Thursday, March 15, 2012

Banjo Conmen

Note from Rebus: This story about dodging a bullet pivots on a lucky hunch Rea had. He's always called it a "hunch." Me? I say it was a seemingly unprovoked sense of something being amiss; a sense the cynical but superstitious Rea happened to act upon. Yes, it was just in the nick of time. He says there were no clues. I say maybe.

Either way, it was the death of Earl Scruggs, on March 28, 2012, that prompted the writing of this episode.  

Upon hearing that Earl Scruggs had died, my thoughts went straight to a 36-year-old memory connected to a rather obscure movie that played for two weeks at the Biograph in January of 1976. The independently-produced film, which was about Scruggs, was “Banjoman.” As the documentary/performance film had only been in release for a couple of months, when it played at the Biograph, its two young producers/distributors laughingly said they were learning their business on the fly.

When their 105-minute movie opened at the Biograph they were there, too ... they had brought the 35mm print with them. It was their monster-sized sound system that we used to present the film to our patrons.

The filmmakers were about my age (I was 28 at this time). And, I almost think there was a third guy, but I’m not sure. My bosses in DeeCee had booked the film sometime after meeting one (or more) of the filmmakers in a social situation; I don‘t remember the details.

Richard Gilbert Abramson and Michael Varhol are credited as the production’s directors. I pretty sure they were the two guys I dealt with in the story that follows.

Traditional distributors, like Paramount, Warner Bros., and so forth, generally shipped the prints of their films by way of a courier accustomed to handling them. Although it was unusual for people to travel with a print of a movie in the trunk of their car, it was not unprecedented. As an independent exhibitor, the Biograph booked product from various off-the-wall sources that large movie chains would have ignored.

“Banjoman” was just such a situation and its distributors actually hung around at the theater during screenings. They seemed like nice enough guys.    

It was somewhat unusual when my bosses had me pay the distributors directly in cash from box office receipts. But I didn’t question it. We even advanced them some money against anticipated receipts, when they had to leave after the first week to open "Banjoman" in another city. 

Since they didn’t have much in the way of pressbook materials, ad slicks, etc., I created the Biograph’s display advertisements for the local newspapers, using stills from the film that I had half-toned and some type I had set. That led to me offering to create similar materials for them to use in other cities. They said yes and we agreed upon a price. It was something like $250, plus what it cost me to produce a finished stack of different-sized ad slicks for them to use in the future.

At that point I think they had two other prints of their movie (with sound systems) working on the road. We kept in touch by telephone. They were anxious to get their new promotional materials for their other upcoming play-dates. 

Then came the day to ship their print and sound system to them in another city. The run at the Biograph was over. When the truck driver for the shipping company came by the theater, he told me his helper wasn’t with him, so I would have to put the stuff on the truck.

Well, at the time, I was the only one in the building and I was nursing a slipped disc in my lower back. Unless I wanted to be laid-up for a spell, I couldn’t lift those giant speakers, etc., by myself.

When the driver asked me how long it would take to get somebody there, to do the lifting, it annoyed me. I told the indifferent driver it was his company's job to load that junk, so he should come back later with a helper. Then I suddenly had a hunch that something was wrong. Nothing specific.

Just something... 

The truck driver shrugged and said he’d come back the next day.

An hour or so later, when I told one of the “Banjoman” guys what had happened, he said there was still plenty of time, so shipping it out the next day would be fine. Again, I had the feeling something wasn't right. A couple of hours later the mailman delivered a bank notice for me saying that a $200 check the traveling producers had written to me had bounced like a damn Super Ball.

At this point, in addition to that check, they owed me another $600, most of which I owed to a printer. And, they were into the Biograph for maybe another three or four hundred bucks, because in the second week of their film’s run it didn’t live up to expectations. It failed to cover the advance in rental they had received.

By coincidence, right after the arrival of the rubber check notice I talked with my friend Dave DeWitt. He had moved from Richmond to Albuquerque about a year earlier. At this time Dave was hosting a late night movie program on television there. When I told Dave about the check and about my bull's-eye hunch not to ship the equipment, he said he’d already heard about the guys who had produced "Banjoman."

Dave said he wanted to do a little checking up on them. He soon called back to tell me the jokers I’d been dealing with had left a trail of angry people behind them out in the West, back when they were shooting concert footage of the Scruggs tour. It seemed they had found ways to do a lot of things without paying up front. They had also ripped off a movie theater that had played "Banjoman," just a month before.

After that unsettling news I told the guys who had been conning me that until they settled up, I was keeping their sound equipment and the print of "Banjoman."

They threatened me with legal action.

After a couple of months with no word from them, I sold off their sound equipment -- it was the sort of stuff a band might use. Then some time later, maybe another couple of months, I was indeed served with legal papers. The Banjo Conmen sued me for about $90,000.

Don't remember how that figure was generated. I laughed and offered them their print of the film and about $800, which was what the equipment brought in, minus what they had owed the boys in DeeCee and me.

Over the telephone line the Banjo Conmen huffed and puffed again. More threats were issued. Which drew more laughs from me. A couple of weeks later, by way of their local attorney, they agreed to accept my offer and walk away from the dispute.

After they paid their lawyer, I've a wee hunch there wasn't much money left.

RIP, Earl.

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