THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH: IN MEMORY OF THE BIJOU (1957) AND THE ALGER (1940-2015)
The delightful British comedy The Smallest Show on Earth headlines a great Saturday matinee offering from the UCLA Film and Television Archive on June 25 as their excellent series “Marquee Movies: Movies on Moviegoing” wraps up. So it seemed like a perfect time to resurrect my review of the movie, which celebrates the collective experience of seeing cinema in a darkened, and in this case dilapidated old auditorium, alongside my appreciation of my own hometown movie house, the Alger, which opened in 1940 and closed last year, one more victim of economics and the move toward digital distribution and exhibition.
“You mean to tell me my uncle actually charged people to go in there? And people actually paid?” –Matt Spenser (Bill Travers) upon first seeing the condition of the Bijou Kinema, in The Smallest Show on Earth
In Basil Dearden’s charming and wistful 1957 British comedy The Smallest Show on Earth (also known under the far-less evocative title Big Time Operators), a young couple, played by Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, inherit a small–town cinema, the Bijou Kinema– known to the citizenry of Sloughborough as the Flea Pit– and decide, in order to drive up the selling price to the local cinema magnate, who wants to tear it down and build a carpark, that against all odds and common sense they’ll reopen the doors and give the business a go. They also inherit three elderly employees who have long been part of the Bijou’s checkered history—Mrs. Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford), the cashier who was once also the cinema organist during the silent era; Mr. Quill (Peter Sellers), the projectionist with a more-than-slight penchant for Dewar’s White Label; and Old Tom (Bernard Miles), the janitor who only wants a uniform commensurate with his position and who dutifully provides a fiery solution when negotiations with the magnate hit a snag. These three comprise what passes for the barely beating heart of the Bijou, and if Dearden’s movie seems to end just as the third act is set to begin, it remains a sweet-tempered testament to the blinkered spirits of the Bijou staff, as well as to the fleeting pleasures of nostalgia and the long-lost palaces where past generations learned to love the movies.
Some of the richest comic highlights of The Smallest Show on Earth come from all the technical foul-ups that come courtesy of the theater’s antiquated equipment—busted reels, focus failures, upside-down images and, of course, the image of sizzling celluloid from a frame on fire, these are as good as a cartoon and a newsreel, the expected bonuses when you buy a ticket at the Bijou. And audiences in 2016 who stumble upon this little beauty on DVD (or on Amazon Streaming Video, where it is currently available) will likely get huge laughs from the movie’s sly comment on the panicked movie industry’s attempt to stave off the deleterious effects of television through unabashed gimmickry.
Unable to afford upgrades to Cinemascope and stereophonic sound, the staff at the Bijou make do (albeit inadvertently) with the hardships imposed on them by the march of progress. One of the factors of modernity contributing to the theater’s fall into disrepair is a railway which zooms directly past the outside of the auditorium, making the building shake from its faulty foundation to its rickety rafters. However, fortune smiles upon the Spensers as audiences react with wild abandon when the roar of the train outside is accidentally synched to a scene of a train robbery in the western on screen. The rumbling is so awful that poor Mr. Quill, recently having “taken the pledge,” is driven back to drink after throwing himself bodily on the projector to keep it from vibrating off its floor mounts. But the audience sees it as an “enhanced” experience, something they certainly couldn’t get from sitting at home in front of the tube.
Viewers taking in The Smallest Show on Earth 60 years later will think of everything from Sensurround to D-Box, technological gimmicks that, effective as they might be, still probably wouldn’t be as much fun as a well-timed passing locomotive threatening to literally bring the house down. The movie gently satirizes the raucous behavior of working-class audiences in the age of television while serving as a bridge between the rapidly changing landscape of modern entertainment and its own unapologetically nostalgic yearning for days past, when tastes were simpler and ornate palaces built to showcase flickering images of grandeur and adventure were commonplace. Whatever else you might say about them, the rowdy, television-spoiled audiences that (eventually) pack the Bijou are at least having fun, unlike their “sophisticated” modern-day counterparts, whose countenances, lit by cell phone screens, betray the desultory sense that, despite the fact that they’ve paid upwards of $17 to get in, they’d rather be anywhere else than in a theater watching a movie.
Of course, that appeal to nostalgia for days past rings slightly differently in 2016 than it did for the characters in Dearden’s film, who have seen change in the film industry, from silent to sound to color to wide-screen, but who mourn most especially for the days when the theater could be packed for every show, when the movies really were the best and only show in town. Audiences exposed to the movie today might first marvel that there were ever such huge, expansive, ornately designed, single-screen temples whose only purpose was to show movies. Modern multiplexes with 25 screens and a bounty of tentpole blockbusters to exhibit still find themselves appealing to Internet technology to stimulate ticket sales, booking live, high-definition video feeds of operas and other “special events,” and even appealing to organizations like churches to rent auditoriums, all in order to stay afloat in an age when entertainment choices are even more fragmented. Single-screen palaces for everyday exhibition really are, with a few exceptions like the historic Vista in East Hollywood, things of the past.
For me, seeing The Smallest Show on Earth for the first time in 2014 provided its own sort of coincidence, like a train with the word “progress” spray-painted on its engine in ironic quotation marks rumbling past, but without the pleasant afterglow of an enhanced experience. As I watched the efforts of the Spensers and their staff to raise the Bijou Kinema from the ashes, I couldn’t help but reflect on a couple of beloved movie palaces in my own life that are not now what they once were. In September 2014 it was announced that the New Beverly Cinema was being taken over by Oscar-winning filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and that Michael Torgan was out. (Torgan took over daily operation of the theater when his father Sherman, who opened the theater as a repertory cinema in 1978, died unexpectedly in 2007.) Not much more is known now about the specifics of what transpired than when the coup was announced in Late August, other than it seems to have been precipitated by Torgan’s purchase of a digital projector, to which his notoriously 35mm-or-nothing landlord took extreme exception. In solidarity with Michael, and out of indifference to the heavily Grindhouse-tilted tenor of the programming since the theater reopened one month later in October, I ended up taking about a year off from attending the New Beverly.
When I returned, for a screening of an IB Tech print of Once Upon a Time in the West, I was delighted to see Michael there, looking happy in a new managerial role that seems to have at least afforded him some time to spend away from running the theater 24/7. I’ve only been back one other time since—for a Smokey and the Bandit/Convoy combo, though I regret not being able to see the theater’s recent Charles Laughton double bill of The Suspect and Phantom Lady. The theater’s vibe is most definitely Tarantino’s now—programs like that Laughton double bill are in the minority, ceding to schedules that continue to lean not only on grindhouse and action fare but also on unremarkable artifacts from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s (a double bill of the two Other Side of the Mountain movies were featured recently) that betray a video store geek’s zeal but far less of the well-rounded, well-schooled vibe of the revival house as once defined by Sherman, and then Michael Torgan. The bottom line, however, remains that though, yes, the theater isn’t the same, at least the New Beverly is still showing films as one of several tantalizing daily options Los Angeles moviegoers have on the revival cinema scene.
More pointedly, however, 2014 was the year that the movie palace of my own childhood finally closed its doors for what looks like the last time. I saw my very first movie in a theater at the tender age of three. It was Gay Purr-ee (1963), the Abe Levitow-directed animated feature (co-written by Chuck Jones) about cats in the French countryside making their way to the big city, and I saw it at the Marius Theater in beautiful downtown Lakeview, Oregon. The Marius, built in the early 1930s, wasn’t the first movie theater in town—there was a tiny silent theater operating in the early 1900s that introduced the industrial age wonder of the movies to the Irish immigrants and cowpokes who first populated my hometown. (Writer Bob Barry commemorated the theater, whose name I can’t recall—the Rex, maybe?—in his book of local history From Shamrocks to Sagebrush.) But the Marius was my first. I don’t remember a thing about it, and without the help of some photographs I doubt I’d even be able to recall what the exterior looked like—it was closed and remodeled into an office building during the years in the mid-60’s when my family briefly moved to California. By the time we returned in 1968, the Marius was gone. (The remnants of the theater stage are still discernible in the basement of that remodeled building, known since the theater’s closing as the Marius Building. Otherwise, you’d never know a movie theater once stood there.)
By the time I returned to Lakeview in 1968, I’d been infected by the movie virus in a serious way. My parents took us to movies at the big theaters near the outskirts of Sacramento—the Tower and the Roseville in downtown Roseville, and the Citrus Heights Drive-in in the bedroom community of Citrus Heights, where we lived—and when we moved back to the rural splendor of Lakeview, I took as full advantage as I could of the opportunity to go to the movies by myself or with friends—something we weren’t allowed to do in the big city. And the Alger Theater, at the edge of downtown Lakeview, just a mile from my house, became my refuge, my oasis, my home away from home. Those were the days of double features, Saturday matinees (with reduced prices!), of driving into town and thrilling to see the lights of the marquee turned on before sundown, beckoning, promising a peek into a world well beyond the limits of what could be offered by my little burg. I dreamt of that place often, the yellow bulb lights dotting the undercarriage of the marquee, glowing and playing off the pale green trim of the theater frontage—it was glamorous, the only glamour my town had to offer, and it was irresistible.
My dad’s side of the family, the Italians, were dutiful Catholics, and as such were well acquainted with Bob and Norene Alger, visible participants in local Catholic culture who owned and operated the Alger Theater and the Circle JM Drive-in Theater on the north end of town—they had owned the Marius as well. Being the son (and grandson) of family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Alger always made me feel welcome. I can remember filing out of many matinees and evening shows and being greeted by Mrs. Alger with a hug, which many of my friends and peers thought was strange because she was rarely any more than standoffish—and sometimes downright cranky—to most of them. She also came down into the auditorium to personally check on me the night I first saw Blazing Saddles, apparently fearing from my relentless laughter that I was in danger of respiratory failure or full-on hysteria. And the very first review I ever wrote, at the tender age of 12, came at the behest of Mr. Alger, who offered me free admittance to the Saturday night showing of Young Winston (1972) if I would provide him a written review of it after mass the following morning. I have no idea why he wanted me to write about it, but when I delivered my little essay, he accepted it with that slightly inscrutable half-smile, which could be easily misinterpreted (or correctly interpreted, I suppose) as a frown and which rarely left his face. I never heard another word about the review, and he never asked me to do it again.
Though they were overseers of one of the two primary communal entertainment options available to Lakeview back in the day, Bob and Norene felt no need to worry about competing with television. Which was a good thing, because the Algers were anything but show people. They ran the theater with an increasing sense of begrudging duty, and not without a sense— definitely noticed by the general populace— that they were too socially sophisticated for the audience they served. And they didn’t go in for gimmicks or promotions either. The only bonuses offered by the theater came on Christmas Eve (an annual canned food drive matinee which didn’t survive the early ‘70’s– see Dear Brigitte on the calendar above); Independence Day (a bare-bones fireworks show for which several pals, including the Algers’ son David and I, comprised the mortar crew when I was a teenager); and, best of all, one-night horror shows for New Year’s Eve, Halloween and whenever a Friday the 13th would roll around. The Alger booked a terrific array of Hammer, Amicus and American-International titles for my formative years, allowing me to see films like Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Rasputin the Mad Monk, The Fearless Vampire Killers, The Green Slime, Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, The House That Dripped Blood, Count Yorga, Vampire and countless others that stand as favorites to this day, all projected to a crowd of very enthusiastic screamers.
Audiences at the Alger weren’t far removed from the hijinks of those rowdy delinquents inside the Spensers’ Bijou either. One of the apocryphal Bob Alger stories for me and my buddies came as a result of a Halloween night screening of Tales from the Crypt during which the audience, comprised mostly of high school kids like myself who, unlike myself, were there to do anything but watch the movie, got well out of control. The din started before the opening curtain and continued to increase. And when some sort of projectile flew out of the crowd and landed very close to the screen, it wasn’t long before Mr. Alger marched slowly, deliberately, to the front of the theater, the lights came up, the movie stopped and everyone went silent. “What I have before me, on the floor of the auditorium,” he intoned ominously, as fearsome as Sir Ralph Richardson’s cryptkeeper, “is a fresh egg.” He berated the audience for their behavior and threatened to shut the screening down entirely, with no refunds, if decorum wasn’t restored immediately. He even yelled out at one poor bastard who was still cutting up during his speech—“You! In the balcony! I know it was you who threw it!” Even though I wasn’t causing trouble myself, I was terrified (I could only laugh about it later), but I was also secretly glad because, goddamn it, I couldn’t hear the movie, and the last thing I would have wanted was for the Algers to pull the plug on these horror holiday special shows, which I considered a major perk and a significant antidote to the doldrums of Lakeview citizenship.
I went to see everything I could at the Alger. I wanted to see everything I could. But for the general audiences, who during the early ‘70s came out to see just about anything the theater showed—I remember a half full house for Robert Altman’s box-office bomb Buffalo Bill and the Indians, for crying out loud, a phenomenon probably attributable to the cowboy community assuming they were in for a run-of-the-mill western—I don’t think the movies themselves mattered nearly as much as the chance to get out and do something, anything.
And when that movie was done, it was done—there was no going out and talking about it afterward, because movies were rarely seen as anything more than simple diversion. Sometimes the movie was done before it was done. One of the funniest moments in The Smallest Show on Earth comes as a B-western is beginning to wrap up. It’s the last scene in the movie, and the audience, sensing that the meat of the action has finished, jumps up and bolts for the exits before “The End” even has a chance to pop up and cue them that it’s time to leave. The audiences at the Alger were similarly inclined to get on with life rather than savor the cinematic experience they’d just had. I’ll never forget coming home from college and seeing Star Wars with the hometown crowd. As soon as the Death Star exploded, at least 40 people in the packed house grabbed their coats and scooted out of the theater.
For all its deficiencies—the inept projection, the frequently misspelled marquee (it was always “Pual” Newman in something or other, and I’ll never forget “Ward Bond 007” in The Man with the Golden Gun), the uncomfortable seats, the indifferent management—the Alger was where I really fell in love with the movies. That love would be deepened elsewhere, but the Alger’s lights always seemed to be visible to me from the dark quiet of Southern Oregon nights long after I’d left the town, a glowing reminder of where it all began.
The Algers closed the drive-in in 1981 after a winter storm ripped the screen in half like a piece of wet paper. They kept the indoor theater open for a couple years after that, but soon retired, and it sat dark for a few months during the early ‘80s, when local folks were finally getting into the swing of the VCR era. It eventually reopened under new ownership in the mid-80s, and competition to keep pace with an ever-shrinking window between theatrical release and home video debut forced the theater to begin picking up releases much more quickly than it ever did under the guidance of Bob Alger. In those days, it wasn’t unusual to have to wait 6-9 months after its national release for a movie to bow at the Alger—Jaws (1975) played at the Circle JM Drive-in during the summer… of 1976. But the video-age Alger was facing a much-changed exhibition landscape. I remember being completely shocked to open up the pages of the local weekly newspaper, the Lake County Examiner, 15 years ago and seeing a tiny ad for the week’s offering at the Alger, Scream 3, which was opening at the Alger the very same night it opened on 3,000 or so other screens across the nation, an unthinkable scenario even five years before then.
The theater, under new management now twice removed from Bob and Norene Alger, more or less limped into the digital age. Shows were now weekends only, and the theater, which opened in 1940 (see photos above), was beginning to show the effects of a lack of cosmetic upkeep. A ghastly stage had been installed in the mid ‘80s, ostensibly in a move to establish a community theater presence which never took hold, obliterating the first four or five rows of original seats. What seats remained were the original 1940 editions and as butt-numbing as ever; the marquee lights were spotty, every other bulb either burnt out or screwed into a socket that had long since failed to carry current; the façade of the theater was tattered and badly in need of a paint job; and the marquee itself was warped, rickety and weather-beaten, its ability to hold up plastic letters routinely challenged by a stiff breeze. With the cost of keeping the theater open for just three days a week becoming increasingly indomitable, it seemed the writing was on the wall, and it probably had been for at least the first 10 years of the 21st century.
Much like how the storm that destroyed the drive-in screen in 1981 had presented the Algers a convenient exeunt from the drive-in business, big studio threats to stop providing 35mm prints to theaters, thus forcing small-town operations like the Alger to upgrade to digital equipment in order to stay in business, were the rationale current management needed to call theatrical exhibition in Lakeview, Oregon a permanent day. After several attempts to communicate with the current owners and brainstorm ideas for keeping the theater alive—a theater in nearby Alturas, California, had successfully navigated a crowd-funding campaign to upgrade their theater and make it a community-operated business—I stopped receiving replies to my e-mails, and it became clear that, in response to deteriorating attendance, the owners weren’t really interested in rallying an effort to come up with the money to keep the doors open.
So, in March 2014 the reels of the Alger Theater’s 35mm platter projection system spun their last. The theater, much like Hollywood itself, had long since ceded any attempt to appeal to any other audience beyond the PG/PG-13 market, the only folks left in town who could be counted on to occasionally show up for a movie. It’s grimly appropriate that the last picture show would not be a landmark like Red River (the current Alger management likely being unaware of that movie, or The Last Picture Show, for that matter), or even an adult-oriented audience-pleaser like the recent Oscar-winner Argo. Instead, it was the generic animated movie The Nut Job, and a sadder, more ignominious finale for my beloved theater I couldn’t possibly imagine. According to a report filed by my niece, who was very upset about the theater closing and tried herself to generate some local interest in preserving it, the last show was just as nondescript and lacking in fanfare as one might expect. The end credits playing before an empty auditorium, what there was of the audience having already listlessly filed out, the marquee lights went dark over South F Street, the main drag on which the Alger held dominance for 74 years, and save for one special screening– author Cheryl Strayed brought the movie version of Wild to town, Lakeview being one of the towns she walked through on her epic journey along the Pacific Crest Trail– those marquee lights haven’t been back on since. It’s not clear as yet whether the township of Lakeview has even noticed.
Last year I got a message from a friend still living in Oregon who said she’d heard that the Alger was about to be purchased by a new owner, given a digital upgrade and a paint job, and reopened. Did I dream this? If it were true, it would be an unlikely deus ex machina, given the history of this theater, and given the economic straits in which the town is currently mired. It’s the sort of dream of the past and its familiar faces that I wake up from all the time. But no, I didn’t dream it. The message was real. And whether or not the resurrection of the Alger makes the transition from rumor to reality—and the town’s active interest in making it happen cannot be overemphasized– is a story I have been following closely and will continue to keep my eye on.
Maybe the Alger Theater doesn’t mean the same thing to the current citizenry of Lakeview that it does to me. Maybe it never did. However the general population may have felt, it’s difficult for me to discount the importance such a tiny blip on American culture as the Alger had on the forming of my mind and my desire to see more than what could be offered on the dusty, muddy streets passing outside its doors. If they’re lucky, everyone reading this will have a place like it nestled in their memories, a place where love for what the movies could show us, could inspire in us, the emotions they could stir, was instilled and made foundation for the appreciation of what movies could be that we had yet to understand. When I see the empty shell of that theater, standing abandoned and ignored at the edge of my hometown, I don’t feel like a piece of me is lost. No, I know right where that piece is at. It’s still inside those doors, in communion with the dusty old red curtain, the forever dimmed house lights running the edges of the auditorium at the ceiling level, the mysterious projection room, from whence all those amazing sights and sounds emerged, the tidy confines of the snack bar, watched over by the old Thornton’s Drug clock on the wall, its timekeeping partner, the one bearing the Lincecum Signs ad, still perched in the auditorium above the door to the back of the screen, stage left. Yep, I’m still in there, sitting in those worn-down seats, waiting for the next movie to start. By a great stroke of fortune, maybe someday it will.