It's August 1963. Blissfully unaware of the presidential tragedy lurking in the wings, a smart young Phoenix couple blithely sets out to see the most-talked-about film of the season.

He wears a sharkskin suit with a dark skinny tie.
She opts for a linen sheath and faux pearls.
And as they join the other postbeatnik thrill seekers in line outside the rustic little movie house on Scottsdale's Main Street, this broad-minded duo flash knowing smiles at each other. This is the theatre where they'd seen Jayne Mansfield in the raw! And tonight's attraction? An Italian documentary in which an old woman actually breast-feeds a baby pig! Right on camera!

In the early Sixties, a trip all the way out to the Kiva was an exciting adventure indeed. What other theatre in the Valley dared show a "foreign film" as shocking and bold as tonight's attraction? And dared to show it "Uncut! Uncensored! Unexpurgated! The way it was meant to be seen!" Not for nothing did the newspaper ads urgently warn moviegoers: "If You Never See Another Film, You Must See Mondo Cane!"

Never mind that only a handful of people in the audience could pronounce the foreign title correctly, let alone knew what it meant. No one ever said it was easy being artsy in the middle of the Arizona desert.

And according to theatre owner Louis Sher, that's exactly what's kept his downtown Scottsdale art house in business for nearly thirty years, even though the X-rated "artistry" onscreen at the Kiva these days might best be appreciated by a circus sword swallower.

An anomaly in today's relentlessly upscale Scottsdale, the Kiva is the only downtown "art house" left in Arizona.

SITTING IN THE CLUTTERED OFFICE of Art Theatre Guild of America, the 76-year-old Sher sits at his desk buried beneath piles of XXX-rated video catalogues. On the wall to his right hangs a framed poster for The Stewardesses in 3-D, a soft-core novelty chronicling one of the most ludicrously lurid layovers in aeronautical history. The stereoptic oddity was a box-office smash, trailing only Love Story as that year's biggest grosser.

Sher hitches a thumb in the direction of the poster's ad copy ("The unpublishable novel is now America's most controversial film!"). "Know why it was unpublishable?" he laughs. "Because there never was a novel in the first place!"

But he begs off when asked to elaborate on the high-flying blockbuster that inspired an entire film genre dealing with hormonally haywire nurses, substitute teachers and other swinging career girls. "My daughter keeps telling me I've got to save something for my book," Sher explains. "I say `What book?'"

For the lifelong movie buff, the deal for the art house began on a Cleveland psychoanalyst's couch in 1954. "Before I got into movies, I was very unhappy," confesses Sher, who was operating a string of taverns at the time. "Whenever I'd go see this doctor, I kept talking about this empty theatre four blocks from my house. He finally convinced me that if that's what I really wanted to do, I should buy it." Sher smiles. "I used to think that tomorrow would be better. But once I opened that theatre, I realized today was great!"

Using Cleveland's Bexley Theatre as his flagship house, Sher founded the Art Theatre Guild of America, a chain of theatres specializing in foreign or independently produced films far removed from the Hollywood mainstream. "Retiring" to Scottsdale in 1962, Sher added three more screens to his circuit. In addition to the 450-seat Kiva (which had previously operated as the Tee-Bar-Tee, a mainstream second-run venue), he bought the much more intimate Portofino, a 100-seat theatre just down the street from the Kiva. (Sher also acquired Tempe's Valley Art, which he sold long ago. The Portofino closed several years ago; Sher's nationwide chain is down to seven theatres.)

Drawing on urban sophisticates seeking something "different" (read: racy), Sher's chain eventually peaked during the early Seventies at more than forty screens in eleven states.

Generally smaller than conventional moviehouses of that era, Sher's theatres featured rotating art exhibits in the lobby, often offered patrons complimentary coffee, and did not sell popcorn and candy--or at least not until Sher made the profitable realization that art and snacks were not mutually exclusive. ("My God! This is a business in itself," he recalls saying after visiting another art house where customers could buy "everything but gefilte fish.") During his Scottsdale heyday, Sher effectively transformed the folksy Main Street of the West's Most Western Town into a cinema paradiso, a filmland free zone unbutchered by the censor's ax.

Or at least that was the idea foisted on a thrill-hungry public rapidly tiring of a steady diet of Doris Day and Rock Hudson.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dewey Webb