(From Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.cincinnati.com, Oct. 20, 2013)
Fifty years ago this month, Roy White was the obscure owner of a second-run Downtown movie theater, the Times, that did very little for the city’s self-image or nightlife. That was about to change quickly, and in a dramatic way.
“We used to play double features at a very modest admission price,” he recalled. “People with their bottles and brown bags would come in summer and stay cool. It was open until the last show went on at 10 p.m. And they’d come in winter to stay warm. It made some money.”
While the approximately 600-seat Times was eking out a mediocre existence at Sixth and Walnut streets in October 1963, the movies were changing. United Artists Pictures – an important Hollywood studio – had released “Tom Jones,” a British movie that became an early symbol of the Swinging Sixties with its ribald, irreverent and stylistically innovative approach to filmmaking. While more conservative Hollywood titles faced declining attendance as television grew, “Tom Jones” shook things up and would eventually win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Prestige movies opened slowly in those days, city by city, for exclusive runs. The biggest theaters often were still the huge movie palaces that were getting too big and staid for changing tastes. In Cincinnati, UA looked for an exhibitor who could shake things up for “Tom Jones,” just as the movie was doing for Hollywood.
“Someone called me from New York and offered it,” said White, 87, who now lives in retirement in Naples, Fla. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. I’m not equipped to play the hottest picture in country.’ I slept on it and thought I can’t afford not to take it.”
“The theater was not in great shape, and I didn’t have any money, but I did have some friends,” he said. “One was a dress designer and one was an interior decorator. Between us, with a little ingenuity and courage, we closed the theater, redecorated it head to toe, and with paint and some papier-mache gave it a new personality.
“I wanted to create an atmosphere of going to the theater as opposed to just going to a movie,” he said. “So with great audacity, we decided to have a champagne black-tie premiere. We were very selective in our invitations. We wanted to make an event out of this.”
Cincinnati’s movers and shakers initially laughed, White said. “They at first said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding – black tie at a movie theater?’ They knew the Times as a second-run double-feature theater.
“Strangely, about a week before the premiere, we were besieged with requests from people who wanted to be part of the opening.” After that Feb. 13, 1964 opening, “Tom Jones” went on to have one the nation’s best engagements in the U.S., White said. An Enquirer article said it ran for 31 weeks. Doubtlessly helping the turnout was the large cutout of a bed placed atop the marquee – a tantalizing hint at the bed’s importance in the film.
The Times soon became a prototype for the smaller “boutique” theaters of today. It added a modish Towne Cinema to its name. And it would open pictures with the kind of fanfare that got the whole town talking – resulting in lines around the block and movies that ran for months on end.
“These openings were like the circus coming to town, Opening Day or Oktoberfest today,” said Dan Heilbrunn, who went to work for White in the 1970s and now owns Danbarry Cinemas. “It only happened maybe one day a year, so he made opening a movie an event.”
After “Tom Jones,” UA was eager to have White show another promising film, the first of Peter Sellers’ now-classic “Pink Panther” comedies. “So we closed down and made the entire theater pink, including the toilet paper,” White said. “We painted the light poles out on 6th and Walnut pink – the city made us paint them back green the next day.”
Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, newspapers loved to cover antics devised by White and his employee Don Wirtz, such as the 1966 parade for “A Thousand Clowns” that featured eight bicycles built-for-two on which local celebrities like Nick Clooney were paired with Times usherettes. “The Times had its usual dazzling party,” noted Post & Times-Star writer Dale Stevens of that event.
For 1970’s “Getting Straight,” an Elliott Gould movie about the era’s student demonstrations, White put a go-go dancer in a cage raised high over the street corner and aimed klieg lights at her. It had nothing to do with the film, but got plenty of attention. And in 1978, according to the Post, the Downtown Neighborhood Association protested when the Times fired off a cannon to mark the opening of the Chevy Chase movie “Foul Play,” causing one startled resident to drop his hamburger.
Perhaps the most audacious stunt was for 1965’s “Thunderball,” the fourth of the James Bond movies. White contracted with Queen City Metro to outfit rush-hour buses with a generator-powered projector and screen to show film previews. Meanwhile, hostesses wearing 007 sweatshirts handed out glasses of champagne.
The Enquirer’s Jack Cannon went on one trip from Fountain Square to Mount Lookout and a worried passenger lamented to him, “If my wife smells liquor on my breath and asks me where I stopped for a drink, what am I going to tell her? That they served champagne on the bus?”
For such events, in 1965 Taft Broadcasting (WKRC) lauded the Times in an editorial: In its own way, a downtown theater is doing more than its fair share to put Cincinnati on the entertainment map” it said. It went on to credit White’s showmanship and concluded, “Our town needs more of it.”
The Times became the flagship for White’s growing Mid-States Theatre empire, which continued to revitalize Downtown nightlife in the 1960s and 1970s with a series of even-smaller boutique cinemas – the Place, the Studio and the Skywalk. The latter two were both twin cinemas; the Studio was inside the old Playboy Building on Seventh Street and had but 150 seats per screen. (After the Place closed, a new owner ran it as an arts/indie/repertory house called The Movies. Today it is Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s home.)
White came to be regarded as a visionary exhibitor, becoming head of the National Association of Theatres. He was instrumental in creating the 1969 ratings system and started National Film Day to benefit American Film Institute.
His company eventually operated some of downtown’s older, bigger theaters as well, and it vigorously expanded to neighborhood and suburban houses here and out of town. He had 168 theaters when he sold to a national chain in 1984.
By then the Times was gone, sold in 1978 and shuttered at the end of 1979. The Contemporary Arts Center now stands on the site. Today, there is no Downtown movie theater.