o one in the Esquire Theatre auditorium seemed to mind when Bombs Away! Comedy announced it was having technical difficulties during a special presentation of cult classic Mommie Dearest on Oct. 5. Comedian Mike Cody stood in front of the blank silver screen and delivered an impromptu pre-show stand up routine, and laughter crushed the silence as a late-night audience waited for the show to start. The opening credits for the 20-year-old movie rolled, and after a few minutes the lights finally dimmed. Campy dialogue and questionable acting flashed across the screen, but the real attraction came from three comics seated in the front row — Mack Harden, Vincent Holiday and Alex Stone — armed with microphones and 129 minutes of sharp, sarcastic commentary that transformed Mommie Dearest into an acceptable form of entertainment.
Whether experienced while ad-libbing lines from old kung-fu films or lining up at midnight in full wizard wardrobe, movies bring people together in a special way. Too often, an outing to the movies can spoil that magic by turning film viewing into a passive experience — the lights go out, the speakers rumble and the only real connection you feel are your eyes to that giant silver screen.
Luckily for Cincinnati moviegoers, the century-old Esquire Theatre in Clifton is still striving to keep crowds on their toes. Here, a night at the movies can involve anything from dancing along to a live cast during The Rocky Horror Picture Show, throwing snow as a live choir sings along to White Christmas or reciting the lines to your favorite cult classic with an auditorium full of equally devoted fans.
“We’re a really active and vibrant art house,” says Kathy Parsanko, director of public relations & community relations at Theatre Management Corp. which owns Esquire Theatre.
Local Clifton residents hardly take the historic theatre for granted. The neighborhood attraction, which opened and began screening silent films in 1911, remains in its place only thanks to those who have fought for it. According to Esquire’s website, the business closed in the 1980s and almost became a Wendy’s restaurant. Clifton Town Meeting and Clifton Theatre Corp. fought to reopen the theatre, however, and Theatre Corp. president John Morrison led the fundraising mission to ensure the Esquire would reopen its doors.
As delicious as spicy chicken sandwiches might be, the Esquire Theatre offers Cincinnati a little something special that can’t be purchased from a value menu. It’s a blend of community, creativity, vintage allure and genuineness. That, and ridiculously delicious popcorn.
Parsanko has assisted in carrying on the theatre’s uniquely intimate spirit through helping to create interactive film events that pull moviegoers out of passive viewing and into the action. The aforementioned Bombs Away! Comedy riffing event, known as Cinema Toast Crunch, is just one example. The comedians involved work to create an environment that combines the riffing style of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and ridiculing bad films with friends.
“We introduce the crowd to the comedians and their sense of humor so they can kind of get a sense of who they are while they’re watching the movie,” says Chandler Dethy, founding member of Bombs Away!. “It kind of makes things funnier to see just how they get to know these comedians and how they interact with each other while we’re all sharing this experience of watching really bad movies.”
Cinema Toast Crunch isn’t the first of the Esquire’s cult film celebrations, however. White Christmas fans flocked to see the holiday classic in 2011, complete with fake snow and a sing-along choir. The theatre has also joined forces with the Denton Affair to host three The Big Lebowski quote-a-thons in the past year. The event is such a hit with robe-clad, Caucasian-drinking super fans that the Esquire plans to keep it going on a quarterly basis. The theatre’s Mel Brooks Fest was another hit, Parsanko says. Watching Young Frankenstein is already an arguably good experience pretty much any time, but the fun escalates when viewing turns into a full-scale quoting competition between friends.
The Denton Affair’s Rocky Horror Picture Show performances are probably the most well-known interactive viewing tradition at Esquire. The cast has been performing the outrageous musical with a killer cult following since 1979. Director Aaron Schiff explains that a typical Denton Affair performance starts with an in-depth pre-show. After going over rules and teaching audience members to participate, Rocky Virgins are singled out.“They’re the ones who haven’t seen the show before,” Schiff says. “We bring them onstage and we play games with them, and then the show starts.”
Throughout the show, the cast performs everything that’s happening on the screen, word-for-word, mirroring each action. “And we have all the same costumes, we know all the lines, we do all the same movements, and the audience participates,” Schiff says. “They come dressed up as well, and they’ll yell out audience participation lines during the movie.”
Schiff predicts Rocky Horror audience attendance will spike in the upcoming weeks in correlation with the theatrical release of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Rocky Horror performances are a central focus for the story’s main character, an awkward young high school boy who finds his place among the fun-loving school misfits.
Schiff pulls from his own experience as he speculates as to why Rocky Horror performances generate such a strong following. “I think it’s a great place for people to come and express themselves,” he says. “It’s very accepting to anybody and any culture, any community.” Movie buffs and cult film addicts who have missed these events need not fret; Parsanko promises Esquire will be whipping up similarly satisfactory quote-a-thons and interactive viewing events in the near future. Thanks to a little site called Facebook, playing what the public wants to see is as easy as posing suggestions and letting the comments roll in.
“They’re giving us feedback on what they want to see and then I’ve been able to say through Facebook, ‘Thank you, because you’re helping us to create this program,’ ” she says.