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Midnight Movies at East San Diego's Academy Theater

Nothing clicked as well as The Groove Tube and Flesh Gordon

We picked the most striking color posters from the last 25 years or so and glued them from floor to ceiling along the walls of the restrooms and the ladies lounge, before painting over all of them with a clear liquid plastic sealant.
We picked the most striking color posters from the last 25 years or so and glued them from floor to ceiling along the walls of the restrooms and the ladies lounge, before painting over all of them with a clear liquid plastic sealant.

The long, piercing, terrible scream that echoed through the auditorium didn’t come from the movie; it emanated from somewhere in the back of the theater, and it was alive, an entity. Here, near 37th and University, inside the Academy Theater, 250 stoners engulfed in an immense cloud of marijuana smoke were jerked right out of their buzz by that barely human cry. Finally, it trailed off and stopped. A sudden hush, and then the cheers and laughter and applause began. Everyone was intent on identifying the clown who had just ripped a big smile on the face of this new morning. They were turning around, peering through the haze and darkness toward where I was sitting. I smiled and nodded, waving back at them. It had been my pleasure.


To me, the warmest aspect of all those revelries at The Academy is how fresh the memories are, even after 50 long years. We were young. My family had come back to San Diego in the summer of ’71 after a four-year vacation in Maryland, where I had just graduated from high school. During our previous residency here, from ’57 to ’67, I had never set foot in any of the neighborhoods east of Park Boulevard. But shortly after our return, my older brother and I decided to do just that, to seek out the movie theater called The Academy, where a softcore Swedish sex comedy called Bedroom Mazurka was showing. We’d seen it back East, and loved it enough to want another dance. At the theater, we picked up a copy of a large, psychedelic events calendar announcing the programs for the next eight weeks of Saturday midnight movies at the Academy: offerings of some sort of club or business called Underground Cinema 12. This looked promising. The flyer depicted a cinematic smorgasbord of short films, counterculture films, erotic films, animated films — even a couple of neglected British features that would become cult staples as the years skipped along.

I was about to start a cozy little late-night job in Pacific Beach on the weekends, but the desire to attend these groovy-sounding shows was impossible to shake. My good friend Kent went every week, and his enthusiastic reports eventually slapped some sense into me. In the spring of ’72, I bid adieu to my job and became a happy regular on Saturdays at the cinematic hippie haven that was Underground Cinema 12. The folks running The Academy were generous, and made sure there was always something special going on in addition to the scheduled films. When I started attending, they were holding a raffle each week, the grand prize being a waterbed provided by a fine local firm called Natural Environments. Every week, another waterbed. I loved the shows but never had any luck with the raffles.

Around the beginning of summer, that situation began to change. Out went the raffle; now, the waterbed would be awarded to the weekly winner of a “Lack of Talent” contest, to be held after the show ended (usually around 2 am). The winner would be chosen by audience applause. It was essentially an open mic event, the kind that required strong constitutions of the participants, since the mood and receptiveness of the audience could change in an instant. There was a four-minute limit for each contestant, and everyone would receive a pass to come back to any future Underground show for free. That ensured a fairly regular group of joke-tellers (that’s right: tell a joke every week, never again pay to get in!), bad poets who must have been masochists, and on rare occasions, musicians. There was only one microphone, but it did a beautiful job with guitars and vocals. (Reluctant credit here would have to go to Stuart the projectionist. If the film ever broke or if something else went wrong with a presentation, the entire audience would start shouting “Stuart!” in exaggerated indignation. Stuart was a good technician, but was also what is commonly called an asshole. Eventually exposed as a forger and a thief, he split for L.A. and its huddled masses, yearning to be fleeced.)

I wanted a waterbed. On my first night up at the microphone, I began a bogus lecture about the deleterious effect of marijuana on the male libido. Just as the crowd was deciding it was time to boo me off the stage, I unzipped the front of my pants, reached in, and pulled out most of a Hormel Wrangler hot dog, which I began to wiggle about like I meant business. There was a big, collective gasp from the audience, and even some “Eeks!” from the more delicate members. Stuart quickly doused the lights and everyone went crazy. “It’s only a hot dog, you mothers!” I yelled, and the lights came back on. I tossed the wiener into the crowd. (Think Hendrix with his guitar at Monterey, or Townshend at Woodstock. Well, maybe not quite.) And with their cries of “Hot Dog Man! Hot Dog Man!” echoing in my ears, I won the waterbed that night. For weeks after that, everyone would call me Hot Dog Man. Shucks, it weren’t nuthin’.

One night after my friend Kent performed a version of “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” that had everyone cheering, a cute, barefoot blonde walked up to the microphone. She seemed and sounded quite demure, but her vibrant lecture on how to land a rich boyfriend contained enough salty language to get her a job on the docks, and enough hilarity to make everyone’s sides ache. Her name was Allison, and we became pals. Her ambition was to be a great stand-up comedienne, and I had little doubt she’d be famous someday. (She also moved up to Los Angeles to pursue her dream, but she happily let it go after becoming the girlfriend of an incredibly talented artist who was about to become a superstar.)

A true stalwart at the Lack of Talent contests was the Bear, a very large fellow with long black hair who hid his facial features under a thick beard. He brought his girlfriend along with him every week, and they always sat in the same two aisle seats, presumably for easy maneuvering when it was the Bear’s turn to pull himself up and saunter down to the mic. Once in position, he would recite some awful poetry or tell a dumb joke, always to the loud derision and catcalls of the audience. This ongoing antipathy, I soon learned, had been encouraged by the Bear himself when he had first started coming to the midnight shows. The abusive shouting was actually a form of affection for the guy, and everybody but the newcomers knew it. People loved the Bear, and he’d receive a lot of pats on the back when the show was over and people were filing out. When he and his girl were about to be married, he cut his hair and pared his beard down to a small handlebar mustache, and we all saw his face for the first time. The guy was extremely handsome and had a radiant smile. (Sadly, the Bear would fall victim to a neuromuscular disease. He died terribly young, as do all people whose smiles light up rooms. If you doubt me on this, check the obituaries in any newspaper.)

In the Spring of ‘72, I bid adieu to my job and became a happy regular on Saturdays at the cinematic hippie haven that was Underground Cinema 12.

Among the standout performances I witnessed during those wee hours was the recitation of an original poem by a young lady who grabbed me by the heart the moment her beauty blessed my eyes. Dressed entirely in black, she was goth before goth existed, and she had me for keeps when she rhymed “badge and a gun” with “vaginal fun”. Her name was Marsha. She and I had a number of things in common: the Beatles were our favorite group, Women in Love our favorite movie and The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart our favorite book. We shared the same bizarre sense of humor, but could also easily share a good cry while watching a sunrise or getting assaulted and beaten up after an anti-Nixon rally. We were young. The biggest difference between us was our genitalia, a happy fact we celebrated with gusto at every opportunity. We were fanatical about The Academy theater and Underground Cinema 12, and we missed only two shows during the nearly eight months we were together.

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Marsha lived with her mom. One Saturday evening when I went to pick her up, there was no car in the driveway. Big deal (or “big tickle,” as she always said). So something’s come up. But why no phone call? I continued on alone that night, and never saw Marsha again. It’s one of those things that you encounter more often as the years pass, but when you’re young, it’s so rare and unexpected that it’s a sucker punch to the soul: Marsha had suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of twenty-two. She had a congenital defect, about which she had decided not to tell me. There would be other times when friends would hide important stuff in order to spare my feelings. Marsha was the only one I was naive enough to forgive.

Underground Cinema 12 changed its name to Midnight Movies, which at the time sounded pretty revolutionary and still differentiated itself from the only other game in town, The Nocturnal Cinema at La Jolla’s Unicorn theater. The Unicorn was dignified; people smoked pipes with tobacco there. The Unicorn also had its own flyers, which were scholarly, pretty, and also dignified, but not nearly as much fun to peruse and admire as the ones announcing the Midnight Movies at The Academy. The brilliant designs and layouts were the work of an artist named Tom Roth. A lot of people would put the flyers up on the walls of their living rooms to serve as instant art; they were that good. The descriptions of the films, meanwhile, were composed by a wordsmith named Mike Getz, who could make the stupidest turd sound like a can’t-miss classic. He might describe a film as having to do with drugs, animals, and naked women, and indeed it would: it might very well depict a guy smoking a joint and petting his cat while he flipped through a copy of Playboy. Fully 90% of the offerings at the Midnight Movies were worth watching, if not always exactly great. But they were always great if you were stoned or tripping or both, which was a fair description of most of the people who bought tickets.

The manager of The Academy (as well as the Guild in Hillcrest and Fine Arts in Pacific Beach) was Frank, who was also a fine artist. He was in his early thirties, and his girlfriend Faith was his assistant. When I started going to the theater regularly, Faith was just a couple years out of high school. Most of the employees seemed to have been schoolmates of hers, and the sense of family was pervasive. They were all approachable and friendly, and the girls were knockouts.

My hot dog “coming out” at the Academy had impressed Frank and Faith so strongly that they would let me come in for free anytime I wanted to — even to the regular double features they presented each evening.

To land on the Midnight Movies calendar, a film needed to be “trippy,” an expansive category that was difficult to describe but easy to recognize. I was blown away by a 1964 Maysles brothers documentary, What’s Happening. For this, the filmmakers had been given an all-access pass to accompany the Beatles during their first visit to America. That was a trip indeed. (Curiously, the movie was illustrated on the flyers not with a photo of the Fab Four, but one of Leonard Whiting.) Many years later, What’s Happening would be released on video, retitled and augmented with performance footage from the Ed Sullivan Show. Still, it was thrilling to see it in its original form, back when home video was just a dream.

Underground Cinema 12 changed its name to the Midnight Movies, which at the time sounded pretty revolutionary and still differentiated itself from the only other game in town, The Nocturnal Cinema at La Jolla’s Unicorn theater.

On occasion, the KGB Chicken would brighten the fun at the Midnights, entertaining the line of ticket buyers or running amok inside before the movies. He had yet to become the San Diego Chicken or the Famous Chicken; we got him newly hatched (or nearly), and Ted — I mean the Chicken — was a tasty complement to the post-show activities.

After a few too many weeks of people calling me “Hot Dog Man,” I decided a name change was in order. One evening, during a narrative lull in a film, someone in the audience let out a surprising scream, which was met with applause and laughter. I enjoyed it too, but I knew I was capable of screaming with at least twice the passion and volume. After a few screamless weeks, I decided that if the original fellow wasn’t going to shred his vocal cords anymore, the field was open for me. To everyone’s astonishment, my first attempt was a masterpiece. I felt there was an art to it — getting the throat properly lubricated (but not overly so) and taking in just the right amount of air. Once I had targeted the perfect moment when I knew both the film and the crowd needed a jolt, it was blastoff time. I let loose with what I imagined someone would sound like while being sawed in half and roasted on a spit without benefit of clergy.

So now I was known as The Screamer. I became friends with the employees at The Academy; Frank and Faith would even invite me to parties, either at their home in Tierrasanta or upstairs in the offices of the theater when it was closed. One night, the three of us got a few bottles of Bolla Bardolino and set about giving the theater’s interior a face lift. Frank painted a long mural of a famous silhouetted scene from The Seventh Seal and we surrounded that with a couple hundred of the finest black and white 8x10 glossies from the Academy’s extensive archives. That served to welcome people as they arrived. Next came a selection of color photos from films like Friends and Midnight Cowboy and Let it Be that we affixed to the inside of the box office door (today, that very door is a part of my bedroom). Then we picked the most striking color posters from the last 25 years or so and glued them from floor to ceiling along the walls of the restrooms and the ladies lounge before painting over all of them with a clear liquid plastic sealant. We finished up just as the sun was rising, and signed and dated our labors in a special spot that wasn’t too hard to miss. For fun, I had altered some of the posters by seamlessly switching text and blurbs from one to another. It wouldn’t be apparent unless you looked closely. I remember “SEE! THE BLOOD SACRIFICE OF THE ZAMBIZIS!” looking positively precious on My Fair Lady.

Eventually, The Screamer became The Singing Guy. My musical friend Kent suggested that I join him for a performance in the Lack of Talent Contest, so I wrote some funny new lyrics to “Pinball Wizard” and sang them while he played his guitar and provided backing vocals. The Academy’s magical microphone was our friend, and the audience loved it. Soon Frank would be sure to schedule us last, sort of like headliners of the contest. Sometimes that meant playing just before a special, unscheduled 35mm “porno surprise” that would finally close the show. If it had been a dull night with a film that hadn’t quite clicked (a 90-minute underground chancre called Cry Doctor Chicago comes to mind), Frank would put on a scene or two from whatever porno masterpiece was due to play next at the Guild (the theater that first ran Deep Throat in San Diego, in the summer of ’72). We performed our funny songs week after week, and we always went over well. Soon, the Lack of Talent Contest was scrapped altogether so people wouldn’t have to wait so long to hear our latest offering.

I had a friend named Andy who lived about a half-mile east of the Academy with his mom and his sister Sherry. Surprisingly, Andy was unaware of the Midnight Movies until I mentioned them. One night I introduced him to Frank and Faith, and within a couple of weeks Andy was working at the theater, advancing quickly from concessionaire to ticket seller to doorman to projectionist. There was a very good reel-to-reel tape recorder in the booth which Andy would borrow, and he and I would construct recordings to play before both the Midnights and the regular evening movies. They were timed to be started 15 minutes before showtime, and would come to a notable conclusion as the movies began. Most theaters played muzak; we chose great songs and sprinkled in fake commercials (our Coke ad contained the loudest natural burp imaginable), notifications of lost children with two heads, and insane news reports that predated SNL by a couple of years.

Then, around the middle of ’74, Andy decided he wanted to move to New York. Since his flight departed from LAX, Frank and Faith drove him there (with me along for the ride), stopping first for dinner in Hollywood at Musso and Frank’s. I never felt I deserved such generous friends, but I wasn’t about to complain. They needed someone to replace Andy at the Academy, and asked me if I’d be interested. I told them I’d think about it; five seconds later, I said yes. It remains my favorite job ever.

Andy’s sister Sherry often came to the theater to hang out with me. At first, I thought she was lonely, and I was just a sort of substitute for her absent brother. But as the weeks passed, we grew into something fun and warm. A decade later, she moved up to L.A. and became the lead singer for a popular all-girl group. Always the adventurer, she got hooked on heroin and died of AIDS. Andy asked me to hold onto the box containing her ashes until he settled on a final destination for them. To this day, they remain in my hallway closet.


The regular weekly double bills at the Academy that began each evening at 7 would give way in mid-’74 to a single motion picture that played San Diego, only at The Academy, for a year. If it was 7, 8:30, or 10 pm, that meant it was time for The Groove Tube. (Today, clips of the sketch-comedy classic are easy to find on YouTube.) Being near such happy audiences was a tonic. Month after month, thousands of people left The Academy smiling. Whenever I was scheduled to work, I really looked forward to it. And the Midnight Movies continued, a zonked-out weekly party. In the early ’70s, a joint could land you in jail. But there is strength in numbers, and we were hosting probably the biggest pot party in the city, week after week. I remember being inside of that immense cannabis cloud when two police officers entered and walked down the right isle, pausing around mid-house. Looking around and seeing there wasn’t any real trouble going on, they turned and left. Even though the audience was thoroughly baked, it resisted yelling “Off the pigs!” or something equally stupid. No harm done; let it ride. We were young, but we weren’t stupid, and we knew a good thing when we lived it.

After The Groove Tube ended its run, Flesh Gordon flew in, another exclusive engagement. It also lasted nearly a year, prolonging the happy times and prompting still more after-closing celebrations. At about six months into Flesh Gordon’s run, the distributors decided to drop the “X” rating and cut the film down to an “R.” Frank received detailed instructions and did the celluloid snipping himself. Even after losing nearly 10 minutes, it was still a monstrous hit; the crowds grew bigger and happier, and we were having a blast.

When Flesh Gordon finally packed up and split, several other premiers were brought in. But aside from the fine Banjo Man, nothing really clicked with the public. We made the news for several days during our Banjo Man Marathon, which involved around 15 banjo players vying for a bunch of prizes. They had to play continuously for 50 minutes out of every hour, for however long it took, until only one of them was still alert enough to play. I volunteered to supervise the event from midnights to mornings — not only to keep everything honest, but to do my best to keep their spirits up. As the hourly 10-minute break approached, I would spray their faces with a couple of shots of cold water, and then they’d all start playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” at a brisk tempo. This went on for several days. When the film was being shown, they would all play out on the sidewalk, attracting a great deal of attention and applause from the passersby. For variety (a blessed commodity during any marathon), I would move the players regularly to different locations throughout the theater, the most comfortable being the lobby, and the most pleasant and stirring being outside on folding chairs as the sun was coming up. Registered nurses would visit all the players regularly, and Frank and Faith would alternate driving them to their own home whenever they wanted a shower. The marathon lasted over four days. Lance Skubski was the winner, and the movie’s producers took him out on tour help kick off similar Banjo Marathons at other Banjo Man openings.

Nothing lasts forever. Big changes were coming. My friend Andy returned from New York a different dude. Back East, he had somehow discovered Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and boy, had it done a number on him. It was as if he had taken a big bath in a mix of confidence and self-determination, and now felt he possessed the will to obtain absolutely anything he desired in life. Among his newest desires were several of the lovely ladies working at the Academy, and by golly, he was gonna get what he wanted. Their boyfriends would never find out.

As the sinister vibes began bouncing around, the Academy held its own Erotic Film Festival, which lasted several weeks and was quite a success. This was during the “Golden Age of Porn” (say what you will; Georgina Spelvin and Jamie Gillis were brilliant actors). Then the porn kept playing after the festival, and it became clear which way the winds were blowing. The Academy became a full-time porno palace, with some shows running well past midnight. Midnight Movies had to be relocated to Pacific Beach and the Fine Arts theater. An epoch was ending. Just as this was happening, I was offered a job by another company. I took it, but I still regularly visited my friends there on University Avenue. Frank and Faith finally tied the knot at a lovely wedding, and Andy continued to intrude into places a saner head would surely have avoided.

After transferring to the Fine Arts, the Midnight Movies stopped booking those trippy 16mm shorts that had so nourished the program during its formative years. Now it stuck to an arsenal of rock concert films and single-band documentaries. The weekly regulars from The Academy weren’t coming down to PB (they were probably catching up with SNL by then), and the new audiences were getting stoned before they bought tickets. It was still a nice place to end up on Saturday nights, but the loyalty and surprises and fun had disappeared. In less than a year, the Fine Arts changed ownership and the Midnight Movies were no more.

Frank and Faith remained at The Academy, which expanded to include one of San Diego’s very first video stores. Unfortunately, the video explosion started killing off attendance at big-screen porn emporiums. The Academy’s video sales and rentals were outstanding, while the auditorium was nearly empty. And good old Andy was having himself a fine time, secretly riding the fillies and drinking from the trough while the cowboys were playing cards in the saloon. Oh, it was the nature of man to achieve his desires and all that crap. I futilely begged him to stop, sick that I even knew. The damage he caused was prodigious, and keeping my mouth shut was a mistake I truly regret. I could have spared a lot of people a lot of grief. Instead, everything collapsed. It was time to grow up.

Among what I’ll call the original Academy family, several members have had kids and grandkids, and some have died. I still love all of them. I know of only one member still around and living in San Diego, and we cross paths pleasantly every few years. One couple found out that I had known about Andy’s exploits all along — in fact, they learned it from Andy himself in a rare social gaffe. They eventually moved to another state and have always declined to return my calls. To paraphrase Judy Garland’s Dorothy, I miss them most of all. It’s what I get for not speaking up when Andy was goring on all that forbidden fruit. I learned the hard way that hiding bad news from a friend about something that can be corrected, just in order to spare his or her feelings, is insane. As if by karma, that lesson kicked me in the ass some decades later, when two of my “friends” worked overtime to keep me blind to an important truth. (Was “Your girlfriend’s a slut” too difficult to pronounce?)

Others in this story deserve a final nod. Kent, my musical partner, has remained my friend for more than 50 years. We spent several happy decades performing in various bands together. He and his wife Liz (another sweetheart) founded and still publish the venerable local music journal, The San Diego Troubadour. My older brother Tom, who discovered The Academy with me so long ago and was himself an accomplished musician, played in several local bands before starting the great Rockola. He died without even reaching the age of forty-five. And oh yes, Andy. On New Year’s Eve of 1978, he decided it was time to return to New York. He surprised and shocked us all by flying off with my brother Tom’s wife (that fairy tale romance lasted all of twelve weeks). For the past thirty-three years, he has been living in Malta where, two and a half months ago, he was found to be certifiably nuts. My regards to Ayn Rand.


I can still walk to the building on University Avenue where so much happiness was felt and shared, and it’s hard to believe it was so long ago. It’s a church now, so it’s doing somebody besides me s ome good. But I can’t come out here after dark; the neighborhood’s become dangerous. Here’s where the box office was, where Mary Rogers and I would record directions and showtimes for the answering machine in ways that would crack-up the callers. This is the home of so many of my happiest hours. I must be having another one now, standing at this spot, because those times are coming back so clearly. This is where it all happened. God, it’s back. Right here. I’m back and I’m hearing the voices and seeing the faces of people who meant more to me than they ever knew. We’ve all come back. We’ll be here forever. We are young.

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Placism!
We picked the most striking color posters from the last 25 years or so and glued them from floor to ceiling along the walls of the restrooms and the ladies lounge, before painting over all of them with a clear liquid plastic sealant.
We picked the most striking color posters from the last 25 years or so and glued them from floor to ceiling along the walls of the restrooms and the ladies lounge, before painting over all of them with a clear liquid plastic sealant.

The long, piercing, terrible scream that echoed through the auditorium didn’t come from the movie; it emanated from somewhere in the back of the theater, and it was alive, an entity. Here, near 37th and University, inside the Academy Theater, 250 stoners engulfed in an immense cloud of marijuana smoke were jerked right out of their buzz by that barely human cry. Finally, it trailed off and stopped. A sudden hush, and then the cheers and laughter and applause began. Everyone was intent on identifying the clown who had just ripped a big smile on the face of this new morning. They were turning around, peering through the haze and darkness toward where I was sitting. I smiled and nodded, waving back at them. It had been my pleasure.


To me, the warmest aspect of all those revelries at The Academy is how fresh the memories are, even after 50 long years. We were young. My family had come back to San Diego in the summer of ’71 after a four-year vacation in Maryland, where I had just graduated from high school. During our previous residency here, from ’57 to ’67, I had never set foot in any of the neighborhoods east of Park Boulevard. But shortly after our return, my older brother and I decided to do just that, to seek out the movie theater called The Academy, where a softcore Swedish sex comedy called Bedroom Mazurka was showing. We’d seen it back East, and loved it enough to want another dance. At the theater, we picked up a copy of a large, psychedelic events calendar announcing the programs for the next eight weeks of Saturday midnight movies at the Academy: offerings of some sort of club or business called Underground Cinema 12. This looked promising. The flyer depicted a cinematic smorgasbord of short films, counterculture films, erotic films, animated films — even a couple of neglected British features that would become cult staples as the years skipped along.

I was about to start a cozy little late-night job in Pacific Beach on the weekends, but the desire to attend these groovy-sounding shows was impossible to shake. My good friend Kent went every week, and his enthusiastic reports eventually slapped some sense into me. In the spring of ’72, I bid adieu to my job and became a happy regular on Saturdays at the cinematic hippie haven that was Underground Cinema 12. The folks running The Academy were generous, and made sure there was always something special going on in addition to the scheduled films. When I started attending, they were holding a raffle each week, the grand prize being a waterbed provided by a fine local firm called Natural Environments. Every week, another waterbed. I loved the shows but never had any luck with the raffles.

Around the beginning of summer, that situation began to change. Out went the raffle; now, the waterbed would be awarded to the weekly winner of a “Lack of Talent” contest, to be held after the show ended (usually around 2 am). The winner would be chosen by audience applause. It was essentially an open mic event, the kind that required strong constitutions of the participants, since the mood and receptiveness of the audience could change in an instant. There was a four-minute limit for each contestant, and everyone would receive a pass to come back to any future Underground show for free. That ensured a fairly regular group of joke-tellers (that’s right: tell a joke every week, never again pay to get in!), bad poets who must have been masochists, and on rare occasions, musicians. There was only one microphone, but it did a beautiful job with guitars and vocals. (Reluctant credit here would have to go to Stuart the projectionist. If the film ever broke or if something else went wrong with a presentation, the entire audience would start shouting “Stuart!” in exaggerated indignation. Stuart was a good technician, but was also what is commonly called an asshole. Eventually exposed as a forger and a thief, he split for L.A. and its huddled masses, yearning to be fleeced.)

I wanted a waterbed. On my first night up at the microphone, I began a bogus lecture about the deleterious effect of marijuana on the male libido. Just as the crowd was deciding it was time to boo me off the stage, I unzipped the front of my pants, reached in, and pulled out most of a Hormel Wrangler hot dog, which I began to wiggle about like I meant business. There was a big, collective gasp from the audience, and even some “Eeks!” from the more delicate members. Stuart quickly doused the lights and everyone went crazy. “It’s only a hot dog, you mothers!” I yelled, and the lights came back on. I tossed the wiener into the crowd. (Think Hendrix with his guitar at Monterey, or Townshend at Woodstock. Well, maybe not quite.) And with their cries of “Hot Dog Man! Hot Dog Man!” echoing in my ears, I won the waterbed that night. For weeks after that, everyone would call me Hot Dog Man. Shucks, it weren’t nuthin’.

One night after my friend Kent performed a version of “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” that had everyone cheering, a cute, barefoot blonde walked up to the microphone. She seemed and sounded quite demure, but her vibrant lecture on how to land a rich boyfriend contained enough salty language to get her a job on the docks, and enough hilarity to make everyone’s sides ache. Her name was Allison, and we became pals. Her ambition was to be a great stand-up comedienne, and I had little doubt she’d be famous someday. (She also moved up to Los Angeles to pursue her dream, but she happily let it go after becoming the girlfriend of an incredibly talented artist who was about to become a superstar.)

A true stalwart at the Lack of Talent contests was the Bear, a very large fellow with long black hair who hid his facial features under a thick beard. He brought his girlfriend along with him every week, and they always sat in the same two aisle seats, presumably for easy maneuvering when it was the Bear’s turn to pull himself up and saunter down to the mic. Once in position, he would recite some awful poetry or tell a dumb joke, always to the loud derision and catcalls of the audience. This ongoing antipathy, I soon learned, had been encouraged by the Bear himself when he had first started coming to the midnight shows. The abusive shouting was actually a form of affection for the guy, and everybody but the newcomers knew it. People loved the Bear, and he’d receive a lot of pats on the back when the show was over and people were filing out. When he and his girl were about to be married, he cut his hair and pared his beard down to a small handlebar mustache, and we all saw his face for the first time. The guy was extremely handsome and had a radiant smile. (Sadly, the Bear would fall victim to a neuromuscular disease. He died terribly young, as do all people whose smiles light up rooms. If you doubt me on this, check the obituaries in any newspaper.)

In the Spring of ‘72, I bid adieu to my job and became a happy regular on Saturdays at the cinematic hippie haven that was Underground Cinema 12.

Among the standout performances I witnessed during those wee hours was the recitation of an original poem by a young lady who grabbed me by the heart the moment her beauty blessed my eyes. Dressed entirely in black, she was goth before goth existed, and she had me for keeps when she rhymed “badge and a gun” with “vaginal fun”. Her name was Marsha. She and I had a number of things in common: the Beatles were our favorite group, Women in Love our favorite movie and The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart our favorite book. We shared the same bizarre sense of humor, but could also easily share a good cry while watching a sunrise or getting assaulted and beaten up after an anti-Nixon rally. We were young. The biggest difference between us was our genitalia, a happy fact we celebrated with gusto at every opportunity. We were fanatical about The Academy theater and Underground Cinema 12, and we missed only two shows during the nearly eight months we were together.

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Marsha lived with her mom. One Saturday evening when I went to pick her up, there was no car in the driveway. Big deal (or “big tickle,” as she always said). So something’s come up. But why no phone call? I continued on alone that night, and never saw Marsha again. It’s one of those things that you encounter more often as the years pass, but when you’re young, it’s so rare and unexpected that it’s a sucker punch to the soul: Marsha had suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of twenty-two. She had a congenital defect, about which she had decided not to tell me. There would be other times when friends would hide important stuff in order to spare my feelings. Marsha was the only one I was naive enough to forgive.

Underground Cinema 12 changed its name to Midnight Movies, which at the time sounded pretty revolutionary and still differentiated itself from the only other game in town, The Nocturnal Cinema at La Jolla’s Unicorn theater. The Unicorn was dignified; people smoked pipes with tobacco there. The Unicorn also had its own flyers, which were scholarly, pretty, and also dignified, but not nearly as much fun to peruse and admire as the ones announcing the Midnight Movies at The Academy. The brilliant designs and layouts were the work of an artist named Tom Roth. A lot of people would put the flyers up on the walls of their living rooms to serve as instant art; they were that good. The descriptions of the films, meanwhile, were composed by a wordsmith named Mike Getz, who could make the stupidest turd sound like a can’t-miss classic. He might describe a film as having to do with drugs, animals, and naked women, and indeed it would: it might very well depict a guy smoking a joint and petting his cat while he flipped through a copy of Playboy. Fully 90% of the offerings at the Midnight Movies were worth watching, if not always exactly great. But they were always great if you were stoned or tripping or both, which was a fair description of most of the people who bought tickets.

The manager of The Academy (as well as the Guild in Hillcrest and Fine Arts in Pacific Beach) was Frank, who was also a fine artist. He was in his early thirties, and his girlfriend Faith was his assistant. When I started going to the theater regularly, Faith was just a couple years out of high school. Most of the employees seemed to have been schoolmates of hers, and the sense of family was pervasive. They were all approachable and friendly, and the girls were knockouts.

My hot dog “coming out” at the Academy had impressed Frank and Faith so strongly that they would let me come in for free anytime I wanted to — even to the regular double features they presented each evening.

To land on the Midnight Movies calendar, a film needed to be “trippy,” an expansive category that was difficult to describe but easy to recognize. I was blown away by a 1964 Maysles brothers documentary, What’s Happening. For this, the filmmakers had been given an all-access pass to accompany the Beatles during their first visit to America. That was a trip indeed. (Curiously, the movie was illustrated on the flyers not with a photo of the Fab Four, but one of Leonard Whiting.) Many years later, What’s Happening would be released on video, retitled and augmented with performance footage from the Ed Sullivan Show. Still, it was thrilling to see it in its original form, back when home video was just a dream.

Underground Cinema 12 changed its name to the Midnight Movies, which at the time sounded pretty revolutionary and still differentiated itself from the only other game in town, The Nocturnal Cinema at La Jolla’s Unicorn theater.

On occasion, the KGB Chicken would brighten the fun at the Midnights, entertaining the line of ticket buyers or running amok inside before the movies. He had yet to become the San Diego Chicken or the Famous Chicken; we got him newly hatched (or nearly), and Ted — I mean the Chicken — was a tasty complement to the post-show activities.

After a few too many weeks of people calling me “Hot Dog Man,” I decided a name change was in order. One evening, during a narrative lull in a film, someone in the audience let out a surprising scream, which was met with applause and laughter. I enjoyed it too, but I knew I was capable of screaming with at least twice the passion and volume. After a few screamless weeks, I decided that if the original fellow wasn’t going to shred his vocal cords anymore, the field was open for me. To everyone’s astonishment, my first attempt was a masterpiece. I felt there was an art to it — getting the throat properly lubricated (but not overly so) and taking in just the right amount of air. Once I had targeted the perfect moment when I knew both the film and the crowd needed a jolt, it was blastoff time. I let loose with what I imagined someone would sound like while being sawed in half and roasted on a spit without benefit of clergy.

So now I was known as The Screamer. I became friends with the employees at The Academy; Frank and Faith would even invite me to parties, either at their home in Tierrasanta or upstairs in the offices of the theater when it was closed. One night, the three of us got a few bottles of Bolla Bardolino and set about giving the theater’s interior a face lift. Frank painted a long mural of a famous silhouetted scene from The Seventh Seal and we surrounded that with a couple hundred of the finest black and white 8x10 glossies from the Academy’s extensive archives. That served to welcome people as they arrived. Next came a selection of color photos from films like Friends and Midnight Cowboy and Let it Be that we affixed to the inside of the box office door (today, that very door is a part of my bedroom). Then we picked the most striking color posters from the last 25 years or so and glued them from floor to ceiling along the walls of the restrooms and the ladies lounge before painting over all of them with a clear liquid plastic sealant. We finished up just as the sun was rising, and signed and dated our labors in a special spot that wasn’t too hard to miss. For fun, I had altered some of the posters by seamlessly switching text and blurbs from one to another. It wouldn’t be apparent unless you looked closely. I remember “SEE! THE BLOOD SACRIFICE OF THE ZAMBIZIS!” looking positively precious on My Fair Lady.

Eventually, The Screamer became The Singing Guy. My musical friend Kent suggested that I join him for a performance in the Lack of Talent Contest, so I wrote some funny new lyrics to “Pinball Wizard” and sang them while he played his guitar and provided backing vocals. The Academy’s magical microphone was our friend, and the audience loved it. Soon Frank would be sure to schedule us last, sort of like headliners of the contest. Sometimes that meant playing just before a special, unscheduled 35mm “porno surprise” that would finally close the show. If it had been a dull night with a film that hadn’t quite clicked (a 90-minute underground chancre called Cry Doctor Chicago comes to mind), Frank would put on a scene or two from whatever porno masterpiece was due to play next at the Guild (the theater that first ran Deep Throat in San Diego, in the summer of ’72). We performed our funny songs week after week, and we always went over well. Soon, the Lack of Talent Contest was scrapped altogether so people wouldn’t have to wait so long to hear our latest offering.

I had a friend named Andy who lived about a half-mile east of the Academy with his mom and his sister Sherry. Surprisingly, Andy was unaware of the Midnight Movies until I mentioned them. One night I introduced him to Frank and Faith, and within a couple of weeks Andy was working at the theater, advancing quickly from concessionaire to ticket seller to doorman to projectionist. There was a very good reel-to-reel tape recorder in the booth which Andy would borrow, and he and I would construct recordings to play before both the Midnights and the regular evening movies. They were timed to be started 15 minutes before showtime, and would come to a notable conclusion as the movies began. Most theaters played muzak; we chose great songs and sprinkled in fake commercials (our Coke ad contained the loudest natural burp imaginable), notifications of lost children with two heads, and insane news reports that predated SNL by a couple of years.

Then, around the middle of ’74, Andy decided he wanted to move to New York. Since his flight departed from LAX, Frank and Faith drove him there (with me along for the ride), stopping first for dinner in Hollywood at Musso and Frank’s. I never felt I deserved such generous friends, but I wasn’t about to complain. They needed someone to replace Andy at the Academy, and asked me if I’d be interested. I told them I’d think about it; five seconds later, I said yes. It remains my favorite job ever.

Andy’s sister Sherry often came to the theater to hang out with me. At first, I thought she was lonely, and I was just a sort of substitute for her absent brother. But as the weeks passed, we grew into something fun and warm. A decade later, she moved up to L.A. and became the lead singer for a popular all-girl group. Always the adventurer, she got hooked on heroin and died of AIDS. Andy asked me to hold onto the box containing her ashes until he settled on a final destination for them. To this day, they remain in my hallway closet.


The regular weekly double bills at the Academy that began each evening at 7 would give way in mid-’74 to a single motion picture that played San Diego, only at The Academy, for a year. If it was 7, 8:30, or 10 pm, that meant it was time for The Groove Tube. (Today, clips of the sketch-comedy classic are easy to find on YouTube.) Being near such happy audiences was a tonic. Month after month, thousands of people left The Academy smiling. Whenever I was scheduled to work, I really looked forward to it. And the Midnight Movies continued, a zonked-out weekly party. In the early ’70s, a joint could land you in jail. But there is strength in numbers, and we were hosting probably the biggest pot party in the city, week after week. I remember being inside of that immense cannabis cloud when two police officers entered and walked down the right isle, pausing around mid-house. Looking around and seeing there wasn’t any real trouble going on, they turned and left. Even though the audience was thoroughly baked, it resisted yelling “Off the pigs!” or something equally stupid. No harm done; let it ride. We were young, but we weren’t stupid, and we knew a good thing when we lived it.

After The Groove Tube ended its run, Flesh Gordon flew in, another exclusive engagement. It also lasted nearly a year, prolonging the happy times and prompting still more after-closing celebrations. At about six months into Flesh Gordon’s run, the distributors decided to drop the “X” rating and cut the film down to an “R.” Frank received detailed instructions and did the celluloid snipping himself. Even after losing nearly 10 minutes, it was still a monstrous hit; the crowds grew bigger and happier, and we were having a blast.

When Flesh Gordon finally packed up and split, several other premiers were brought in. But aside from the fine Banjo Man, nothing really clicked with the public. We made the news for several days during our Banjo Man Marathon, which involved around 15 banjo players vying for a bunch of prizes. They had to play continuously for 50 minutes out of every hour, for however long it took, until only one of them was still alert enough to play. I volunteered to supervise the event from midnights to mornings — not only to keep everything honest, but to do my best to keep their spirits up. As the hourly 10-minute break approached, I would spray their faces with a couple of shots of cold water, and then they’d all start playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” at a brisk tempo. This went on for several days. When the film was being shown, they would all play out on the sidewalk, attracting a great deal of attention and applause from the passersby. For variety (a blessed commodity during any marathon), I would move the players regularly to different locations throughout the theater, the most comfortable being the lobby, and the most pleasant and stirring being outside on folding chairs as the sun was coming up. Registered nurses would visit all the players regularly, and Frank and Faith would alternate driving them to their own home whenever they wanted a shower. The marathon lasted over four days. Lance Skubski was the winner, and the movie’s producers took him out on tour help kick off similar Banjo Marathons at other Banjo Man openings.

Nothing lasts forever. Big changes were coming. My friend Andy returned from New York a different dude. Back East, he had somehow discovered Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and boy, had it done a number on him. It was as if he had taken a big bath in a mix of confidence and self-determination, and now felt he possessed the will to obtain absolutely anything he desired in life. Among his newest desires were several of the lovely ladies working at the Academy, and by golly, he was gonna get what he wanted. Their boyfriends would never find out.

As the sinister vibes began bouncing around, the Academy held its own Erotic Film Festival, which lasted several weeks and was quite a success. This was during the “Golden Age of Porn” (say what you will; Georgina Spelvin and Jamie Gillis were brilliant actors). Then the porn kept playing after the festival, and it became clear which way the winds were blowing. The Academy became a full-time porno palace, with some shows running well past midnight. Midnight Movies had to be relocated to Pacific Beach and the Fine Arts theater. An epoch was ending. Just as this was happening, I was offered a job by another company. I took it, but I still regularly visited my friends there on University Avenue. Frank and Faith finally tied the knot at a lovely wedding, and Andy continued to intrude into places a saner head would surely have avoided.

After transferring to the Fine Arts, the Midnight Movies stopped booking those trippy 16mm shorts that had so nourished the program during its formative years. Now it stuck to an arsenal of rock concert films and single-band documentaries. The weekly regulars from The Academy weren’t coming down to PB (they were probably catching up with SNL by then), and the new audiences were getting stoned before they bought tickets. It was still a nice place to end up on Saturday nights, but the loyalty and surprises and fun had disappeared. In less than a year, the Fine Arts changed ownership and the Midnight Movies were no more.

Frank and Faith remained at The Academy, which expanded to include one of San Diego’s very first video stores. Unfortunately, the video explosion started killing off attendance at big-screen porn emporiums. The Academy’s video sales and rentals were outstanding, while the auditorium was nearly empty. And good old Andy was having himself a fine time, secretly riding the fillies and drinking from the trough while the cowboys were playing cards in the saloon. Oh, it was the nature of man to achieve his desires and all that crap. I futilely begged him to stop, sick that I even knew. The damage he caused was prodigious, and keeping my mouth shut was a mistake I truly regret. I could have spared a lot of people a lot of grief. Instead, everything collapsed. It was time to grow up.

Among what I’ll call the original Academy family, several members have had kids and grandkids, and some have died. I still love all of them. I know of only one member still around and living in San Diego, and we cross paths pleasantly every few years. One couple found out that I had known about Andy’s exploits all along — in fact, they learned it from Andy himself in a rare social gaffe. They eventually moved to another state and have always declined to return my calls. To paraphrase Judy Garland’s Dorothy, I miss them most of all. It’s what I get for not speaking up when Andy was goring on all that forbidden fruit. I learned the hard way that hiding bad news from a friend about something that can be corrected, just in order to spare his or her feelings, is insane. As if by karma, that lesson kicked me in the ass some decades later, when two of my “friends” worked overtime to keep me blind to an important truth. (Was “Your girlfriend’s a slut” too difficult to pronounce?)

Others in this story deserve a final nod. Kent, my musical partner, has remained my friend for more than 50 years. We spent several happy decades performing in various bands together. He and his wife Liz (another sweetheart) founded and still publish the venerable local music journal, The San Diego Troubadour. My older brother Tom, who discovered The Academy with me so long ago and was himself an accomplished musician, played in several local bands before starting the great Rockola. He died without even reaching the age of forty-five. And oh yes, Andy. On New Year’s Eve of 1978, he decided it was time to return to New York. He surprised and shocked us all by flying off with my brother Tom’s wife (that fairy tale romance lasted all of twelve weeks). For the past thirty-three years, he has been living in Malta where, two and a half months ago, he was found to be certifiably nuts. My regards to Ayn Rand.


I can still walk to the building on University Avenue where so much happiness was felt and shared, and it’s hard to believe it was so long ago. It’s a church now, so it’s doing somebody besides me s ome good. But I can’t come out here after dark; the neighborhood’s become dangerous. Here’s where the box office was, where Mary Rogers and I would record directions and showtimes for the answering machine in ways that would crack-up the callers. This is the home of so many of my happiest hours. I must be having another one now, standing at this spot, because those times are coming back so clearly. This is where it all happened. God, it’s back. Right here. I’m back and I’m hearing the voices and seeing the faces of people who meant more to me than they ever knew. We’ve all come back. We’ll be here forever. We are young.

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I fondly remember the time spent looking at all that folk art collage plastered all over the walls of the Academy - right next to one men's room urinal were some clippings from the movie Joe with Peter Boyle, which I'd never heard of but was intrigued enough to look into and ended up loving. Can't recall ever discovering another great film in a restroom ----

March 30, 2022

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