People noticed the car parts first. Body parts from a ’73 Chevy Impala, painted a flat blue, seemed to float against the left-side wall of the American Film Institute National Film Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The answer? – acoustics, the walls being sound-eating, unpainted cinder block.
But then the whole theater was an afterthought. The Kennedy Center had already been open for a year, and it was only after that opening that someone actually noticed no provision had been made for film in what was after all, a Center for the Performing Arts. The nether regions of the backstage of the Eisenhower, the ‘legitimate’ stage at the KC complex, were cut off laterally and the AFI Theater opened on April 3, 1973 with D.W.Griffith’s1919 silent Broken Blossoms – and under a cloud of controversy over censorship.
Costa-Gavras’ State of Siege (État de Siège, 1972) had been pulled from the opening week because it was about political assassination a decade after Kennedy’s own assassination – gee, why didn’t anybody think of that in the first place? – and a number of filmmakers pulled their films in protest.
And so nobody seemed to notice the then-cutting edge – and probably unique to this day – design of the venue in the first place. The seats and projection booth rested on a raised island within the rectangular space, with a small stage before the screen on its own island, and a powerful theater organ in between. The 224 seats, rather sharply raked via steps from the first four rows back, were stadium seating before the term had been invented, rising from about 4-5 feet above the floor at the front to between 20 to 30 feet at the back, and conformed to the rectangle shape of the space. Entry was via very abrupt stairs under a balcony at the back and very short ones at the corner of the front. Thus, a very short throw (only 68 feet from screen to projector), no fan shape, no bad seats, no bad sight lines (hardened buffs avoided rows 2-4 because, unraked, there could be head problems with subtitles.)
Not that I was noticing these fine points during my first viewing there when I was part of an SRO opening week crowd for Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon – one of the greatest viewing experiences of my life. Just the film itself would be enough, of course, but with three projectors in the booth, the transition to Cinemascope was both breathtaking and perfectly smooth (not always the case subsequently) with the curtains parting from the original academy shape to the triple screen right on cue. And throughout the finale, the organ thundered variations on ‘La Marseillaise’, with the base notes of the simulated small arms and cannon fire vibrating up through the island to the soles of your feet.
Where do you go from there? Easy, I lived there, and so did a lot of other people, in a time before cassettes; DVDs; screenings at the National Gallery or the Freer; a Late, Late Show or a Late, Late Show Part II (DC closed down early in those days). Such now-chestnuts as Singin’ in the Rain would attract turn away crowds, and after a while, you started to recognize people. The beginning of ‘The Gang’ began when a tall, slender, balding man with whom I contended for Row 5, Seat 7 nearly every night (late comer got Seat 8) introduced himself, adding, to this then-unemployed film bum’s stupefaction, that he was employed … in a serious job (as legislative staffer for Senator William Proxmire he came up with the name for the ‘Golden Fleece Awards’) … happily married … and had kids! (I’m still not sure how he did it.) After a while a 10- to 12-member “ Fifth Row Society” emerged, and when you arrived at “the Clubhouse” you routinely asked the ticket-taker “Who’s here tonight?” A disparate group, it ranged from the Congressional staffer, to a still-in-uniform undergrad, to a construction worker, to a phone sales rep, to a nuclear site troubleshooter, to a Peruvian cultural attaché, to several just unemployed. For the first couple of years screenings were always at 6:30 and 9:00, and with a short first film there was plenty of time in between for vehement discussion — and afterwards as well. One night the recapping went on so long we were kicked out of the KC and ended up in the lobby of the Howard Johnson’s opposite the Watergate.
Not that everything was perfect. These were the bad old days of the “best print available,” and with the Kennedy Center being the most prestigious venue in town and so attracting the most senior – and thus oldest and crustiest projectionists – shouts of “Focus!” were not unusual. On one occasion, focus maintenance was so dreadful for Kozintsev and Trauberg’s The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon, 1929) that I, as Regular Patron, stalked off to the booth and exchanged views with the projectionist, so vehemently apparent that distraught ushers thought I was going to punch out the 70-year-old (I thought I was holding back.) Later a midnight screening of Michael Reeves’ 1968 Witchfinder General with Vincent Price proceeded with the reels in this order: 1, 4, 3, 2, 5 – making for a unique, Memento-like viewing experience. The projectionist manfully apologized sheepishly as we shuffled out.
In such an intimate venue, and with everyone knowing each other, there was the occasional audience participation. As the bathos mounted in John Cromwell’s 1939 Made for Each Other, and James Stewart paused as he ran in with the child-saving serum, the cry rang out, “It’s dead!” During a house-lights-up equipment breakdown at the two-hour mark of Ivan Perestiani’s interminable Three Lives (Sami sitsotskhle, 1924), somebody suggested “Let’s make a break for it.” And as Fred C. Brannon’s immortal 12-part 1952 serial Zombies of the Stratosphere (Leonard Nimoy billed ninth) unreeled with credits for each episode still intact, I amused myself by trying to memorize the entire cast list, making it by the finale as the sparse crowd egged me on.
And then there was the nitrate fire. It was 1979 and things were just getting a little bit more complicated in the final reel or two of Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947) when the screen suddenly went dark. I immediately looked over my shoulder and saw flames shooting up behind the windows to the booth. Presumably right after that the chords holding up the metal shutters for the windows incinerated and they closed down but I wasn’t still looking. Since the fumes are toxic, the ushers rolled back the immense, floor-to-ceiling side doors (originally used for moving in scenery) and rushed us out to the patio. As we milled about, waiting to see what would happen next, a young couple approached my pal and me, who had obviously seen the film before (we had come to see the nitrate print), and asked us to tell them how the film ended. Summarize the last act of Lady from Shanghai!? Well, we started to disagree right away and as the argument got noisy, the couple started to nervously edge away from two obvious nut jobs, although we did manage to gasp out – spoiler alert! – “they finally shoot it out in the fun house.” A month later the AFI brought back a safety print and my buddy and I realized we both had been wrong.
Well, it’s always easier to remember the misadventures. Over the years the question wasn’t whether I had seen a thousand films in the AFI; it was whether I had see two thousand. How many memorable and unique viewing experiences; but then, when after twenty years of patronage I was asked to become the programmer of the theater (the guy who picks and schedules all the films, writes the notes for the printed calendars, hosts all the guests, and can hurtle into the booth and order the sound level for The Guns of Navarone to be maxed – yes, it’s a dream job) I learned two things about the theater for the first time.
For years I had realized it was the best venue in town for viewing widescreen. Now I could try and figure out why. Now I could stand on the stage and tell the projectionist to pull the masking to ‘scope’ and as I looked back at the house I realized I was looking at … the side aisles. The screen was wider than the seats! All the seats, since the AFI was strictly rectangular. I realized I couldn’t think of another theater like that – since 99% of all theaters are fan-shaped, no matter how big the screen is, it’s never wider than the audience. And what’s important is not the absolute size of the screen; it’s the size in relation to the audience. Of course, sitting at the back of the house – which because of the steep rake was still not that far from the screen – instead of my fifth row, the screen would appear smaller, but it would still have that subtle psychological effect. Subtle, because I had never realized it in twenty years of viewing. I have no clue as to whose idea it was but I’ve never seen it done anywhere else.
And now, as the on-stage host, the one who has to get on stage as the credits are ending and before the lights go up and keep the audience from leaving so he can say, “And now here’s the director/star/writer/etc. of tonight’s film,” I realized that the theater was perfectly designed for that as well. In other venues the host and guest may have to enter: down the aisles in full view of the audience; from the back of the stage where you can’t see the film ending on the screen; or from wings which should never be in a film theater anyway. But at the AFI, where, since the island was not flush with the walls there was a wood-topped wall on the outside of the side aisles that was about head-high at the lower end, guest and host could lurk two steps from the stage completely out of the audience’s sight lines and be on stage in time to catch viewers before they could reach for their coats. Well that’s getting in to host anecdotes and not about the theater itself.
That the Kennedy Center, with its high arts tone, always regarded the film theater as a stepchild/orphan and clearly implied that they’d love it to be anywhere else is probably not surprising. (In 2001, the then-incoming head of the KC Michael Kaiser stated in print, “I simply do not enjoy movies.”) But the American Film Institute generally regarded it that way too, certainly after its headquarters moved from Washington to Los Angeles. But then there had always been an anomaly: as a visiting Uruguayan director said to me, “You mean this is the only AFI theater? I thought there were lots of little ones all across the country.” Sounds like that would have been a good idea.
Of course, as we learned, there are things worse than being ignored and neglected. In March 1998, the director of the AFI, Jean Firstenberg, while still in negotiations with Montgomery County, Maryland to restore/reopen the Silver Theater in suburban Silver Spring, announced the closing of the theater, stating, “With video, pay per view, and satellite technologies, there’s just not a need to show repertory on a regular basis.” In the wake of the resulting furor, the theater stayed open, but on a part-time basis, sharing with the Kennedy Center, and, with the stage extended, with a local theater group, sometimes out for a month, other times sneaking in three weeks of screening out of four.
And yet, despite the irregular programming, the last few years showed good-to-great box office, always with the yearly Latin American and European Union festivals; and in the last year a gigantic smash hit with a Kurosawa/Mifune festival, and an almost completely sold-out extended run of Russian Ark, probably the all-time house record.
But with the long-delayed opening of the triplex Silver Theater in 2003, the handwriting was on the wall; all the emphasis, all the publicity, etc., shifted to the new kid. And when the Kennedy Center made its move the next year the AFI said, Oh, Ok, it’s their building – they just didn’t care.
The end came without announcement and without publicity on Halloween night in 2004. The last show was just a regular screening in that year’s European Union Film Showcase, Pupi Avati’s 2004 Christmas Rematch (La rivincita di Natale), and the audience only found out it was the finale when I announced it at the start of the show. I brought bottles of champagne myself – well, it was on sale – and our usher, Jackie, and two distinguished local film programming colleagues helped me pass it out.
I still think it was the best viewing venue for film I’ve seen – and I thought that before I was employed there.
And now it’s a children’s theater.
Michael Jeck is adjunct professor of film history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and writer of the text for the quarterly programs of Film Forum 2, New York since 1988. And he has been: an independent film distributor; programmer of the American Film Institute Theater; on-air host of international movies at Mhz-TV; and audio commentator on the DVDs and Blu-rays of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood.