My Take: 25 Years of Retro

November 2, 2023 by Sandy Lerebours

Jim Carl, the Carolina Theatre’s Senior Director of Film at the Carolina Theatre reminisces on 25 years of programming our beloved Retro Film Series. 

 


When my editor asked me to write a blog on the rather broad subject of my “25 Years of Retro,” I might have flinched a bit. By nature, I’m not a sentimental person. I’m not one of those people who spends a lot of time thinking about the past. Most days, I’m too busy scheduling tomorrow’s lineup.

But without needing to hear another word, I instinctively understood what they were asking for: Mushy Stuff. Every editor I’ve ever met in my whole life could talk for an hour and a half about Mushy Stuff without ever having to take a breath or think, and every practical person I’ve ever met in my whole life could, by the second syllable of the third word, turn clinically deaf, including me.

So, fear not, this isn’t going to be a blog where I spill a lot of beans or tell you how I was never the same again after “that summer.” All I intend to do is entertain you with some of my best lies.

Basically, I’ve spent the last twenty-eight years of my life trying to explain what I do for a living to my mother. I began working at the Carolina Theatre in 1995 when I was twenty-seven years old, but before that I lived in New York City for several years and worked on a lot of TV shows and movies, followed by several soul-searching years where I lived in West Virginia and is of no interest to anyone, except some friends of mine on Facebook who watch a lot of Bigfoot documentaries, and then, only if pressed.

The jump from working on big Hollywood productions to working on film festivals and film series is not a big one, except my mother has never really understood what I did – or currently do – either. She seems to think that I get paid to meet movie stars. That, and watch Bigfoot documentaries on company time.

Every Christmas, I go back to Texas. There are many ways to go home. One of the best ways to go home is when you’re soaring high in box office grosses because the movies you’ve been programming have been hit after hit after hit, you’ve snagged the world premiere of a hot Japanese horror flick for your next film festival, Elvira has personally sent a congratulatory note, and you’ve lost seventy-five pounds.

It was a jolly time in 2021, let me tell you, especially when my mother called to say that when I got to Texas there was going to be a family reunion, attended by all the relatives who had ever been mean or snide to me.

Having a thrilling, high-profile job and reality are not the same thing. Reality is what happened next. I flew to Texas and attended the family reunion, greeting people I hadn’t seen in more than thirty years, and feeling full of myself, right up to now. One of those people was my Great Aunt Jenny-Lucille, a wide diesel truck of a West Texas Mexican woman who had sheltered Argentinian refugees in her home during the reign of Che Guevera.

“Well, Jimmy,” said Great Aunt Jenny-Lucille, sizing me up and making me feel six years old again. “I always wondered what happened to you. Your mother tells me you’re an usher at a movie theatre.”

Sound of rimshot. Sound of silence.

By the way, some of this blog is true.

No, I don’t work as an usher at a movie theater, although I do greet people all the time in our lobby.  This is the problem with having a high-profile job that’s hard to explain to my mother. I also don’t get paid to watch movies. I don’t get paid to hobnob with celebrities, attend fancy premieres, or kill the dreams of aspiring filmmakers as they sleep, although that last one is a perk.

I get paid to do a lot of research and gauge audience interest in films, specifically older films like the ones that play at the Retro Film Series. I spend an enormous amount of time tracking down theatrical rights, determining which studio owns which movies, and figuring out which ones may attract the widest audience. I’ve been lucky so far in that most of the pictures I’ve picked have been popular enough to justify keeping me around on the company payroll for twenty-eight years.

Occasionally, a film comes along whose popularity – or lack thereof – blindsides me. A picture that has no business whatsoever being part of the cultural zeitgeist. Or is shockingly not part of the zeitgeist at all. And so, that’s the focus of this blog. What follows is a combination of pictures and series that have kept me employed for almost three decades. And in other cases, almost turned me into a farmer.

 

The Charlie Chaplin Film Retrospective (July 2010)

Here is the epitome of the time I went all “highbrow and artsy” and fell flat on my face, right up there with the best of them. What blood-soaked note tied to a rock and thrown through my bedroom window caused me to program this folly, you ask? If I remember correctly, this was a national touring show comprised of several full-length features and short films. It was playing in New York City and Chicago, and I thought it would give the Carolina Theatre some street cred if it came to Durham.

I went all-in, publishing a fancy-schmancy souvenir brochure, and transporting several hundred pounds of 35mm film across the United States. What actually happened is that about a dozen people got to watch these movies for free in the cavernous 1000-seat Fletcher Hall, all by themselves, as if in a private. Costing more than $10,000 to produce, the retrospective grossed less than $1,000, a flat-out box office disaster. I have rarely programmed a Chaplin film ever since and feel pretty much the same about all the silent film comedians of that era because of it. Sorry, Charlie.

 

The Shaw Brothers Retrospective (April 2018)

A friend of mine owns his own print shop company and, for a small fee, he’ll print whatever slogan you want on a T-shirt. In 2018, I was tempted to buy one of those T-shirts and would have asked him to print the following words on it: “I Never Learn.” Like Chaplin, here’s another example of programming way out of my wheelhouse and jackhammering face-first into the pavement. Except for a few Jackie Chan movies, I knew nothing about Chinese-language kung fu genre films, but that didn’t stop me from booking an entire series of them, including “The Boxer’s Omen” which was described as “The Holy Mountain, Altered States, and Rocky all rolled into one.”

The grosses were worse than my grades for Mrs. Rathefeller’s middle-school algebra class. It’s because of this failure that I switched over to “Godzilla” movies, mostly based on the idea that I can claim some 7th-grade knowledge about giant mutant lizards who snort fire.

 

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

I had never actually seen “Rocky Horror” before the first time I booked it, but I relied on memory and imagination, two things we overvalue too much and probably shouldn’t. Producing a full-fledged FX-driven spectacle centered around a cult movie, like tickling an angry cat, teaches you something you can learn no other way. The first time we ran the tech rehearsal, I thought we were all going to die. Lights failed. The film refused to play. Fog machines almost set off fire alarms. We needed to get better in order to humiliate ourselves in front of a large group of strangers, rather than one stranger at a time, like normal. The theater staff was certain that the auditorium would be destroyed in a cataclysm, such as a flood of rice and confetti, and extra security was hired, like at an all-you-can-drink beer-chugging contest.

Standing in the lobby on that first night in 2018, nobody seemed to care when I wandered through the crowd. Dressed in beige pants and a Tommy Hilfiger shirt, I must have looked pretty harmless to “Rocky Horror” folks. But a funny thing happened between “Science Fiction Double Feature” and the closing credits: Things started to click, and a little fugitive showmanship snuck into the performance. No one was hurt, the auditorium wasn’t turned into a garbage mound, and a hellmouth didn’t magically appear on Morgan Street to swallow up the theater. By the time the show ended, we had a surefire crowd-pleaser on our hands. It was one of the few times that I now look back on my career and feel genuine pride.

 

Prom Night (1980)

I generally don’t think of my age too often. I’m one of those people who refuse to believe they’re growing older until all better options have been exhausted. The thing is, movies have a sneaky way of dating you. Whether it’s the pop culture references, music, or slang of the time, most pictures reflect the generation in which they were released. That’s true of “Prom Night,” a picture about a masked killer stalking a group of high school teenagers during their senior prom and featuring a lot of disco. Standing in the lobby after this film ended, I overheard a young daughter sweetly ask her mother, “Those songs were terrible! What kind of music was that?!” All at once, I felt my age. And reflected back on the years when the pterodactyls attacked our crops and Saber-toothed tigers circled our watering holes.

 

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

The one that started it all in November 1998. For the life of me, I can’t remember why we didn’t screen the 1980 original, although I’m sure that either Matt Pennachi or Adam Hulin (co-founders of the original Retrofantasma) could probably tell me. It doesn’t matter. The three of us spent weeks hanging handmade flyers on fenceposts and in campus dormitories to drum up business. It was all very guerilla marketing. There was no internet in those days, no email, and no way of knowing if anyone would show up. Ticket prices were $3. And 81 people attended that very first-ever screening of Retro. Of course, if as many people were actually in attendance that night as nowadays claim to have been there, the place would have resembled a Taylor Swift concert.


JIM CARL is the Senior Director of Film at the Carolina Theatre. He has been in charge of its film program since 1995. Some more of his favorite “bad” movies include “A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas,” “Yeti, Giant of the 20th Century,” “Flight 666,” and “Dante’s Peak.” He loves films where things blow up real good and will watch anything involving hijacked airliners, anacondas, Dolph Lundgren, or is set in a strip club named Porky’s. Some of his least-favorite “bad” movies include “Crank 2: High Voltage,” “The Sitter,” and anything hosted by a human and two robot sidekicks. He is a firm believer in the presentation of pictures that are fun and entertaining (and sometimes silly) and will book any movie he suspects will make money, even if he hates it, except for “The Babadook.”