In Washington, they have names like the Biograph, the Circle and the Georgetown. In New York: the Thalia and the Regency. In Boston: the Nickelodeon and the Janus Cinema.
They -- unlike the suburban quad-plexes that often have supplanted them -- are the real dream merchants. A whisper of elegance or of once-exotic bohemianism emanates from their interiors.
In almost every major American city, repertory/art houses serve as film shrines: part film-buff clubhouse and part living repository. An informal historical society for the preservation of film. Their names evoke a cinematic nostalgia that seems defiant in the age of the videocassette recorder. The titles on their marquees still promise the celluloid intrigue of a Humphrey Bogart classic or, more often, a foreign film.
But the Circle is gone. And the Georgetown -- better known in recent years for a long-running screening of "Caligula" -- is closed. The nonprofit American Film Institute and the Library of Congress' Mary Pickford Theatre are two of a few theaters still keeping the projection bulb of repertory cinema burning in Washington. Another is the Biograph.
From his second-story office, the Biograph Theatre's laid-back co-owner Alan Rubin can look out on the small lobby. The theater, at 28th and M streets NW, is now into its 20th year as the only commercial theater in Washington offering strictly repertory fare, the only one-screen house still left within a 10-block jog. An old-style Biograph, an early piece of projection apparatus, stands guard in the lobby, as if to commemorate the films shown within.
"We used to do more revivals, the MGM classics, the old Bogeys. They just don't play well anymore ... we've veered away from American films, towards foreign films, which don't play as well on videocassette. Either they're dubbed or you can't read the subtitles. Biograph audiences like to see a film as it was designed to play," says Rubin.
Growing VCR ownership, say Rubin and others, has eaten into the market over which theaters like the Biograph and Circle once had a monopoly. That, along with the exponentially increasing ranks of cable television stations, has helped transform a nation of oldie-worshiping moviegoers into a stay-at-home horde of television watchers.
VCRs have proven to be both a blessing and curse. It has "definitely hurt the revival and art market," says Key Theatre owner David Levy, who was one of the original partners in the Biograph.
Levy says that he has had some success at his Baltimore theater, the Charles, mixing revivals with first-run films.
"Films that you used to be able to bring back for several playings ... you can't do it," says Levy. "We play commercial films in double bills," he says, but "the market for that stuff dries up pretty quickly once it gets on video and cable." And yet, VCRs have "raised the interest level in films," he says.
At first reading, it might appear to be a rather grim screenplay.
But, the Biograph has fought back against the oscillations of its fortunes. In the mid-'70s it slowly dropped random programming in favor of a theme format: weeks-long festivals of British -- or Soviet or French or Japanese -- films. Sometimes the theater offers retrospectives of individual directors, such as Francois Truffaut or Akira Kurosawa. The switch to festival programming has served as a buffer against the incursion made by VCRs and cable.
Repertory cinema achieved some notoriety during the political turbulence of the '60s. Its screens served as the battlefield of a cultural revolution that pitted films like "Easy Rider" and "Ciao, Manhattan" against those produced at the tail end of the "Pillow Talk" era. Independent filmmakers, like Andy Warhol, found the art and rep houses willing accomplices in their attack on Hollywood's mainstream commercial offerings.
Foreign films, too, established a following among mainstream audiences after being introduced to Americans on rep-house screens. In Washington, the credit for importing such films goes to the Circle Theatre. It is, says Key Theatre owner Levy, "the theater that got foreign films started in Washington."
Throughout the late '60s and early '70s, the Biograph, like other Washington repertory theaters, played a mixture of foreign films and domestic art "revivals." Levy remembers that the Biograph was the first theater to show Godard's films in Washington.
It was a Godard film, "Masculine/Feminine," that opened the Biograph on Sept. 30, 1967. Five tuxedoed partners, including Rubin, Levy and Leonard Poryles, still a partner with Rubin, presided over the invitation-only opening that evening.
"Washington's first all-electric theatre" read a proud caption in the Pepconian, the magazine of the Potomac Electric Power Co.
The theater had been converted from a Manhattan Auto showroom and repair facility. The building's owners believed that a movie house would fail in that location -- and as insurance against that expected failure, they would not permit Rubin and friends to take out the hydraulic lifts.
"They made us cover the hydraulic lifts with heavy plastic. If the theater folded they could always get the floor out," remembers Levy.
For the five partners, all of whom were professionals -- lawyers, architects -- the venture was a lark of sorts. It was a "let's-put-a-show-on-in-the-barn kind of thing," recalls Rubin. In keeping with that casual ethos, the five pitched in as assistant managers for one night each week during the early years, selling popcorn and drinks. They drove the manager of the theater crazy, says Rubin; each partner wanted the theater run his own way.
At first, the programming was a mixture of "first-run foreign films, and revivals" of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and Greta Garbo. "A lot of these films have been played to death, but they weren't getting played in D.C.," says Levy.
The Biograph early on featured avant-garde American short films and documentaries on Monday nights. Some, like George Kuchar's "Hold Me While I'm Naked," were considered ahead of their time. Washington newspapers, including The Washington Post, listed the film as "Hold Me While I'm ..." To Levy, that solution seemed "even more salacious."
By 1976 a lot of theaters were shifting away from random repertory. Rubin says that the success of an MGM retrospective that year at the Regency in New York made him think about doing the same thing at the Biograph. Soon Rubin was moving the theater "back and forth between random and theme bookings."
Art film houses like the Key were changing their tunes as well. Levy, who left the Biograph to run the Key in 1972, says that the turning point for his theater came in 1980 with the success of "My Brilliant Career." It played there, as a first run, for seven months -- convincing distributors that the theater was a good venue for first runs, and convincing Levy that the days of random repertory, a' la the Circle, were over.
Meanwhile, at the Biograph, another festival is running its course: a French Film Festival, featuring films like "Breathless" and "Boudu Saved From Drowning" (upon which the recent hit "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" is based), which runs through Dec. 24.
"Sometimes I think I'll never be able to think up another festival in my life," says Rubin. "I used to panic ... I would get blocked," dreaming up another theme, he says.
While some technological advances, like VCRs, have meant change for repertory cinema, other advances herald a brighter future for its theaters. The Biograph's future certainly looks healthier; Rubin and Poryles are exploring the possibility of cutting an exclusive deal with a Washington-based video-conference service. The service would use the theater space during the day, bringing in extra cash, while leaving the theater's evening operations uninterrupted.
Rubin recounts how he told the service's representatives, then looking for potential theater space throughout the country, that they should solicit rep house owners. Rep houses are perfect for your business, Rubin told the representative: They usually don't play matinees, they're centrally located, and unlike larger theater chains, there is only one owner to engage.
Will the Biograph be screening Fassbinder festivals 20 years hence? Or, heaven forbid, will it have metamorphosed into the Biograph 1-2-3? Rubin cannot say.
"Come back to me in seven years," says Rubin. "That's when my lease is up and I have a chance to buy the building."