones to get beyond the mainstream,” notes AFI’s Jeck. “It was a place were you were with your own kind,” he says, giving the latter phrase a self-mocking flourish. “A review and a run in a theater can get it to people who just don’t go to the institutions” like AFI and the National Gallery.
“I fell in love with movies at the Biograph. I grew up with it. It’s been my busman’s holiday,” says Kelly Gordon, who programs the Hirshhorn’s film series. “I’m lucky that my colleagues in D.C. are so special, but among them Al Rubin is particularly special for his sharp eye and his big heart. I think everybody feels that way.”
Hyde says the Biograph “was always a place to experiment. To play as well as do business.” He calls it “the crossroads of a 1,000 private lives. They certainly didn’t run out of ideas or films. They just ran out of time.”
The Biograph has run out of time in Georgetown, but Rubin says he’s not finished. A few years ago he seemed to have little enthusiasm for the idea of a new Biograph, preferring to contemplate life as a painter on his farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. (Those are his paintings on the wall at the Biograph now, his first show there since the theater’s early days.) These days, however, he’s well into planning the cinema’s rebirth.
“We’ve been working on it for almost a year,” he says of finding a new location. “I have three criteria: It has to have a Metro stop, it has to have adequate on-site parking, and it has to be state-of-the-art.” He thinks he can meet all those requirements.
“I’d say the odds are very good that it will happen. It will undoubtedly be new construction. It will probably take a year-and-a-half to two years. When we break ground, I can make an announcement.”
Rubin says he has the partners to pursue this project, although he can’t identify them. “I really don’t want to be involved with it as much as I am with this theater. I’m 59 years old. When I’m 70, I really don’t want to be programming an art theater. I’d like to be sort of emeritus, give it the Biograph name and have other people really run it. And that’s what I’m working on now.”
After 29 years in a theater with less than ideal sightlines and seats, Rubin’s not going to settle for such currently abandoned local moviehouses as the Jenifer, the Fine Arts, the Capitol Hill, or the West End 5-7. For one thing, he wants to have five screens: “There are so many things you can do in this town that are not being done. I would run one or two sides like I’m running the Biograph now, probably. You can do ethnic programming, and then you could have one or two Sense and Sensibility sides, as I call them—go for the long runs. I think if it’s in the right location, with all the amenities and good accessibility, it could be the best theater in Washington.
“That would be a nice legacy to leave the city.”
And, he smiles, “I think it will happen.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Michelle Gienow.