Some movie theaters have become as legendary as the films which have illuminated their screens. These venues are famous for their influence or historical significance, or their longevity, or for the legends that have grown up around them.
This is not a story about one of those theaters.
The Micro Movie House in Moscow, Idaho, that’s right, Moscow, Idaho, was a Seventh-Day Adventist Church, of all things, until 1975, when it was converted into an unlikely cinema, seemingly over the course of a single inspired, and from all surviving evidence, intoxicated weekend.
The theater was designed, if such a word is applicable, like a Rubik’s cube half-solved and then dropped drunkenly in superglue. Patrons entering under the tiny marquee and through the front door would immediately be confronted by a precarious wooden staircase leading down into who-knows-where. Those brave enough to risk descending these stairs into the dark would find themselves in a “lobby.” A ticket for the night’s performance was purchased not at a box office, but at a portable podium-pulpit, apparently a repurposed remnant of the building’s earlier career. The narrow room beyond was adorned with vintage movie posters, an actual fireplace, and a suggestion box. None of which are likely to be found at a modern multiplex, I suspect.
The basement concession stand was as idiosyncratic as the rest of the Micro. In addition to popcorn and soft drinks (served in waxy cups, inexplicably adorned with the logo of a nearby taco chain), the place offered candy, fresh-baked cookies, self-serve coffee, and famously, apple cider. The cider was particularly memorable. It came in 3 sizes, and could be served with or without ice, filtered or unfiltered, and hot or cold. Conceivably, ordering the cider, what with all the inherent decisions involved in doing so, could have made an indecisive patron late for the start of the film.
That film was projected in an auditorium off the lobby and atop another twisted set of stairs. I’ve read that the Micro could accommodate 150 people. But I know for a fact that selling 125 tickets would fill up all of the seats (and yes, they were real theater seats. I wonder whatever happened to all those pews.), and the single bench at the back of the room as well.
That bench was under the projection booth, which had been constructed on a raised and walled-off platform where the church’s pulpit had once stood. The holy light which originated from the booth was the product not of God, but of 2 vintage, Simplex 35mm projectors. The first time I watched a movie under the light of those projectors it was the 1980s. I was a freshman in college and I was instantly smitten.
My parents had neither encouraged nor discouraged my budding and inexplicable interest in film. I’d went to Moscow, located in Idaho’s rural and usually frozen panhandle on a theater arts scholarship of all things. But as soon as I started frequenting the Micro I’m afraid that the world of the stage lost me forever to the world of the soundstage. The Micro, you see, ran a mix of conventional Hollywood pictures, in their second and third runs, and classics and contemporary cinema from around the world. I’d never seen or even heard of many of the exotic cinematic pleasures I encountered at the Micro. I may have gone to college at the University of Idaho, but I got my education, at least the one I still reference, at the Micro.
After a few weeks of seeing virtually everything the theater had to offer I decided that I had to become a part of this place. I gathered my courage and asked the manager for a job. Well, it wasn’t so courageous come to think about it. I actually dropped my phone number into the suggestion box with the offer to work for free to “learn the business.” I was astonished when the manager, Bob Suto, actually called me and invited me in for an interview. He even, eventually, liked me enough to pay me. I’d always thought that the film industry was more difficult to get into than that.
For the next 4 years the Micro became a part of my life which I still haven’t quite shaken off. And the story of the Micro, the idiosyncratic, independent, eccentric little Micro, personifies, to a certain degree an entire era made up of spunky repertoire theaters which ran whatever the hell they wanted. And actually found success, for a time, in doing so.
Conceivably these theaters grew out of the independent or “revival” houses which had no corporate affiliation during the studio era. In the late 1950’s the legendary Brattle theater, near Harvard, Mass, began inexplicably running old Humphrey Bogart pictures. And the largely college-age patrons who frequented this theater found themselves unexpectedly relating to films starring an actor who had been a hero to their parents’ generation. These same movies were then being widely syndicated to television, but the thrill of seeing them with an audience of equally appreciative, and often chemically enhanced, peers, created the first film “cults.” Audiences went again and again to these films, often reciting the dialogue along with the actors on the screen. And other theater owners, especially those lucky enough to be close to a college campus, were quick to follow the Brattle’s example. Other Hollywood personalities, those which these audiences perceived as being somehow, counter-culture, like the Marx Brothers, or W.C. Fields, were quickly joined on-screen by films of foreign auteurs and by experimental and independent films from all over the world as well.
It didn’t last, of course. The original generation of revival theater audiences grew up, went to Woodstock or Viet Nam, and eventually decided they liked to watch their movies while sitting at home on the couch. By the time I made my debut at the Micro home video was already a fact of life. Some of the patrons I sold tickets to could conceivably have been children of the audiences who cheered Jean-Paul Belmondo reverently whispering Bogie’s name in Breathless (À bout de soufflé,1960). I didn’t know it at the time, but I was there for the very end of a rather romantic era in film exhibition.
But Bob Suto must have known that he was piloting a ship which ultimately had to flounder. He didn’t give a damn. The Micro’s schedules were ballsy and eclectic and weird. It was like Bob was determined to bring the best and oddest of world cinema into the wilds of Idaho – whether or not Idaho was ready for them or not.
The theater was actually bankrolled and subsidized by Bob’s sister and her husband, who owned the local Taco John’s – thus solving forever the mystery of the Micros’ enigmatic drink cups. But the crazy thing was that, for a long time, the good people of Moscow, a medium-sized university town, largely populated by ex-hippies and agriculture majors, responded to being condescended to in large numbers and with open wallets. I used to get the schedules of what Bob had booked and have no idea how it was that a mainstream Hollywood offering like Trading Places (1983) could share the same screen, in the same week, with Bye Bye Brazil (1980) and Sophomore Sensations (the latter was a 1975 German-soft-core oddity so obscure that it took me five minutes to even find it on IMDB). One week Bob proudly told me that we were the smallest theater, in the smallest market in the United States, to project Abel Gance’s recently restored Napoleon (1927). We sold out that weekend. But we still lost money on it.
Midnight movies were a big part of any revival theater’s existence. The Micro’s signature midnight movie was Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), but The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was the king (queen?) of that particular income stream. Ordinarily, two employees could handle an entire shift at the Micro. One person would sell tickets and another would work concessions. At show time the ticket teller would carry the box-office podium back to the concession era and the person there would vend both tickets and popcorn while his partner ran upstairs to fire up the projectors. If a line formed downstairs, and anyone bought a movie ticket and the cider, the whole system could be jeopardized by the complexities of the situation.
On Rocky Horror nights however, a third employee was brought in. Part of this unlucky individual’s job was to climb onto the stage at 11:59 PM and warn the audience that throwing rice and toilet paper, and even other patrons into the air was fine and well, but that anyone caught squirting water at the screen would be roughed up by “management” and thrown outside. This warning became de rigueur on Rocky Horror nights after our screen was repeatedly doused in water by enthusiastic audience members. We eventually replaced this screen because the damaged areas started to shine and glisten under the projector light.
Actually, we probably would have ignored the complaints this caused, had the screen not been further mauled by an impromptu belly-dancing demonstration by Bob’s girlfriend Leanne, who had accidently sliced a horizontal line in the thing while swinging a prop sword during her memorable (at least to me) gyrations. Even this indignity we tried to cover up with some glue. But the seam the sword wound left behind really was impossible to ignore. During a screening of Notorious (1946), for example, Cary Grant’s lips would occasionally line-up so perfectly with the repaired seam that the actor would end up looking like a debonair and highly reflective version of Mr. Sardonicus.
The projection booth at the Micro had a lock on the door, with good reason. The machines inside had been workhorses in the 1930’s. But by the 80’s, these black behemoths, which looked like a set of Mickey Mouse ears, cast in iron and turned on their sides, were, like the projectionists who operated them, somewhat idiosyncratic. They illumined our new screen using carbon rods mounted inside a reflective drum. The carbons would hiss and pop and sputter, and it was a near constant job keeping them feeding into each other at the proper speed and reflective density. I sometimes wonder how many people alive today were trained, like I was, in the maintenance of such archaic exhibitor’s alchemy. I must have been one of the last.
There were also reel changeovers between projectors to be performed every 17 minutes or so. As far as I know, film labs still print tiny circles, lasting 4 frames each and spaced about 20 seconds apart at the end of each reel of film, even though almost every theater in the country has now converted to digital projection, and any venues which still project actual celluloid probably splice all the reels together onto platters. But old habits die hard. At the Micro we used these visual cues to time the transitions from one projector to another. When it worked right the transition was seamless. Occasionally, the marks would be missing, along with the last few feet of film on the reel, and we would scratch new circles into the print with a razor blade. I remember when I was hired Bob asked me if I had any experience as a projectionist. I told him I knew how the cue mark system worked; having picked up this information up from an episode of Colombo. Never let anyone tell you that obsessive television watching isn’t a valuable skill in securing employment. At least it was for me.
As I’ve explained, the Micro was a legitimate, 35mm equipped theatre. But some of the films Bob booked were only available for projection in 16mm. We had a Bell & Howell projector for this purpose, which had been modified with a Xenon bulb and extra-large distribution and take-up arms. The projection booth was built off of the floor, so the ceiling was inordinately low from inside. One night I was projecting Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) in 16mm. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, because it hadn’t happened before, and never happened again, but as the weight of the film shifted from the front spindle to the rear, the front reel shifted upward ever so slightly and started rubbing against the ceiling. Unable to move, the film locked in place and caught fire in the gate, colorfully incinerating Clark Gable mid-mutiny. I repaired the damage, but couldn’t keep distribution reel from continuing to bang into the ceiling. It probably happened a dozen times on that endless, unforgettable evening. As I’ve said. The booth had a lock on the door for a reason.
Any skills as a projectionist I managed to acquire, at least those which didn’t originate on the NBC Mystery Movie, came not from Bob, but rather from his chief projectionist – although we never used that phrase (we didn’t bother with titles at the socialist utopia which was the Micro). Darwin Vest was a mechanical genus who managed to keep the projectors running, more or less, in spite of any mistakes I inflicted upon them. He could listen to the machines grinding away and tell that the intermittent gear was just a little out of alignment. At least I think he could. I took his word for it.
Darwin was a maestro in the projection booth. But his heart was elsewhere. He was a scientist of some renown, but was hampered academically because he had no formal accreditation. His specialty was the venoms of poisonous spiders and reptiles. Darwin was famous in certain circles of academia for identifying the hobo spider as being a venomous species. During the first years we were working together he was busy assembling a show, “The Venomous Reptile Review,” with his sister Becky, who also worked at the Micro. The presentation was intended to educate audience members about biting, clawing, spitting or otherwise aggressive snakes and lizards through up-close and personal demonstrations. But, sadly, when the show opened at a lecture hall in nearby Pullman, Washington, only 12 people showed up, ultimately forcing Darwin and Becky to shutter the act and to escape anxious creditors by hiding out in the projection booth.
Darwin was a fascinating guy in a doomed, F. Scott Fitzgerald sort of way. A quiet, soft spoken intellectual with a neatly trimmed beard and an air of always being three-steps ahead of everyone else, but of being too polite to let on. He once invited me out for drinks after, or maybe it was before, a shared shift at the Micro. All I wanted to speak about was movies. Usually he was fine with this, but on this night he seemed to want to talk to me about some mysterious, impenetrable research he was engaged in on campus. I was still obsessing about the Herzog film our projectors had been mauling that week, but to be polite I finally asked him what exactly it was he had been doing behind locked doors in the chemistry building every day. He took a drink, and then looked around, as if spies might be lurking begin the potted ferns. “Cancer,” He finally whispered.
“I’ve cured it.”
He then told me exactly what it was he had been working on, something venom-related, surely, which had somehow led to his mysterious, kitchen-sink cancer cure. But I could follow what he told me no more than I could repeat any of it today. All I can recall is that he said that in every test he had performed the cancer cells had retreated. “It needs a lot more work; years of work, maybe” he whispered, “but someday…”
The next day, post hangover, it occurred to me that I had recently wallowed in the delicious tragedy of Sophie’s Choice (1982) at the Micro. And that there was a scene where Kevin Kline’s romantic, schizophrenic scientist character had engaged in a similar conversation with a protégée. The realist in my nature, even today, assumes that Darwin was repeating this scene with me, either ironically, or drunkenly, just to screw with me and to see if I would notice its origin. Yet Darwin wasn’t that sort of person. He was too kind, and too self-absorbed for this sort of referential trickery. Unfortunately “someday” never came for him either. In 1999, Darwin was taking a walk at night, as was his habit, and he vanished into the dark without a trace. The case is still open. It’s still officially listed by the F.B.I as unsolved.
My years at the Micro came to an end with my graduation, although I had spent more time either changing reels or watching them play out there than I ever had in school. Home video had been eroding the Micro’s audiences since before I arrived, but the opening of a nearby multiplex, and changing audience tastes caused attendance to continue to drop off after I was gone. Apparently, although none of us knew it, the Micro had actually had been existing inside a Camelot-like bubble – where it was still 1969 – for a decade. That bubble finally burst in 1998. It had been a long run. A quarter century lifetime for a theater so haphazardly constructed, indifferently managed, and scheduled so contrary to popular taste is a long time. Perhaps passion and a gambler’s spirit is a better business tool than one would suspect. Bob Suto and the Micro had a lot of both.
The last movie to run at the Micro Movie House was a free screening of the much-beloved-by- Moscowite’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’ve not been back to see it for myself, but friends tell me that the building which housed the Seventh-Day Adventists and then the Micro is now a tattoo parlor.
There are still a few revival theaters left in the large cities. Many theater chains now dedicate a token number of screens to independent film as well. But this once-upon-a-time willingness by audiences, even audiences in allegedly conservative places like rural Idaho, to support eclectic, eccentric film programing, is apparently a thing of the past. No one can be certain, of course, but it now seems likely that the lights have forever dimmed on theaters like the Micro. Just as it now seems likely that, like my friend Darwin, who walked off into the night with a secret and never returned, we’ll not see their like again.
Steven Bingen is a historian, screenwriter and former archivist at Warner Bros. Originally a native of Seattle, Washington, Bingen has written or contributed to dozens of books, articles and documentaries on Hollywood history, Including MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, which he coauthored, and which was the first significant book ever published about a movie studio lot. A follow-up is due in September; 2014. He lives in the world’s largest backlot, also known as Los Angeles, California.