News Column

'Game of Thrones' Author Revives a Santa Fe Institution

August 9, 2013

Santa Fe New Mexican

Growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey, in the 1950s, author George R.R. Martin regularly attended four movie houses in his neighborhood. "There was the DeWitt, the Lyceum, the Plaza -- a dump that specialized in kiddie matinees and horror movies -- and the Victory Theater, which was an old opera house that was boarded up but reopened on occasion for film screenings," he recalled in an interview with Pasatiempo. In those cinemas, Martin enjoyed the fare of the day -- particularly science-fiction movies, large-scale adventure epics, and Abbott and Costello comedies.

The theaters are long gone. "Every one of them was knocked down, demolished. The DeWitt is now a McDonald's, and I think the Lyceum is a laundromat, and the Victory is a supermarket," Martin said. "The grandeur of these beautiful old movies houses is now in destruction and decay all over the country. And that, unfortunately, is a process that will only accelerate in the next 10 years. On top of that, a lot of these small theaters can't afford the upgrade to digital projection. I think we will lose a lot more of these little idiosyncratic movie theaters in the next decade, and that makes me sad. It's a part of America that I love." (Visit the website www.cinematreasures.org for brief descriptions of these cinemas.)

That's one reason Martin -- a Santa Fe-based novelist, screenwriter, and producer best known for his A Song of Fire and Ice books, which have become a popular HBO series -- recently purchased the Jean Cocteau Cinema on Montezuma Avenue from the Trans-Lux corporation. "I'm partly inspired by my love of movies and my love of these theaters. There's something about these old single-screen cinemas that I love. ?Each one had their own personality."

As of Friday, Aug. 9, the Jean Cocteau will be one of those personable cinemas, under owner Martin and manager Jon Bowman. Bowman, ?a journalist and film critic who ran the Santa Fe Film Festival for ?10 years, shares Martin's eclectic, offbeat taste in movies. "We're going to try everything the first year and see what people come out for," Martin said.

Among the planned film screenings: Swiss-born filmmaker Korinna Sehringer's award-winning Shouting Secrets, the 2013 sci-fi flick Europa Report, Craig Zisk's The English Teacher (starring Julianne Moore and also released this year), a revival of Henry Selick's 2009 animated picture Coraline, and a children's matinee of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) -- a childhood favorite of Martin's. "We're probably the only theater in the country that will run Abbott and Costello comedies," Bowman said with a laugh.

Bowman also expects to give screen time to independent filmmakers who are based in New Mexico -- much as he did as director of the Santa Fe Film Festival.

To kick off the activities, the duo are screening the 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet and Jean Cocteau's Orpheus (1950) for one week. Admission is free for those two films, though tickets are required (drop by the cinema or call 466-5528). Regular ticket prices are $10, with discounts for senior citizens, students, matinees, and midnight movies.

Yes, the duo plan to run midnight movies on Saturdays -- including 1974's Dark Star (another Martin favorite, which runs Friday and Saturday, Aug. 9 and 10; no charge), the 1959 Ed Wood Jr. movie Plan 9 From Outer Space, and the 1975 cult musical/horror flick The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Over time, the cinema will program "new and old stuff," as Bowman put it. Already the pair are talking about a week of ?programming devoted to baseball films, including 1957's Fear Strikes Out and 1989's Field of Dreams. And they'd like to run those old 1930s Warner Bros. Gold Digger films as a series too.

Do they think people accustomed to seeing such titles on ?classic movie channels will pay to see them on a big screen? "We'll find out," Martin said. Bowman added, "If we pick titles that you can stream on Netflix, people won't pay to go. But older, harder-to-find titles, maybe. And some classic movies people have never seen ?on a big screen -- Casablanca, for instance -- so that might pull them in."

About 90 percent of the screenings will be on a digital projector, though the Jean Cocteau still has an old 35 mm projector dating to the 1950s, Bowman said.

The cinema will also host readings, book signings, visual art shows, and small musical ensembles. For instance, on Sept. 7, Steve Terrell and Gregg Turner are scheduled to perform solo sets. Martin noted that he first met Bowman in the early 1980s through Terrell, who was then playing gigs at the now-defunct Forge, in the Palace of the Governors.

"We'd all howl along with 'Wolf Boy,'" Martin said, referencing a Terrell tune. Incidentally, Martin likes those 1940s Wolfman movies, particularly when the Wolfman met up with other monsters in House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein.

Martin and Bowman also hope to mount an exhibit of New York photographer Matt Lambrose's images of old movie houses. Lambrose's website, After the Final Curtain (www.afterthefinal-?curtain.net) showcases old, abandoned, and destroyed cinemas. "It'll break your heart," Martin said of that project.

Though the building housing the Cocteau was used for a variety of commercial purposes since it was built about 100 years ago, it opened as the Collective Fantasy cinema, founded by Lynne Cohen, Rich Szanyi, Anne Lewis, and Mary Hetler in the mid-1970s. Oklahoma native Brent Kliewer took over the independent art house in 1983 and renamed it the Jean Cocteau in 1984. Kliewer has since become the main curator for The Screen at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Martin said his records indicate that Trans-Lux took over the cinema in the mid-1980s. Trans-Lux ran an array of films -- including foreign, art-house, and independent titles -- there until it closed in 2006. For several years the building housed the New Mexico Film Museum, which never really existed but nevertheless managed to pay a hefty salary to a string of government workers who held the title of director.

Martin said he kept waiting for that museum to take shape. It never did. "I kept thinking, When is it going to open? What sort of exhibits will they have? There was never anything in there!" he said.

So he bought the building (he declined to reveal how much he paid). He is already renting out office space above and behind the cinema. He will run the cinema as a for-profit venture although, ?he joked, "I think it will turn into a nonprofit, because it won't make any profit."

Parking for patrons, Bowman acknowledged, may be "tricky," though he hopes it will be less of a problem after 6 p.m., when motorists can generally park for free in metered spaces along the streets.

In addition to Bowman, the Jean Cocteau will employ about 10 people, including two projectionists. Martin paid for recent renovations of the lobby and concession-stand area and installed a building-wide sprinkler system.

As for the concession stand, the cinema will offer pizza, pastries, ice cream, and its famous flavored popcorn. According to Martin and Bowman, when people walked by the Jean Cocteau during its recent renovation period, they popped in to ask not what films they planned to screen but whether the cinema will once again sell the best popcorn in town.

Martin and Bowman said they are not going to be in direct ?competition with other Santa Fe art houses, the Regal 14 complex, ?or the planned 11-screen Violent Crown theater complex (due to ?open in the Railyard sometime in the next year or so). "We're more inclined to show genre films," Bowman said. "Fantasy, horror, science-fiction, comedy, films that are not necessarily main art-house titles. We won't put ourselves in a box one way or the other. If we just duplicate what the CCA Cinematheque and The Screen do, what would be the point?"

"In the first year I think you're going to see us showing a lot of ?different things," Martin said. "After a year, we will see what worked and what didn't. Will people come out for the Saturday midnight-movie shows? If not, we'll probably stop running them. We won't screen a film for three people."

Martin said it makes him feel good to own a small-town theater with a historical tie to the community. Asked what his biggest challenge will be, he said, "To back off and let Jon run it. I should chain myself to a desk and finish my next book. My readers will show up at the Jean Cocteau with pitchforks and torches if I show up there every night."

Still, he plans to stop in sometimes to introduce and speak about his favorite movies, and he hopes that directors and writers of other films screening at the Jean Cocteau will do the same. And, he said, the Jean Cocteau will always have something no other cinema in the nation will have: signed copies of George R.R. Martin books.

The Jean Cocteau Cinema is at 418 Montezuma Ave. For show times and ticket information, see www.jeancocteaucinema.com or call 466-5528.

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(c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

Visit The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) at www.santafenewmexican.com

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