The marquee is lighted and the front door is open, but the lobby of the Valley Art Theatre is empty. Outside, Mill Avenue is alive with the modest bustle of a Thursday evening in downtown Tempe. College kids, yuppies, panhandlers and cops are about their business. But with the possible exception of a mouse or two, there are only three sentient mammals inside the Valley Art: a reporter, a dog and the theater's manager.
The dog, named Abby, is a sweet, fat, slow-moving, cloudy-eyed 12-year-old who spends most of her evenings sprawled on the floor behind the concession stand. For as long as Abby has been in the world, the woman who has cared for her has also been in charge of the Valley Art. Her name is Krista Griffin.
It's showtime, for a movie called SlamNation, but Griffin hasn't bothered to start the projector, because no one's in the house to watch it. This isn't uncommon. Maybe 20 or 30 people have shown up for the entire run of the film, a pretty good documentary about poetry slams, which opened the previous weekend. Griffin even attempted to generate interest then with an "open mike" poetry night, hosted by local performance-art maven Mary McCann. But the audiences, as the show-biz saying goes, have stayed away in droves.
"I love the little Valley Art Theatre" says Griffin, but at times she must feel as if she's the only one in town who does, save possibly the property's owner, and Griffin's former boyfriend, Dan Harkins. Even though the Valley Art's existence is no secret in the local arts community, a steady audience has remained elusive at the venue since the late '80s, when Griffin, who has leased it since 1986, changed its regular offerings from second-run dollar fare back to the art-house programming with which it is most associated.
It's been an art house, off and on, since the '60s, but there are indications that the Valley Art, which turns 58 this very month, may never have been a very lucrative one. And there are reasons to wonder about its future, even before Griffin's current lease expires in 2001. "This has never been about money for me," she says. "I just want to stay in business and serve the community." This isn't posing--Griffin has often sponsored civic-minded events such as her summer "Free Family Movie" series, at which kid-friendly films are accompanied with public safety or community awareness presentations by the Tempe police and fire departments.
She hosts student film festivals, and on the level of her regular bookings, she shows films that are too outre even for the art-house policy of Harkins. Without the Valley Art, these films would have a difficult time finding a screen anywhere in the area--special-interest films like the documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement, or Sarah Jacobson's Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore, or Trey Parker's comedy Cannibal! The Musical, or Green (a.k.a. Whatever), by Valley writer-director Karl T. Hirsch, along with annual compilations like "The World's Greatest Commercials" and the Spike and Mike Animation Festivals, both "Classic" and "Sick & Twisted." Some of these bookings are matters of necessity--she can only afford microdistributed films; the majors are usually too expensive. But there is also a sense of mission to what she does.
In the movie exhibition business, though, it takes money even to be a public benefactor. Griffin has little, and little prospect of more, barring the realization of her long-held daydream--the intercession of a philanthropist. Without such a deus ex machina, Griffin struggles regularly with the temptation to simply walk away from the Valley Art. Her old friend and landlord Dan Harkins isn't necessarily trying to discourage this scenario.
A well-dressed young couple wanders into the lobby. "What's the next show?" asks the man, peering behind the concession stand.
"SlamNation. It's a documentary," says Griffin.
"How much is it?"
Griffin tells him. He seems surprised that it's a regular first-run ticket price.
"Is there a later show?"
"Yeah, there's The Hollywood Erotic Film Festival at 9:45."
"Maybe we'll come back for that," he says. It's clear they won't. After they leave, Griffin chuckles, "We get more people in here to shop than to see the movies."
"Well. To browse. They just want to look around the place."
Griffin, a large woman who looks like a commune hippie and speaks in a fast, likably blunt manner, is the entire full-time staff of the Valley Art--manager, booker, publicist, box-office and concession cashier, projectionist and janitor. An ASU student named Kristen works during the Saturday midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show--still the Valley Art's one consistent moneymaker. She's Griffin's only paid help, unless you count the soft-spoken young blond man with a tongue stud who changes the marquee legend on Thursdays for $5 a week.
Griffin does, however, have an unconventional method of engaging temporary help, on those occasions when there's enough of a crowd to warrant it: "Sometimes I'll pull somebody out of line, and say, 'you look nice, you want to run concession?' Then I let them into the movie, and give them free popcorn and soda. They think it's hysterical."
Whatever charm there may be for an outsider to see an art-house theater run like the Mayberry Bijou, Griffin says it's largely a matter of necessity if she wants to keep the Valley Art running at all. So is paying the rent with proceeds from her several other jobs, which include substitute teaching for Scottsdale public schools, and partnering with a friend in a house-cleaning service.
It's a cheerful and humorous face to put on the situation. Griffin is quick to point out that the Valley Art isn't her whole life--she's proud of the long delayed B.A. in elementary education that she earned from Prescott College in 1995. She considers herself a devout--if somewhat unconventional--Catholic, and is active in her church's choir (she says she'd give up her career for a traditional marriage, if the right man came along). She has acted in community theater, and is currently in rehearsals for a quasi-religious sci-fi musical called Weapon of Light, in which she plays a supporting role. The show is scheduled to tour in China and Germany in February and March of '99.
Still, there's no mistaking that this is a difficult, exhausting point in the career of a woman who, 20 years ago, was one of the most promising of the Valley's up-and-coming showpeople, who even 10 years ago was still running one of the most successful dollar theaters in the country; who has won national awards and been profiled in Box Office magazine; who even had a chapter in a get-rich-quick book devoted to her innovations in the dollar-movie biz, and to the small fortune they had amassed for her.
Krista Griffin was born in New Jersey, and spent parts of her childhood in New York and Massachusetts--"So I have a lot of the East Coast mentality of drive and competition and that kind of stuff"--before moving to Arizona. It was at Scottsdale High School that she met Dan Harkins. Harkins, says Griffin, was the student body president, and she the little freshman who wandered into a school club and "just heckled him from the front row."
In a sense, the heckling has never stopped. Though she originally aspired to a career as an elementary school teacher, Griffin's sometimes amicable, sometimes tempestuous relationship with Dan Harkins and his family was--and continues to be--the greatest factor in her working life.
Out of high school, she went to work for the growing chain of theaters run by the Harkins family. "Dan's mom hired me--I worked at the Los Arcos Mall. You ever heard the story of how I learned how to run the projector? Mr. Harkins told me how to do it over the phone. The manager was upstairs gettin' drunk, and those were the days when you had changeovers [between film reels]. So I called Mr. Harkins at home, and he said, 'Oh, Krista, it's not that hard to do, I can tell you how to do it.' Those people were characters."
It's a lesson that's still with her. "Film's a good medium for me, 'cause it's art, and it's tangible. I build up the films when they come in, and feel them. There's something so wonderful about film--it's something you can touch. It's physical." As she talks about it, she sits next to a print of a film--Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore--that has broken and spilled into a pile on the floor, and skillfully winds it into a reel by hand.
After Scottsdale High School, Griffin went to college in Long Beach, California, for a while, "But then I came back as Harkins' girlfriend." She went to work for him, too. "That was my heyday. I was managing the Camelview, the Los Arcos and the Shea Plaza. I won the United Motion Picture Association 'Showwoman of the Year' Award in, I think, '78 and '79. I was the youngest person to win it, and the first person to win it twice in a row." She also fondly remembers winning Boxoffice magazine "Showmandiser" awards during the same two years.
"This was all when Dan was first in business for himself. I was critical to him being able to do it. I wish I had somebody like that in my life now, like I was then to him. I fielded phone calls from bill collectors and everything. He'd check half the theaters, and I'd check the other half, so we could get done sooner and spend some time together, instead of him checking them all and getting done at midnight."
Though they lived together for several years, Griffin and Dan Harkins eventually broke up, and thereafter Griffin found it difficult to continue working for the chain. "A boyfriend would come to see me at the theater or something, and Dan would, like, throw a phone through the wall."
About two years later, in 1983, Krista purchased the University Dollar Theater on Broadway in Tempe, and by combining an energetic, creative, slightly crazy management style--she installed a deli, and a soft-serve yogurt machine years before it became standard cinema equipment--and a great location, she made it one of the most successful theaters in the Valley, and possibly in the country. "I was the first one to do the dollar thing big," she recalls proudly. "I spent tens of thousands of dollars a month on advertising, and I made hundreds of thousands of dollars a month when nobody did the dollar movies."
Dan Harkins agrees: "She had the only dollar house in the southeast Valley, and she made it a gold mine. I can remember fighting for a seat there." Her success was remarkable enough that entrepreneurial guru Claude Olney devoted Chapter 43 of his 1991 personal-wealth tome The Bucks Start Here to her. Her story was titled "Some People Make Money Watching Movies all Day."
"That time was really fun," Griffin recalls, "'cause I was like a kid, and made all this money, cash. And 'cause I'm the way I am, so low profile"--she says with no apparent irony--"Nobody had any idea that I was making any money, so they all left me alone. Then when they figured out I was making just a shitload of money, everybody came to town, and built dollar theaters everywhere, and I got out of it in '92. The University had been a Nace theater, a first-run. It's now an All-State Mini-Storage, and, like, a chiropractic place."
As the turn of the century approaches, Griffin's fortune is as much a memory as the University Dollar. "I spent it," she says simply--on cruises, gifts to friends and the like. "I'm not saying I don't wish I had it now, but I can't regret it. I had a really good time."
The Valley Art is her entire entry in the movie business now, and it is only by sheer quixotic will--or by sheer obsessive bullheadedness, some might say--that Griffin keeps the Valley's one free-standing single-screen theater truly independent, for better or for worse.
She may, indeed, be the only reason it's still in operation at all, or even in existence. More than the fuzzy sound system or the peeling paint, a step out the front door and a glance up and down Mill reveal the degree to which the Valley Art has become a dinosaur. Look left to the south, and you can see a Coffee Plantation; look to the north, and you can see a Hooters and a Starbucks. If it ever was, Tempe isn't Mayberry anymore.
Griffin bemoans the gentrification. "I remember I went to a NATO [National Association of Theater Owners] convention about four or five years ago in Las Vegas where [Motion Picture Association of America president] Jack Valenti got up and said that in the next five years there will be no independent theaters left, but that's okay because the independent theater owners can all work for the national chains. Like, oh, and that's going to be okay.
"Look at every industry," she continues. "Look at the banks. How many banks do we have to choose from? How many pizza places, sub shops, grocery stores? There is no longer any little neighborhood anything."
Tempe probably was closer to that small-town ideal in 1940, when the building now known as the Valley Art Theatre began life, under the name The College, amid civic ballyhoo comparable to that which accompanied Bank One Ballpark's debut this past year.
The owner then, and for decades to come, was Harry Nace, also the owner of the Valley's dominant movie theater chain. But Nace's young partner in The College venture was a skinny, ambitious exhibitor named Dwight "Red" Harkins. Red and his wife lived upstairs in the theater, so their son Dan was conceived in the building, according to a local legend perpetuated, at least in part, by its subject.
Before his death in the early '70s, Red Harkins would build a solid local chain of theaters for himself, and his son would take the family business farther still--the name Harkins is now synonymous with film exhibition in the Phoenix area; and Dan has styled himself into the Valley's version of a movie magnate. Even Krista Griffin, whose relations with Harkins have often been strained, describes him as "a brilliant man, very charismatic. He's done a lot for this town."
According to Dan Harkins, his father was responsible for the theater's then-state-of-the-art design. It's said to have included such ingenious flourishes as a fluorescent carpet instead of aisle lighting, a soundproof room for crying babies, a drinking fountain operated by an electric eye, and wall jacks into which hearing aids could be plugged for a direct connection to the movie soundtrack.
The younger Harkins brims with tales of his father's showmanship and prescience. He claims that, with a homemade 35mm camera, Red would shoot his own newsreel footage of Tempe events like parades, or the football games at Arizona Teachers College (now ASU). "Remember, television wasn't invented yet. So, at halftime they'd announce, 'Hey folks, go see replays of the game at the theater.' My dad would shoot the film, go back to the theater, and in 90 minutes or 120 minutes, whatever time it took from halftime to the end of the game, he would develop all the film, lay it out all over the seats, let it dry, reel it back up, throw it in the projector and have it ready to show when the game was over. Unfortunately, all that stuff was shot on nitrate film stock, which is very volatile and flammable, so most of it had to be destroyed."
Along with this civic side, Harkins recalls that The College always had a hip, counterculture tinge, even before it became the Valley Art. His father told him of screening European films privately for a particularly illustrious Tempe resident in the early '40s: "The guy wouldn't rent the theater exactly. . . . Well, he would rent it, but he never paid. My dad said he gave the impression of being sort of a bohemian. Once in a while you'd see him barefoot and in sandals, sort of like the town hippie. His name was Frank Lloyd Wright."
Harkins also proudly credits his father with being among those who took an early stand against racist seating policies. "When my dad took over the State Theater, it was already sort of in place that minorities sat in one part of the theater and white folks in another part, and he changed all that; he said, 'That's nonsense.'"
Red Harkins left The College in 1961, selling his half of the partnership to Harry Nace Jr. It was rechristened the Valley Art, and, after a term as an adult theater, became a repertory house. Under the management of the Art Theatre Guild, which also managed Scottsdale's now-defunct Kiva, the Valley Art showed underground, foreign and documentary films on a monthly calendar, with shows changing almost every night.
Landmark, now the largest art-house chain in the country, took over the Valley Art from Art Theatre Guild in the '70s. Corporate management ended altogether in the early '80s, after which the theater continued to book art-house fare under the independent management of Dave Helie, an exhibitor from San Francisco. During all of these shifts, however, Nace remained the actual owner of the building until 1986, when he sold it to a man named Lloyd Sugarman. It's also at this point that Krista Griffin enters the story, and that Dan Harkins, the Son of the Valley Art, re-enters it. And it's at this point that, as they say in the movies, the plot thickens.
"Lloyd Sugarman was some rich kid who wanted to come to town and run a movie theater," recalls Griffin. "So he bought the Valley Art from Nace for, God, no money. I think he paid $180,000 for it in '86.
"Now, as I heard it, Dan came unglued because, apparently, independent of this negotiation between Sugarman and Nace, Dan was negotiating with Nace to release him from the lawsuit he had filed against Nace for antitrust. In lieu of paying him money, he wanted the Valley Art as settlement. So Nace just came along then and said, 'Whoops, I just sold it.' So Dan flipped out."
Sugarman ultimately decided not to try to run the Valley Art himself. "It's not a hobby business," notes Griffin. "So he started calling people all over and said, what do I do, what do I do? And it was flattering to me, my name came up when he called people." By then Griffin was well-known as the successful proprietor of the University Dollar. "So Lloyd called me and offered me the theater, and I hung up on him."
To entice Griffin into leasing the Valley Art, Sugarman renovated it to the tune of almost $100,000, replacing the seats and painting it. "So I started leasing it from him, and in my lease was the first right of refusal if he ever sold the property," says Griffin. "Well, in '91, the Laird-Dines people next door made an offer to him for $475,000 for the property." What happened next was perhaps the most peculiar twist in the long saga of the Valley Art.
"Legally, I had the right of first refusal. So I went to Dan--I never even went to a bank to look for my own money--I went to Dan because I wanted him to have it. He'd wanted it, for as long as I can remember."
Dan Harkins takes up the story, with characteristic boyish enthusiasm: "These developers wanted to close the Valley Art down as a movie theater and make it into something like a Hard Rock Cafe. So Krista said, 'I wouldn't want that to happen, and I don't think you would either.'"
Indeed he didn't. "I loved my Dad's theater, and I wanted to see it survive into the next millennium for my children to enjoy," Harkins begins, and then goes on to tell essentially the same story as Griffin's. "The purchase price was real high," he recalls, "about three times what Nace had sold it for." Harkins, whose chain was much smaller then than it is now, found it a bit rich for his blood.
"I said, 'Aw it won't work out.' I was disappointed, and I, like Krista, thought there was no hope and she would just get bought out of her lease.
"Then one day--this is how it really happened, it's so funny--I was getting ready to go on a jog and I was puttin' on a Valley Art tee shirt that Krista had given me and I thought, it's worth at least a call. I owe that to my father and my family and to our progeny to at least make a call to my banker."
The bankers could see the boom of downtown Tempe coming. "They said, 'Of course we would finance anything on Mill Avenue. It's a wonderful location.' This was like 24 hours before Krista's deadline with her landlord on the buyout clause."
Harkins and Griffin hastily put together an 11th-hour buyout deal. "We literally had to deliver notice to Lloyd Sugarman in Los Angeles about four hours before it expired, like 8 p.m. At midnight, it would have expired. So Krista bought the theater and owned it for a few moments, then turned around and turned it over to me. And that's how I became the owner of the Valley Art. Together, Krista and I sort of became the preservers of the theater. We didn't think Mill Avenue needed another nightclub, but surely it could use what has turned out to be the oldest theater in the Valley; and the only single screen, now that the Cine Capri is gone."
How much Tempe, and the Valley in general, prefers the Valley Art over one more nightclub is hard to say--you couldn't infer it from the business the Valley Art does. "Our heyday was, when I first took it over, and it was a dollar theater," says Griffin. "I was making $30,000 or $40,000 a month. That was in '86 or '87. I think in '88 I changed to the foreign-film policy for artistic reasons, because so many people gave me shit about it being a dollar theater. So, because I'm an artist, I thought 'Wow, it would be much neater to show foreign films and art films and theme presentations." Griffin hired Richardson & Richardson Advertising Agency in Phoenix to put together a newsletter that promoted the theater's programming. "It cost $3,000 or $4,000 a month," says Griffin. "But nobody came then either."
Griffin sees a variety of reasons for the slide. "The college hasn't supported this theater. If I was a professor of anything, you know, women's studies or anthropology, or any foreign language, I would make my kids come over and see movies. But that never happens." She points to the continuing erosion of street parking in favor of paid parking spaces. "Planting the trees in front of the marquee--all of this stuff has to do with why the theater's gone way downhill. And it's not that I haven't fought each and every one of these things as they've come up."
It's true that the two spreading trees on the sidewalk completely obscure the Valley Art's impressive sign. Unless you stand on the sidewalk directly below the marquee and look straight up, it's almost invisible.
It's also true that a lack of funds simply for maintaining the building may have much to do with the lack of public enthusiasm for recreating there. Traces of the theater's deco-ish elegance remain, like fossils, in the light fixtures and the angular molding. But the Valley Art is more than just quaintly faded--it's manifestly in disrepair, and while the large screen is still a handsome palette for a movie, the sound system is a fright. (Griffin says she's wondered sometimes if it might be haunted.)
But the theater's art-film policy--which, aside from historical interest, is its chief value to the community--may also be part of its sluggish business. "The theater, since the beginning of time, has never made money with the art stuff. We do all right with some gay-interest films, and with the animation festivals, and we still do well with Rocky Horror. And we've had live events that have done incredibly. But otherwise, nobody comes."
This phenomenon didn't begin with Griffin, although her lack of upkeep funds have undoubtedly exacerbated it. Bert Manzari of Landmark, the L.A.-based art-house chain that managed the Valley Art during the '70s, recalls, "It always struggled--it never seemed to quite catch on. It did okay, but the whole market never seemed to perform to what we thought was its potential. I was booking the New Loft in Tucson for Lou Sher at the same time, and we always seemed to do better in Tucson."
It's possible that the public's attitude toward the Valley Art is, on a smaller scale, similar to its attitude toward the late Cine Capri--they like the idea of it being there more than they actually like going to movies there. Griffin shows a clipping she was sent by Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana of a New Times "Best of Phoenix" award given to the Valley Art this past September. In the margin, Campana has written; "Krista--Tough to go a month without you!"
"She's trying to make it sound like she's in here once a month. I'm the whole staff, and I don't remember her ever being in here. But that's how it is. Everybody knows about the Valley Art, everybody likes the concept. They just don't come."
Dan Harkins is unconvinced. "I've known the Valley Art since I could walk, and my feel is that, if programmed correctly, and furnished and refurbished correctly, I think it's still in a very fertile moviegoing part of town. There's enough pedestrians there to support it. I'm an optimist about it, naturally; or I would not have gone off the deep debt end back in '91. So I think it has a future.
"It always seems to have its spikes and valleys over the years, but it always seems to come back. I mean, Krista brought it back, and did a good job. Unfortunately, Dave Helie and his partner had kind of let the programming go too esoteric; and Krista brought it back, and I thought she did real well there for a time.
"I said to Krista, 'cause we go back a long way, 'If you feel like it's too much and the Valley Art is wearing you down too much and you want to end your lease early, I wouldn't be the typical kinda landlord who would insist you stay there and keep paying rent.' But we're all on the sidelines praying that Krista makes it, 'cause I like what she does. She programs a lot of stuff that might not be right for, say, the Camelview, but that fits there."
Due to an unrelated legal wrangle, Harkins doesn't currently play any New Line or Fine Line films, and Harkins has encouraged Griffin to play them, as she would have no competition from other chains in downtown Tempe. Griffin resists, citing the high cost of renting major studio films. "Imagine what Wag the Dog would've done at the Valley Art exclusively," Harkins notes. "I mean, Austin Powers! I said, 'Krista, Austin Powers alone would've bought you, who knows, a new snack bar.'"
Griffin recalls the conversation. "Yeah, Dan said if he would have played Austin Powers at Centerpoint, he would have made $13,000 the first week. And I said, 'Yeah, and I would have made $1,300 here at the Valley Art.' No matter what the fuck I play, nobody comes."
Says Harkins: "I think she's being too pessimistic about her potential there." But optimism is easier when you have plenty of operating capital.
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It's Halloween in Tempe, around midnight. Mill Avenue teems with thousands of revelers in costume--Scream specters, Monica Lewinskys and Warrior Princess Xenas all drift past. And for once, the crowd inside the Valley Art reflects the crowd outside. Rocky Horror is packed. There's not an empty seat, except when the crowd leaps up to join in the "Time Warp." They scream "Asshole!" at Brad, and "Slut!" at Janet; they ask the criminologist where his neck is.
The crowd has Griffin in high spirits. Her glumness is gone, and she's remembering the fun side of what she does. "We had Russ Meyer here, live, with Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. We had Tori Amos here before she was famous; we had Shawn Colvin; we had Jeff Buckley before he died--he spent his last birthday here. We had Crispin Glover. So if we go out of business--" She shrugs. "It's all in God's hands anyway."
Inside the theater, the crowd lets out another happy whoop. Behind the concession stand, Abby stirs from her snooze, and contentedly thumps her tail on the floor.
Contact M. V. Moorhead at his online address: email@example.com