Read Part I HERE.
Yesterday, I started discussing how movies used to be released prior to VHS and DVD. How major studio movies would get the “roadshow” treatment and then move on into general release. Today, I want to discuss the now extinct Second Run theaters that used to be in every town.
Once a movie wrapped up playing in the First Run theaters, it often moved over to the Second Run theater. Every town at 1-2 of them. We used to nickname them “dollar theaters” because you could go see the film there for a buck. If you’re thinking the phrase, “I’ll wait till it comes out on Netflix or cable.” is new, it’s not. Thirty years ago, we were saying, “I’ll wait till it comes to the dollar theater.”
When I lived in Charleston WV, the Second Run theaters were the State Theater and the South Theater. When I lived in Pontiac MI, they were the Huron Theater, the Keego Theater, and the Clarkston Cinema (my most favorite movie theater of all time).
When Second Run theaters weren’t playing a long running hit moved over from a First Run theater, they were usually premiering the movies considered not worthy of a First Run release: B-movies like action films, sci-fi, horror, risqué comedies, or non-Disney family films. I saw Halloween (1978), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), and The Amityville Horror (1979) at the State. Benji (1974), The Muppet Movie (1979), and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) premiered at the South.
Second Run theaters could also specialize:
ART HOUSE THEATERS
Showed foreign and independent films. In the Pontiac area, those were the Maple and Main Theaters. Because of their niche, most of these theaters are still open.
Showed non-Disney films. Back in the 1970s, Sun Classic Pictures made such family fare as The Life & Times of Grizzly Adams (1974), Winterhawk (1976), and The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1977) as well as quasi-documentaries like The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977) and In Search of Noah’s Ark (1980).
There was one family theater in Charleston called the Towne Theater. It was only open for Saturday matinees and it only showed The Little Prince (1974) for years and years and years. (I still have never seen it).
Yes, you used to have to go to the theaters to see pornography and the ads for such films ran in the newspapers right alongside the regular theater ads, proudly showing they were rated X, XX, or XXX. In Charleston, the Lyric Theater was the Adult venue. Deep Throat (1972) and Debbie Does Dallas (1978) were the blockbuster porn movies of the time but VHS killed off the Adult movie theater in the 1980s. Why be seen going into one of these theaters when you could watch in the privacy of your home? (Hence the reason the Lyric is burning in the photo).
Like regular movie theaters, Drive-In Theaters had their own class system. There were the Drive In’s that played the major hits. There were the ones that played the B-movies, and there were the ones that played the C-movies or the soft-core films (not porn but close) now typical on late night cable.
Drive-In’s were a culture onto themselves. The province of a) families with kids because you usually paid by the car (you could also bring your own food in), b) people on dates, and c) teenagers looking to party. You arrived around sunset, paid, drove up to a speaker, parked your car, lowered your window a little bit, and hung the speaker on the glass. The sound sucked but most Drive-In regulars were not there for the movie. You could watch the film, hang out with your friends around the picnic tables at the concession stand, or make out in the privacy of your car, truck, or van. More of my friends lost their virginity at a Drive-In than any other outdoor spot.
There used to be movie theaters that showed nothing but classic movies and people went to see them because they were not cut up by commercials as they were on TV and not available any other way. In the Detroit area, the Merrie Melodie Theater and the Punch & Judy Theater played nothing but classic films. So did the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. In Charleston, the West Virginia Cultural Center opened its theater every summer to screen classic films for free. That’s how I first saw Citizen Kane (1941), Show Boat (1951), An American In Paris (1951), and many many others.
Once a movie was officially out of all theaters, the studios used to transfer them over from 35mm to 16mm and rent the films out to college campuses. When I went to college in the early 1980s, the Friday Movies in Dodge Hall were the BIG campus activity every Friday because it was our first opportunity to see a film since it had left the theaters the year before. The auditorium was always full.
Same for classic and foreign films. I used to head up the Cinematheque Classic and Foreign Film group in college and we would show those films in the same auditorium on Sunday nights. The film arrived at the campus media center on Friday. I picked it up and carried it to Dodge Hall and loaded it onto the projector myself. On Mondays, I returned the print to the media center who mailed it back to the studio. This all died with the arrival of VHS.
Second Run theaters don’t exist anymore either. Their place in the release schedule was taken first by video stores and now by Pay Per View and Netflix.
NEXT WEEK: HOW MOVIES USED TO BE RELEASED PART III: TELEVISION