Saturday, February 1, 2014

Off-Hollywood Flick Fest

Winter, 1994. Guerrilla Theater Company presents MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS at The Actors' Gym.
Loud, upbeat music, as always, blared from speakers upstairs and down in The Actors' Gym. Lefty sat in the box office reading a copy of the Weekly World News, Gooch wandered in and out, playing games with Digit. Torque was down in the Boutique with Beemer. I sat in the display, staring hard at the front door, but it failed to open. 

At 8:00 sharp we canceled another early Friday evening show. This was even following our latest gambit -- declaring the 8 PM show on Friday as the Two-Dollar Show. It was always the least attended so we thought it might boost sales. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. It seemed pretty arbitrary.

There was an extended tug-of-war between those who felt we should cancel the 8 o’clock show, and those who didn’t. Those for cancellation argued that as there were no doubt a finite number of people on any given night who would be willing to weather the storm and city streets to drive to Tremont of all places just to see avante-garde funny people, why distribute that number between two shows? Why not force them to all come to one show, maybe one 10 o’clock show?

The other side stated quite clearly that since so many people of a certain age had expressed so clearly that they would have come to see YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT except for its going on when all sane, aging Baby Boomers (and theater critics) are home and asleep, we needed to offer the earlier show. If we stuck to this regiment, the audiences would grow. Our followers knew they could depend on our being open at eight and eleven, every single week of the year. They wouldn’t even need to look it up in the paper or call "The Connection", we’d be here, for them. The idea of a 10 o’clock show was declared “unfeasible.”

As the argument for maintaining an 8 o’clock show was so strongly set forth by Torque and myself, it was pretty much set in stone.

And so it was, as on so many other Friday nights shortly after eight, some of us drove off to West 25th Street in search of fast food. Others went back into the apartment to watch tee vee. I bundled up and walked down Professor Street.

The Winter of 1994 stretched on forever and ever. I couldn't be warm enough. We kept The Actors' Gym pleasantly toasty, there were fortunately no real drafts in the building, just through the front door and we hung a curtain over the doorway to the space to prevent too much heat from escaping.

Wind tore through my ancient army coat as I stuck my head into Edison's to see if anyone was there. It was crowded with people, but nobody was there.

"Hey!" Sandy yelled to me, "shouldn’t you be doing a show!?"

"No audience," I yelled back -- I was just standing at the door, I wasn't going to make the effort to push through. I had to shout over a dozen of post-graduates from Bay Village who were, you know, slumming it. In the Slum. Where I worked.

She gave me a sympathetic smile. "Some of these folks are heading over at eleven."

"Great!" I said. Great, I thought, by eleven they should be plastered and either forget what they came here for or be having too much fun in this place to bother. I got resentful sometimes, thinking of all the people who came to Edison's after seeing one of our shows -- they came to this God-forsaken neighborhood to see our show. They spend five bucks to get in, quibble over the price of a T-shirt, and then drop a wad for alcohol and cigarettes here afterwards.

Bitter, bitter, bitter. I continued down the street.

Alcohol. That was another of the major changes that had taken place between the first and second years. We banned alcohol from the space. It goes without saying that drinking it was verboten among the company during performance -- besides, in the old days you hid your open container in the Green Room to pull on when you weren’t performing, out of sight. There was no out of sight in The Actors’ Gym, the entire space was open and actors watched every scene they were not part of in plain sight, standing there next to one of the seating sections. No more fist-fights. No more sloppy, unprofessional, bad actors.

But we also told the audience they couldn’t bring beer into the space anymore, that we would be happy to hold it for them in the box office until the show was over. We were adamant. And people either handed it over, or a surprising number of the them turned around and left. It wasn’t a party without beer.

I wandered to the former Professor Street Theater. Now christened "The Lab" by Retro, Geddy, and two of their associates, Bernadette and Annetta. The four of them were filmmakers, working for other people as editors, line producers, cinematographers, gaffers, camera operators, whatever. They had, as we all do, higher aspirations and had created a mound of their own independent work which they felt they had every right to show. And so they started The Off-Hollywood Flick Fest.

They gathered their own material, and that of friends and coworkers, put a tee vee monitor and a home movie screen at one end of the space, the end where the Boutique and Green Room used to be, set out maybe fifty chairs and floor pillows and carpeting, and invited their friends to come and see.

As I approached the building the night of the first Off-Hollywood Flick Fest, it didn't appear like anything was going on. The windows were still covered with black paper, there were still white, holiday lights lining the edges of those windows. Such an inviting looking building, it was much much warmer looking than The Actors' Gym. Windows. Lights.

The Actors’ Gym was one block to the east. Two doors down from Edison’s. That made it furthest outpost of Gentrified Tremont. The Frontier. How many people had driven to find our show, saw the uninviting facade, looked around at all the derelict houses, and simply moved on?

I pushed the door open. I could only get it open part-way, because three people stood in the tiny alcove. They were standing there, watching the show because there wasn't another seat to be had. I forced my way in to discover almost a hundred people, sitting standing, lying around in the dark, watching homemade movies.

"Hansen!" Retro called. He came over and gave me a big hug. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and holding a beer. "What's going on, don't you have a show?"

"Uh, it was canceled," I said. "Damn, Retro this is amazing!" I hissed in a whisper so as not to disturb anyone. For such a large crowd everyone was intently respecting the films by not talking.

"Isn't it?" he said, "we were hoping maybe our friends would show and I gotta tell you, I don't think I know a single person here."

"Sucks when your friends let you down like that," I said. I was happy for him. I was depressed as shit. "How much longer does it go on tonight?"

"We've got stuff to go until at least midnight." So much for asking him to plug our show up the street when the lights come on.

"You make any money?"

"Enough to cover our costs, just tonight," he said, "which is more than we were expecting. You want a beer?"

"Uh, no," I said, "I, heh, have a show tonight."

"Well, I gotta schmooze," he said. "There's another program tomorrow afternoon and tomorrow night -- maybe you could spread the word to the audience over at Guerrilla."

"This is great, Retro," I said, "I'm proud of you. Tell Geddy I said so."

And so I braced myself against the breeze and headed back to Guerrilla. And I did tell our 11 PM audience about The Flick Fest. I hope all eight of them checked it out.
In the late 1990s, the Off-Hollywood Flick Fest changed its name to the Ohio Independent Film Festival.

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