Monday, April 25, 2011

BALLS: Life's Secret Scenarios #8—film career hijinx redux


Forget Downeys, Joe Allens, or The Theatre Bar
this Friday night after your show!
Come one Come all January 7th. 
Be the first to see a Midnite Screening
of your favorite Stage Manager’s
1st Indie-Undie (very sexy) debut feature film
”EVENTS …A reelie”
a new film by FRED BAKER
Friday Midnite @ The Elgin Cinema,
Eighth Ave. bet. W18th & W19th Street,
Support Your Very Own Underground Filmmaker!
Tickets $3

When Fritz finished his first dramatic feature film “Events” in late 1969, he decided to screen it in a legit size movie theatre and invite all his Bway and Off-Bway Theatre buddies; stage tech crews and actors whose Bway and Off-Bway curtains didn’t drop until 10:45 or 11 pm. To hold a screening of his new film at Midnight he felt certain he could fill tons of seats at The Elgin on 8th Avenue in Chelsea, the perfect spot.

(Previously The Elgin Theatre, 8th Ave.& W.19th, now The Joyce Dance Theater)

So over a couple of afternoons, Fritz went over there to talk to the manager / owner about his idea.  The Elgin’s owner operator, Barry Shteinholtz was not at first in love with Fritz's "Midnight Screening" schema, but Fritz being a major nudge, Barry finally gave in: 
"OK Dubake, announce it for Friday, January, the 7th, but you have to pay the projectionist for his overtime. OK?"

Fritz immediately gave out the invite (almost exactly as above) to every Stage Doorman and Stage Manager in NYC, specifically for posting on every backstage bulletin board the day after New Years 1970. On the previous Saturday matinees, Fritz went and checked every backstage bulletin board in the city—all were dutifully posted.

5 days later, there resulted a mini street riot Friday night at 11:40 pm; bedlam in Chelsea on Eighth Avenue. The boisterously beautiful singing-dancing throng that Fritz’s hand-scribbled poster attracted to his screening poured out and over from the sidewalks onto Eighth Avenue blocking traffic, bringing out a squad of helmeted NYPD in crowd control riot gear; (who ended up flirting with all the cute Bway girl dancers.)

The overflow late-night crowd was the first film line to ever form to get into till then an unheard of ‘Midnight Screening’ of a totally unheard of independent film by one of their own; noisily, in great excitement, 400 some odd Bway gypsies bought their tickets and filled the house to its shaky rafters. The film began at 12:20 am.

There was another ray of luck that shone that night on Fritz & Barbara. 

  ("Events" Poster, clockwise L top to R, Marsha Rossa, Ryan Listman, 
Joy (Wener) Bang & Frank Cavestani )

It just so happened that 1st Amendment advocate Barney Rossett, the multi-millionaire lawyer, who owned and ran the infamous Grove Press, got himself caught in this very traffic jam on a taxi ride uptown on Eighth Avenue that night, and in utter disgust, jumped out of his blocked taxi, snaked his way through the young noisy crowd, got to the box office, bought a $3 ticket, and went in to see Fritz’s “Events”—just out of pissed-off curiosity. 

The next morning at 8:30 am, he called Fritz—while Fritz and Babs were still sleeping—declaring his wish to buy “Events” for Grove Press—offering Fritz an advance of $250,000.  As their eyes opened wide, Babs and Fritz looked at each other, their jaws dropped!

Barry and The Elgin also cleaned up that Friday night!  But Fritz, in telling me, advised  me all I needed to know about Barry Shteinholtz: that even though he made a clear $1200 profit on Fritz's Midnight Show, he had no compunction taking the $150 Fritz had agreed to pay the projectionist for staying three hours late overtime. 
“A deals a deal, right Fritz” Barry smirked as Fritz handed him the cash.

But within the next week, after hiring himself an entertainment lawyer, Fritz signed the "Events"distribution deal with Barney Rossett and Grove Press for $200,000 cash advance, plus a $50,000 working account to redub parts of the “Events” sound track—which even Fritz readily agreed needed work. 

Shteinholtz was fit to be tied and red-faced livid when he was told about the deal Fritz made with Grove that didn’t include him or The Elgin.  Like in the famous words of mogul Samuel Goldwin—“Include me out!”  Eh?  Fritz had to take Barry's incendiary lowest-east-side diatribe that Fritz was “cheated him out of his Midnight bookings for the now hit film “Events, which I made possible with my theatre...blah blah blah”.  
But, in fact, “Events” would never be a hit in the final go round for underground movies, as Grove Press & Fritz had hoped or thought possible.  Its content (the graphic sex) for an American film was too explicit, too rough for most exhibitors and their audiences, even then in the 70's.  So, it languished into oblivion at Grove Press for 5 years without one booking or sale until they generously gave it back to Fritz. 

But what Barry Shteinholtz didn’t know yet was that Fritz would discover and bring him a much bigger Midnight hit for the Elgin.  He would bring him and ask him to book a virtually perfect Midnight Show, a total masterstroke of a film, perfectly designed for his venue, by another, quite ingenious, filmmaker.

Fritz was re-dubbing some of the more difficult sound tracks for “Events” with his actors up at the Ross-Gaffney editing suites and sound-recording studios on West 46 Street Midtown.  Babs, working with Fritz, and taking a short break for a smoke, wandered in on an editor working in one of the suites.  He was smoking and she needed a light for her cigarette.  She watched a couple of parts of the film he was working on at the stand-up Moviola.  He said he was Mexican, spoke very little English, and Babs, who couldn’t take her eyes off the Moviola, said, in her charismatic way, complimenting him—"uniquely shot, looks brilliant as could be"—cheering him on.  She then asked if she could use the intercom, called Fritz: “Please come in to suite #5, Fritz, take a break, come meet this guy. He's a Mexican cat and whatdaya know he speaks yiddish!  I want you to take a look at this phenomenal film he's making!”

Both of them, actually all three of them, were so happily impressed that day, they saw a really unique film and Fritz and Babs made a brilliant new friend, the Mexican Jewish filmmaker, Alejandro Jodorowsky. 

The following Sunday, Fritz took Alejandro to the Second Avenue Russian Turkish Baths on East Tenth Street.  Both of these Ashkenaze boychickles were to get happily stewed on two hours of the hottest steam imaginable, chilled glasses of Stolichnaya and Russ & Daughters Shmaltz Herring on fresh black Russian pumpernickel.  

They both emerged from the Baths with newborn wrinkled skin against the fiercely cold February wind, lit up and smoked a fat doobie on the street walking west on Ninth Street all the way to 8th Avenue and up to the Elgin Theatre. Alejandro was carrying, carefully tucked under his arm, the first English subtitled 16mm print of his very far out allegorical masterpiece “El Topo.”

(Alejandro Jodorowsky in his film "EL TOPO")

Barry was at the greasy-spoon Greek Diner on the corner across the street from the Elgin. He was having his Sunday morning Breakfast, awaiting them, and when Fritz and Alejandro came into the diner, they all proceeded across the Avenue into the Elgin.  Alejandro put the print in the hands of the projectionist who took it up to the projection booth.

That Sunday early afternoon,  Barry’s self-appointed aura of being Underground Film’s connoisseurship Maven of all times, signaled usually by no more than watching films with a slightly disgusted smirk on his face, fell completely apart! He was now being totally blown away by a screening—weirdly shaking and laughing, sniggling words to himself in his lonely seat at the back of the house, screaming at the screen, creepily rocking back and forth—all this, and just 20 minutes into Alejandro’s wildly original film.

With “El Topo,” booked as the Midnight Movie @ The Elgin, Barry officially began the phenomenon Fritz introduced him to with "Events"—the newest successful innovation in the history of film exhibition which would be copied throughout the USA and Canada and eventually all across the entire world-wide theatrical spectrum.  “El Topo” ran consecutive Friday night Midnights at The Elgin for more than six years.  Just on Friday nights—just one show.  "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was just a dream in someone's head at that point and eventually to come out to eclipse even the "El Topo" record.  But Barry never gave Fritz one ounce of credit nor one thin dime for bringing him both the idea and the film "El Topo" to realize it with.

Another film Fritz discovered for Barry, which also ran Midnights for years, and all over the world as well, was David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.”  But, by then, Fritz was already in the clutches of and working for da Barry boychickle.

('Fritz Dubake', circa 1976, about to go to work for 'Barry Shteinholtz')

How'd that come about?:
Fritz went to see Barry one day in 1976 to try to make some money and get some of his own new working underground films booked into The Elgin—i.e., "Lenny Bruce Without Tears", "Events", "The Murder of Fred Hampton" 
This day was one when Fritz was at his weakest—still had to pick up his taxi at 4 pm that day and each and every day, driving the cab nights in 12 hour shifts, six or even seven nights a week; also, he was not clicking on any of the acting gigs on Broadway he would read for, and had no financing opportunities in sight for making new films.  It was just very bleak for my friend in what show biz folks call "down time, at liberty."

(1976 Village Voice Ad for one of Fritz's Elgin Theatre Shows)

So on this one occasion, Barry gave Fritz a 1 week booking: "Fred Hampton / Lenny Bruce" for $300 total film rental, but also put this to Fritz:

“Listen, Fritz,  since you seem to be really good at selling your own stuff, at least to me, why don’t you come to work here and help me do my buying and booking for the Elgin and perhaps even help me out with some other entities I’m putting together…I wanna branch out and do some serious art-film distribution—you’ll be good at it,  I have this feeling—I’ll pay you 400 bucks a week?”

By years end 1976, Fritz was working his tail off for Barry in his rat-infested Elgin Theatre basement office, not only booking all the weekly repertory film shows and the weekly Saturday Midnight shows for the Theatre itself but also doing all the sales both domestically and Internationally for two companies which Barry ran and owned with a few secret investors.  

Library Films Inc. and Northfolk Films Ltd. were just two of a number of small companies breaking into the then quite lucrative Indie Art Film Market on a  world-wide scale.  Fritz’s position for Library/Northfolk was Sales Director for their first big smash hit.  They had bought the USA and Canada distribution rights, for $5000, to a French flop which became a major USA hit, charming American audiences by it's dint of simplistic familial flirtatiousness,, "kissin cousins"—the milestone foreign hit film, Gaumont’s “Cousin Cousine.”  This well-made, well-acted comedy by Charles Tachella which would go on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in the 1976 Academy Awards—doing sell-out business at The Paris Theatre across the street from The Plaza on W.58 Street.  It ran there for two and half years!  On the basis alone of the spectacularly high weekly numbers at The Paris, week after week of $60,000+ per week, Fritz was getting incessant phone calls from every out-of-town art-theatre booker in the USA and Canada.  He learned his Sales Director gig very fast successfully selling “Cousine Cousine” as the foreign film hit of the next two years bringing in more than three million dollars in advanced and earned film rentals to the Library/Northal coffers by late 1978.  Besides becoming their Sales Director, Fritz also became their Chief Film Buyer, and got some perks—in lieu of his truly cheap measly salary (under $500 per week—Fritz was sent, with all expenses paid, to every major film festival in the world to both sell and to acquire rights to films he deemed workable for the Library/Northfolk process. In the more than 2 years of distribution work with “Cousin Cousine and other films he acquired for Barry and his partners, Dubake achieved recognizable status in the international film industry as a hardscrabble deal-maker/film buyer and booker of specialty and art-house cinema product.

 “Eraserhead” by David Lynch was one of the Fritz’s discoveries on a trip to Filmex for Library/Northfolk,  He called Barry from the Filmex Festival in LA and said, "Bar, just seen the weirdest, possibly the most unique film ever!"  
Barry said "Buy it!"

Fritz called and met David Lynch the next day at Schwabs Drugstore on Sunset Blvd.  David was painting houses at the time and arrived on his lunch break to meet Fritz in his paint splattered overalls. Fritz told him Library Films wanted his film and cut a deal with him right there at Schwabs Soda Fountain counter, buying "Eraserhead" for world-wide rights at almost embarrassingly attractive terms for Barry.  (50%/50% net)
No Advance!
(This "Eraserhead" poster was actually designed by 'Fritz's' son 'Jeff', who was 15 at the time and studying at the HS of Art & Design. This Poster has sold thousands of copies for 'Barry' who put his (c) signature on the poster.  He has never once said thank you to Jeff for creating it, or has ever offered to give Jeff a cent in Artist's Royalties.)

For a uniquely freaky weird little film to get a distribution deal from a highly touted successful NYC art-film distributor was occasion for celebration and a party.  It was given by Sissy Spacek, Lynch’s sister-in-law (at the time), in Fritz's honor at her family home in Topanga Canyon.  It was Sissy’s and her old man's money that David used to make “Eraserhead.”  Sissy was overjoyed that it had found a first-class buyer in Fritz for Library/Northfolk Films.  She invited all her Hollywood friends to come and celebrate Dubake as the “World’s most fearless distributor from NYC for picking up “Eraserhead” for distribution!”  Fritz thought Sissy very generous, a really great gal and fun, and so were her whole extended family and all her famous Topanga Canyon guests at the party. 

 But the Library/Northfolk salary he brought home to Babs and his now teen-age kids was less than Fritz could make at taxi driving and was proving a financial misery for him and family.  He and Babs had to begin to figure out how they would send their three kids to college?  Within a couple of years of his working for Barry, Fritz and Babs decided to form their own banner, FDFVCO Inc., and went in to business for themselves doing service distribution deals for other young boutique companies. Only then did it begin to pay off.

On his own FDFVCO banner and as a free-lance Sales Agent, Fritz found and made deals for and distributed “The Innocent” by Luchino Visconti, “Garde A Vue”, a French thriller with Rommy Schneider, which won five Ceasars in France, and “Tales of Ordinary Madness” starring Ben Gazarra, adapted from a Charles Bukowski gutter novel, brilliantly filmed by the outre Italian filmmaker, Marco Fererri ("La Grande Bouffe").

('Fritz' w Charles Bukowski at the LA Premiere of "Tales Of Ordinary Madness" 1983)

Also on a service contract with Jerry Rapaport's company IFEX, he distributed Nikita Mikhalkov's “Oblomov”, Menshov’s “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears" (which won another Academy Award for best Foreign Film) and 2 French Canadian films: 1 by Gilles Carle called “La Vrai Nature De Bernadette” and the second by Francis Mankewitz, “Les Bon Debarras,” which garnered a third Best Foreign Academy Award Oscar. 

But, by the mid 80’s, what Fritz could offer in the bidding war for films was nowhere near competitive enough to hold up in the free wheeling atmosphere that began to crumble and change radically when all the Major Distribution Companies (UA, MGM, Paramount, Universal, Columbia, Sony, virtually all of them) decided to set up their own “Classics” divisions and get into foreign subtitled films—till then only of interest to small boutique Independents like Fritz’s FDFVCO.  So, now, with the majors bidding in excess of 8,9,10 million dollars in advance for a 'hot' foreign film, small distribution firms were driven—stupidly and against better judgment—to risk on buying very difficult titles, all potential failures, from very slim unpromising pickings.  
The handwriting was on the wall.

But the logic of the Majors to destroy the specialty part of the art-film business still didn’t compute?  We all knew it was obviously such small chump-change compared to the big numbers the Majors traditionally needed to generate payoff for their blockbuster "crap"— made for hundreds of millions of dollars?  Why would they do it?  Why play in this artsy-fartsy sandbox and pick up these small films, go to the trouble to create these fockockteh “classics” divisions to handle them?  These sub-titled films would only generate perhaps a few hundred thousand dollars in earned film rentals, and, at best, moderately low prices for subsidiary TV and Home-Video rights?  They all knew that only one out of a hundred of these foreign art-films made any money at all?  Was it just to destroy that small precious part of the business out of sense of pure greed, or reputation at stake—merely as a pay back for the insulting loss of ego and prestige? 
Probably, it must have been that for the most part.

So in the long run, once they flooded the whole art-foreign-specialty film business by the mid 80’s, it was all but useless trying to run up against them at the Festival Markets. People like Barry, Fritz, John Tilley, Paul Cohen, perhaps thirty-forty others, all brilliant maverick boutique foreign art-film distributors, all of them, just had to tuck-tail and get the hell out of it or they would be destroyed in it’s wake.


  1. El Topo changed my life. Well, my head - which led to life changes. Glad to see it revisited in your work, Fred. I confess, I haven't read all of this that carefully yet - I'll come back to it anon.

  2. That's so cool to have you weigh in on my stuff Georgina..sounds like you like it but wait wait I haven't gotten to you and your life-changing part in my life on Ms. Spelvin! lovya Fritz

  3. You know I shall!
    I just re-read more carefully. Great compendium of info. Looking forward to more.

  4. This flash on a part of the history of film distribtuion is your most interesting column so far. You may not have been the biggest maker and shaker, but you sure played a part.

    Hope you get a great reception for your videos at the Jewish Film Festivbal in Torotno.

    Naomi Beth Wakan