The Last Temptation of Krista

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."

To shop?
"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.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead