Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Sharing Dinner With Andre and Wally

Note from Rebus: On the Biograph’s third anniversary, on Feb. 11, 1975, a tradition was started when the staff and friends observed the occasion with a reunion get-together at the theater. For the next eight years each subsequent anniversary was observed in a similar manner. The biggest of those parties came on the 10th anniversary, during which the lobby was bathed in red neon light. Caviar was dished out as an hors d'oeuvre; washed down by wine or beer. 

Channel 8 showed up (video above) to interview Rea about the purpose of the doings. That was in 1982, when “My Dinner With Andre” premiered less than a mile from the location where most of the footage for it had been shot. 


In “My Dinner With Andre” (1981) the two main characters have a talk over dinner in a posh restaurant that's supposed to be in Manhattan. The scenes in the restaurant were staged inside the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. At the time the hotel was closed and undergoing a massive renovation. The set was built in the ancient hotel’s ballroom.

Directed by Louis Malle (1932-95) the screen play for “My Dinner With Andre” was written by its co-stars Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn.

In 1999 film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013) wrote, “Someone asked me the other day if I could name a movie that was entirely devoid of clichés. I thought for a moment, and then answered, ‘My Dinner With Andre’ … I am impressed once more by how wonderfully odd this movie is, how there is nothing else like it. It should be unwatchable, and yet those who love it return time and again, enchanted.”

The food that was seen in the movie was prepared by Chris Gibbs, a Richmond chef, restaurant-owner and caterer. Each day of shooting he showed up with a fresh batch of Cornish hens, wild rice and whatnot to be used. The continuity people on the set had to then pick apart Gibbs’ work to make the looks of the plates in front of the actors match the point in the film in which the scene would appear.

A couple of times I went along with Chris when he delivered the hens, so I could catch a glimpse of the set and what was going on. That planted the seed for the Biograph’s 10th anniversary party with the local premiere of “My Dinner With Andre” at the center of it.

Wish I could peer through the mists of time and remember who thought of what, but with the help of Ed Slipek, who was the contact at VCU’s Anderson Gallery, Chris and I dreamt up the plan for the benefit screening and dinner to commemorate the Biograph’s anniversary. The meal served to the attendees was the same one featured in the movie, cooked by the same chef. To attend the screening it cost $25 a head. After expenses for the food, etc., the art gallery got what was left of the proceeds.

The party went over well. The only mistake we made was not charging $50 admission. It’s also nice that after all the years since that night’s festivities “My Dinner With Andre” is still held in high regard.

In 1983 the theater’s 11th anniversary was celebrated with another screening to benefit the Anderson Gallery. We showed Abel Gance’s 1927 classic “Napoleon.” In the summer of that same year I resigned. My reasons for leaving were complicated, but in simplest of terms I was exhausted.

Too many years in the fast lane was certainly part of it. Still, I have to add that by that point I could see the handwriting on the wall. The popularity of cable television and video stores was waxing. The on-campus interest in film as art was waning and the golden age for repertory cinemas was fizzling. In the marginal movie market that Richmond was, the Biograph Theatre was doomed.


Stubbornly, the Biograph hung on for four years and closed in December of 1987. In 1992, I felt driven to celebrate the shuttered Biograph’s 20th anniversary. Since the building was unavailable a site needed to be chosen. Thus, the anniversary party was held at Twisters. The same building once housed the Back Door. The bar/live music venue currently under the same roof is called Strange Matter.

That year I lined up some musicians and gathered a few local 16mm films. Rebby Sharp opened the show with a set. We showed the short movies and had retired Richmond Times-Dispatch film critic Carole Kass judge them. The headliner, the Useless Playboys, played a couple of sets. A new Biograph T-shirt was created to commemorate the event.

For the 30th anniversary, in 2002, a party was thrown at Poe’s Pub, at the foot of Libby Hill Park. It was a benefit for the Richmond Moving Image Coop. Some short films were screened. Three bands played: Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon; The Burnt Taters (now just The Taters); Used Carlotta. Another Biograph T-shirt was created to commemorate this event.

In 2012, a double feature was screened at the Grace Street Theater (the old Lee Theater) for those who attended the Biograph’s 40th anniversary celebration -- “Breathless” (1960) and “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962). Again, it was a benefit for the James River Film Society.

In addition to these once-a-decade parties, since 1980 on Derby Day (always the first Saturday in May) a reunion party has been held. Originally, it was built around a softball game. In recent years, on doctors, we stopped playing softball. On May 3, 2014 the 35th annual Derby Day party for friends of the Biograph was held in Forest Hill Park. It had a good turnout. 

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