This month I feel the need to eschew my grating frivolity in favor of something entirely true and, hopefully, interesting. You see, I’ve been rereading a lot of Lou Curtiss’ past columns—particularly the ones dealing with all the music festivals he’s fathered—and I’m splashing in a puddle of giddy nostalgia.
Then I began wondering: If it all was and is so interesting to me (who lived through all those times), how might it have affected the younger readers who hadn’t yet been born when a lot of these festivals took place? So, I asked a sweet young friend of mine, a devoted Troubadourian named Marie Claire (whose navel makes me hungry and whose legs reach the heavens and who was born in the eighties) if she was interested in such tales of the past, and she assured me that anything having to do with the history of popular music, especially when it relates to San Diego (where she was conceived, born, and has remained) has a welcome mat and perpetual reserved seating in the cabaret of her mind and heart. So the stories I tell here about one particular, long-closed venue are being told to enlighten the young and perhaps bring back some happy memories to the minds of the older folks before they have the chance to become really screwy or tainted or destroyed by that goofy stuff y’all been smokin’ for too damn long and believe me, I didn’t mean that last part.
The venue as a building still exists at 3721 University Avenue and in its glory years during the ’60s and ’70s was known as the Academy Theatre. Beginning in the fifties, it had become what was known to exhibitors as an “art house,” which meant it showed a lot of Fellini, Godard, and other foreign stuff in which you might occasionally catch a glimpse of bare breasts and bottoms when these natural commodities were strictly absent from everything put out by Hollywood, which even then bragged of being “the motion picture capital of the world!” The Academy’s parent company was Art Theatre Guild of Tempe, Arizona, which ran a lot of art houses all over the country and whose owner, Louis Sher, was a visionary and a very important name in the liberalization of cinema in the United States.
In the late ’60s the Academy also began serving the burgeoning hippie crowd in town, when Mike Goetz’s Underground Cinema 12 began its weekly journeys through many of Art Theatre Guild’s houses in several states. How lucky we were to be among those states! I do intend to get into those Saturday Midnight Movies at the Academy at another time; for now I’ll simply note that they were still indeed taking place during the wonderful assault of –
Prior to the film Banjoman, the Academy had become noteworthy for its year-long, exclusive runs of first The Groove Tube and then Flesh Gordon in San Diego. Manager Bob Woodford and his lovely assistant Grace Russo (soon to become Mrs. Woodford) took the insane risk of hiring me to work at the Academy during the run of The Groove Tube and I happened to be there one afternoon when they first met Banjoman’s producer/ directors, whose names still have happy homes in my memories: Jim Abramson and Michael C. Varhol. They had come down here in advance of the film’s run with some special equipment and ideas for publicity, which helped make the film’s engagement successful, happy, and so memorable.
To begin with, a massive stereo sound system was installed (only a handful of the ritziest first-run houses had stereo at that time and even then, I doubt they had our fidelity or volume.) The movie itself was a well-directed live concert – the closest one to “really being there” that I’ve seen to this day. Boys and girls, this was almost 40 years ago. Enshrined on celluloid for the ages and at the tops of their games were Earl Scruggs, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joan Baez, the Byrds, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Doc and Merle Watson, David Bromberg… unfortunately no Lady Gaga or Scoop Doggy Poop, but we somehow got by without them in such unenlightened times.
The wise publicity gimmick Abramson and Varhol had dreamed up and brought with them involved the theatre holding a real live Banjo Marathon, which would be held in the theatre’s lobby during the daytime when nothing was showing (the Academy only screened films at night; even the Saturday/ Sunday kiddies’ matinees had ceased in the sixties) and would move out to the sidewalk while the film was playing (the neighborhood streets were incredibly laid-back in those days; now they make me a bit nervous even in the daylight…). All the local TV stations came by at least once to meet and cover the brave young banjo players who were determined to outlast all the others. I believe they were allowed a five-minute break every hour and one 15-minute break per day, and there was a registered physician who would frequently drop in to monitor the contestants, who had to have one hand on the frets and the other strumming the strings at all times except during the breaks.
I volunteered to keep watch over the theatre and the contestants from midnight to around 10 or 11am. I recall that every time the hourly break was about to begin, the tired, brave musicians would simultaneously snap out of a sort of hypnotic lethargy and all go into a spirited chorus or two from “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or something similar before cramming as much living as they could into the next five minutes. Bob and Grace (bless their hearts!) even started their own revolving tram-type service and would drive the contestants one at a time to their own townhouse to use their daily 15 to shower if they so desired and then back to the Academy where they’d do the same for the next one who requested this sweet generosity. Naturally, during the rides both to and from the Woodford home, our banjomen would be unnaturally playing in the back seat.
After several days it got down to three contestants standing and it was my sad duty to dismiss one when I found him deeply asleep and cradling his banjo in a (deserted) crying room at around 3 am.
I remember and can still clearly picture the beautiful, silent sunrises with the musicians, who were sitting on folding chairs out on the sidewalk and strumming away as the first welcome rays began to illuminate their tired, noble faces. Then someone – perhaps the awesome Lance Skubski, who would be the eventual winner – would request another round of my own specialty, an idea of mine I was pretty sure they were going to appreciate. Whenever one called for it, all the others would loudly join in, and soon I’d be using my plastic spray bottle filled with cold water on each of their faces. For them it was a refreshing jolt. For me, perhaps an embryonic progenitor of “hosing down.” I’m honored to have helped and am grateful for the memories.
José Sinatra and the Giggling Gigolos perform every Wednesday night in May at Java’s Joe’s.