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Last Tango in Paris: cinemas-interrupticus

You couldn’t tune in a late night monologue without hearing jokes about hot buttered Brando.

Last Tango on CBS: kol dir die butter!
Last Tango on CBS: kol dir die butter!

A friend recently linked me to a collection of Sunday newspaper TV ads, and I chanced upon a half-pager from November 1973 pitching a late show airing of The Young Lions, in which Marlon Brando starred as a disillusioned Nazi officer. The witty execs who put together these promotional pieces frequently displayed more of a National Lampoon style of irreverence than respect for the movie being hyped. This one ran a few months after Bernardo Bertolucci’s X-rated Last Tango in Paris opened in a reserved seating limited release. You couldn’t tune in a late night monologue without hearing jokes about hot buttered Brando. The copywriters stopped short of referencing the film’s most scandalous scene, but since Mel Brooks’ The Producers had made it acceptable to ridicule Hitler’s horde, the invasion of Paris was fair game for ad copy.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Of my four theatrical visits, the first and last were the most memorable. I had as much chance of getting a date for the senior prom as I did of reliving the Chicago Fire. Imagine my relief when the date on the tickets that arrived in the mail for my maiden screening of Tango coincided with the formal dance. And in a moviegoing life fraught with audience participation, my last Last Tango resulted in one of the strangest occurrences of cinemas-interrupticus to date.

A decade or so ago, Variety reported on a group of seven blind people who filed a class action lawsuit against AMC Theatres, alleging the chain violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by “failing to provide properly functioning audio description technology.” Back in 1975, movie theatres didn’t offer amenities such as assisted listening devices. Visually or hearing impaired patrons were simply asked to bring a friend.

Chicago’s Bryn Mawr Theatre was a 4th-run grindhouse — 75 cents for a double-feature — located directly adjacent to the elevated train platform of the same name on the city’s North side. Like it or not, at regular 10-minute intervals, every film that played the single-screen hellhole did so accompanied by rumbling bursts of Sensurround. During quiet scenes, you could hear the faint sound of the conductor’s voice asking that the platform be cleared. Still, I spent many an hour there catching up on last-chance screenings of second-run titles. The booker clearly had taste, but the nincompoops that managed the joint were responsible for countless marquee howlers, most notably, “Now Playing: Fred Fellini’s Amarcord.”

You think cellphones are a distraction? It was not uncommon to see rats scamper across the bottom masking of the screen. (What do you expect for three-quarters of a dollar?) Patrons were wise to place kitty litter over their nostrils to help filter the pervasively wafting noxious odors that spread throughout the auditorium. No evening screening would be complete without the sound of at least one kicked-over wine bottle jingling its way down the raked, uncarpeted floor. And gosh only knows what was in the popcorn butter.

At least the marquee didn’t entice patrons with “Burt O. Lucci’s Last Tango in Paris” the night of my fourth viewing. The film was on its last legs, and there couldn’t have been more than 20 patrons in attendance, but those few included a curious married couple who arrived late and took up residence four seats to my right. The movie contained both French and English, and everything was peachy until the subtitles hit the screen. In a voice similar to that of Mel Brooks’ 2000-year-old man crossed with one of Monty Python’s Gumbys, the husband began reading aloud every word printed across the bottom of the frame, including all of the sexually explicit dialogue exchanges. Admittedly, for ten minutes I was biting the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing, but this was Bertolucci, not Bronson. Eventually, displeasure needed to be voiced. Leaning forward in my seat, I politely asked, “Could you please stop…?” My vision of his wife wearing sunglasses burns bright to this day. “I’m sorry,” the husband whispered, “but my wife is blind.”

Of all the cinemas in all the towns in the world, they had to sit in my row. My initial perplexity at the thought of a sightless person attending a movie half-filmed in a language unfamiliar to them quickly gave way to feelings of enormous guilt. “No, please,” I insisted, “would you like me to read for you?” He’d have none of it. Finally, in an uncommonly polite show of auditorium-acquiescence, I relinquished my customary 4th-row center seat and moved ten rows back. The narration soon resumed. It was the only time in my life that I welcomed the sound of someone’s voice echoing from anywhere but the screen.

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Last Tango on CBS: kol dir die butter!
Last Tango on CBS: kol dir die butter!

A friend recently linked me to a collection of Sunday newspaper TV ads, and I chanced upon a half-pager from November 1973 pitching a late show airing of The Young Lions, in which Marlon Brando starred as a disillusioned Nazi officer. The witty execs who put together these promotional pieces frequently displayed more of a National Lampoon style of irreverence than respect for the movie being hyped. This one ran a few months after Bernardo Bertolucci’s X-rated Last Tango in Paris opened in a reserved seating limited release. You couldn’t tune in a late night monologue without hearing jokes about hot buttered Brando. The copywriters stopped short of referencing the film’s most scandalous scene, but since Mel Brooks’ The Producers had made it acceptable to ridicule Hitler’s horde, the invasion of Paris was fair game for ad copy.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Of my four theatrical visits, the first and last were the most memorable. I had as much chance of getting a date for the senior prom as I did of reliving the Chicago Fire. Imagine my relief when the date on the tickets that arrived in the mail for my maiden screening of Tango coincided with the formal dance. And in a moviegoing life fraught with audience participation, my last Last Tango resulted in one of the strangest occurrences of cinemas-interrupticus to date.

A decade or so ago, Variety reported on a group of seven blind people who filed a class action lawsuit against AMC Theatres, alleging the chain violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by “failing to provide properly functioning audio description technology.” Back in 1975, movie theatres didn’t offer amenities such as assisted listening devices. Visually or hearing impaired patrons were simply asked to bring a friend.

Chicago’s Bryn Mawr Theatre was a 4th-run grindhouse — 75 cents for a double-feature — located directly adjacent to the elevated train platform of the same name on the city’s North side. Like it or not, at regular 10-minute intervals, every film that played the single-screen hellhole did so accompanied by rumbling bursts of Sensurround. During quiet scenes, you could hear the faint sound of the conductor’s voice asking that the platform be cleared. Still, I spent many an hour there catching up on last-chance screenings of second-run titles. The booker clearly had taste, but the nincompoops that managed the joint were responsible for countless marquee howlers, most notably, “Now Playing: Fred Fellini’s Amarcord.”

You think cellphones are a distraction? It was not uncommon to see rats scamper across the bottom masking of the screen. (What do you expect for three-quarters of a dollar?) Patrons were wise to place kitty litter over their nostrils to help filter the pervasively wafting noxious odors that spread throughout the auditorium. No evening screening would be complete without the sound of at least one kicked-over wine bottle jingling its way down the raked, uncarpeted floor. And gosh only knows what was in the popcorn butter.

At least the marquee didn’t entice patrons with “Burt O. Lucci’s Last Tango in Paris” the night of my fourth viewing. The film was on its last legs, and there couldn’t have been more than 20 patrons in attendance, but those few included a curious married couple who arrived late and took up residence four seats to my right. The movie contained both French and English, and everything was peachy until the subtitles hit the screen. In a voice similar to that of Mel Brooks’ 2000-year-old man crossed with one of Monty Python’s Gumbys, the husband began reading aloud every word printed across the bottom of the frame, including all of the sexually explicit dialogue exchanges. Admittedly, for ten minutes I was biting the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing, but this was Bertolucci, not Bronson. Eventually, displeasure needed to be voiced. Leaning forward in my seat, I politely asked, “Could you please stop…?” My vision of his wife wearing sunglasses burns bright to this day. “I’m sorry,” the husband whispered, “but my wife is blind.”

Of all the cinemas in all the towns in the world, they had to sit in my row. My initial perplexity at the thought of a sightless person attending a movie half-filmed in a language unfamiliar to them quickly gave way to feelings of enormous guilt. “No, please,” I insisted, “would you like me to read for you?” He’d have none of it. Finally, in an uncommonly polite show of auditorium-acquiescence, I relinquished my customary 4th-row center seat and moved ten rows back. The narration soon resumed. It was the only time in my life that I welcomed the sound of someone’s voice echoing from anywhere but the screen.

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