Lous K Sher and the legacy of his Kiva Theatre in Scottsdale
[This is a sample chapter from the book I’m researching ‘Black Mass: A Secret History of Midnight Movies’. You can read it as a pdf here.
The essay reveals a strange coincidence, that a mostly-empty cowboy-themed mini-mall on Scottsdale Arizona’s Main Street was once the meeting point of two vast streams of consciousness in 20th Century cinema.
The Kiva Theatre was where the underground stream of cult movies overlapped with the imagination of a 14 year old boy originally from Cincinnati, Ohio (by way of Haddon Township, New Jersey), who made Super-8 adventure movies with his friends, and loved to spend his Saturdays at the movies…]
‘Whenever I hear the word cinema, I can’t help thinking hall rather than film.’
kiva. noun. An underground or partly underground chamber in a Pueblo village, used for ceremonies or councils. Origin: Hopi.
If motion pictures constituted the undeclared religion of the 20th century, an unassuming strip mall in Scottsdale, Arizona would qualify as one its most important shrines.
Ley lines of cinema magic intersect in downtown Scottsdale’s Main Street. They enter the modest wooden structure, past the scarlet-striped box office in the foyer – the only remaining sign that it was ever a movie theatre – from which a woman called Mary Anne now sells candied popcorn in mind-altering colours to shoppers and tourists passing by.
It was from this kiosk in the 1950s that a young Steven Spielberg bought a 50-cent ticket every Saturday morning to see marathon matinees: two features, usually both B-movies – Westerns, science fiction, monster and Tarzan films – 10 cartoons, and occasionally classics like John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ and Huston’s ‘Moby Dick’. “It was a great Saturday,” he later recalled. “I was in the movies all day long. I saw ‘Tailspin Tommy’ and ‘Masked Marvel’ and ‘Commando Cody’ and ‘Spy Smasher’ – serials like that.”
As an adult, Spielberg has paid affectionate homage to the movies he saw at the Kiva theatre on Main Street, sitting in the darkness with the friends he made monster movies with on Super-8 cameras.2 “I’ve seen absolute duplicates in Spielberg movies of scenes we used to see back in the 1950s at the Kiva,” remembered his friend and fellow Super-8 movie maker, Barry Sollenberger.
“When Harrison Ford in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ rides his horse down the hill and jumps onto the truck carrying the ark, Spielberg got it from the 1937 serial ‘Zorro Rides Again’, with John Carroll.”3
“There’s something magical,” Spielberg told Mark Kermode in a 2006 interview, “about having something as primitive-sounding today as twenty four pictures a second moving past a shutter gate with a light beam projecting on a big silver or white screen. It’s magic. And it’s our forefathers.”4
Lines of telluric energy – lightning, fire, the power of the collective unconscious or something – converge in the Kiva’s auditorium. It’s a lost sanctum now, gutted and containing mostly empty shop units with windows obscured by brown paper. The Ark of the Covenant has departed, or is at least long-forgotten and buried nearby. It’s a placeholder, a cipher waiting to be cracked. As purgatories go, it’s not so much the Black Lodge from ‘Twin Peaks’ back here as a tastefully banal, cream cul de sac; a liminal world between worlds.
If the son of the Emperor – the proxy of the 1%, if you will – walked into the Holy of Holies at the rear of this Temple of extinguished illumination, he’d find an empty space, dormant cubicles, an ‘Exit’ sign with camp, sterile, green neon strip-lighting over it. (In case the non-existent crowds get lost in the smoke and chaos of a fire.) He’d find only inner confusion, a question mark metabolised into intangible reality by forces of economic recession.
“Set fire to the tapestries. Bring in the wrecking ball, scorch the earth so that we may develop this prime retail opportunity for the good of the people,” would be the order to his centurions.
As you can tell, I feel a great attachment to this building in a snobby, sedate part of Arizona. I love Scottsdale’s quaint, Technicolor, mostly empty streets. The locals are relaxed, middle-aged, in v-neck sweaters, well-heeled in cowboy boots. When I visited, I liked the bright and brittle optimism, the incessant low-level chatter and gossip about nothing in particular at the ice cream parlour round the corner from where the Kiva Theatre once did brisk business.
Contrast this indigenous ‘third place’ with the occupiers: the dingy, intense, red-brick Starbucks across the road from the ice cream parlour. Banal nineties ‘Trip Hop’, Sheryl Crow’s warbling clogs the air and your ear-ducts. It’s the aural equivalent of the synthetic smell of freshly-baked bread that corporate-owned eateries pipe into air conditioning (to get you to buy food with your over-priced beverage).
In his New Statesman essay ‘Diss Capital‘, when Paul Mason asks the resurrected Marx about the parlous state of socialism, the philosopher gestures in a desultory fashion at their surroundings, a Starbucks on the Euston Road:
…the querulous youths, the baristas, the brown walls and the tepid jazz music, the whole unstated atmosphere of preening and sexual attraction, the whole previously impossible combination of leisure, work and courtship:
“What do you think this is? In the middle of the worst crisis ever? Aufheben, my friend, aufheben!”
I mentally thank God that English has no single word that means simultaneously destroy, preserve and transcend.5
Back at the ice cream parlour, the indoor environment doesn’t leave your ear drums or nostrils sullied and stinging. Instead, a persistent trickle of families, visitors, shoppers are offered its endless flotilla of sugary, dairy joy: banana sundaes and coke floats, at only mildly extortionate prices.
I adore the all-pervasive Frank Lloyd Wright architecture on the bus route to Downtown. (Wright was another Scottsdale resident. His archive is kept at his former winter residence and studio, in Taliesin West.) Relaxed 50s futurity coexists harmoniously with cruddy 21st century kitsch. I have fun imagining Natalie Wood, Roddy McDowall, Vincent Price, Rock Hudson, Jimmy Dean, Jayne Mansfield mooching around these streets in horn-rimmed sunglasses, looking for espressos and fancy imported linens.
(You’re aware of the Arizona climate, like nowhere else in the South West, because you’re always moving from one prissy, air-conditioned, artificial environment to another; constantly breaking into a sweat. The Popular Mechanics futurist dream that Lloyd Wright’s architecture made reality – open plan, desert ranch-style homes; civic amenities and shopping malls full of labour saving devices; all connected by a grid of asphalt highways – is turning out to be the opposite of cool. Forty percent of Phoenix is covered in tar macadam, driving local and planetary temperatures ever higher.)6
Maybe the 14-year-old Steven would spot film stars passing by in their open-topped Chevrolets, as his mother drove him into town to leave him at the movies on a Saturday morning. “Look, mom! It’s Vincent Price! From ‘The Fly’!”
I have no idea whether or not these stars ever visited the health spas and casinos around the area to the East of Phoenix. They seem like the kinds of West Coast hipsters who would have dug the scene back then. They’re who I’d cast in the movie of Scottsdale’s street life in 1958.
Scottsdale is about 390 miles east of Hollywood. The I-10 route takes you there directly, in effect. The seven hour drive goes through Palm Springs, the desert, past Joshua Tree National Park. It’s a beautiful landscape of wild desert and untamed freeways, even prettier than Fresno and Bakersfield to the other side of Los Angeles, where James Dean died too young. There aren’t as many bends on the road driving to Phoenix. It’s a soothing, arid vista. It implores you to drive a sports car through it at high speed while listening to Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Steely Dan, Scritti Politti, Wendy and Lisa, Todd Rundgren, Brian Wilson. You get my drift.
Scottsdale has attracted movie stars and record company executives close to burn-out for many decades. Now it’s starting to feel like an overly manicured retirement home, despite the large number of arts festivals the town runs and the many museums open in Downtown during tourism season. (My recommendation to the civic elders is to regalvanise Scottsdale’s once hip yet effete reputation by sponsoring Russell Brand’s mid-career meltdown.)
Buster Crabbe – Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers – retired here. I like to imagine Buster walking down Main Street in shades, eating a low-fat ice cream cone (maybe a sorbet; nowadays it would be frozen yogurt and probably vegan). Buster stops by a shop window and ponders the purchase of some wind chimes, idly. Or possibly a ceramic owl. Buster would see his reflection in the glass and think, ‘I look pretty damned good for a guy in his seventies.’ (And so he did).
I’ve discovered a secret here, a quantum superimposition of cinema histories on Scottsdale’s Main Street. (I’m not giving it away this early on, I’m building up to it. Bear with me.). I think I’m the only person who’s spotted this coincidence so far, but now – in this essay – I get to share it with you.
I hope my excitement about this discovery is infectious. I want the old Kiva building to be appreciated for its significance as a place, if not for being a particularly amazing piece of architecture. (It isn’t. It’s nice to look at, I’ll grant you, but it isn’t going to win a heritage award anytime soon for being an outstanding example of cowboy-themed mini-mall design.)
What’s important about the Kiva is the procession of overlapping personal histories, the continuity of life that’s occurred inside the building, and to and from it. Steven Spielberg’s childhood in Scottsdale has been the basis of movies; his story stands out. The Kiva’s story is of all the trips to offload the kids on Saturday mornings; the original thrill of seeing the King of the Rocket Men take flight; the treasure trove of precious, collective memories of seeing rare, old, fragile, foreign, exotic, alien movies for the first time.
The journey from home, work, school to the meditative darkness of a few hours spent in a cinema auditorium traces a thread of meaning as fine as a single strand of spider silk. It’s woven through waking reality, binding it seamlessly into the collective Dreamtime. Beams of invisible energy extend out of the Kiva exposing these tracings with ultraviolet rays.
The lines reach out across the United States, encircling the globe. The Ark is on fire with the fury and enthusiasms of the Gods of Celluloid. Since the 50s, these invisible rays have attracted louche urban sophisticates to the Kiva: gadabouts looking for kicks, for an oasis of metropolitan culture in a literal desert. The restless, the curious, thrill seekers, insomniacs, urban guerrillas with a few hours to kill in the downtime between revolutions: all have been beckoned into one great confluence of cinematic imagination; drawn into the cross currents of an underground stream of consciousness.
You see, the Kiva isn’t only the place where ‘ET’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘Duel’, ‘Jaws’, ‘Schindler’s List’ and Indiana Jones were first kindled from sparks in the young Spielberg’s over-active imagination. Without this building, we might not remember the Time Warp, or at least not in the same way. Brigitte Bardot might not have acted as Roger Vadim’s muse in rousing sexual revolt across Conservative America. Kenneth Anger’s ‘Scorpio’ might never have risen without trace. Divine might not have vied to be the filthiest human being alive, and John and Yoko might never have acquired the rights to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s gory cult western and Catholic allegory ‘El Topo’. Hippies might not have readily embraced Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001’ as a psychedelic trip.
This is the wellspring of our stories about the end of the 20th century, the last known resting place of the Lost Art.
- Roland Barthes, 1986 ‘Leaving the movie theatre’ in ‘The Rustle of Language‘ Blackwell, London, p. 345. [↩]
- Spielberg produced director J J Abrams’ ‘Super 8’- about kids who encounter a real alien while they’re making a monster movie – a plot which in part echoes his childhood in Scottsdale. He was also on the committee that came up with the story. [↩]
- Joseph McBride, 2011 ‘Steven Spielberg: A Biography‘ Univ. Press of Mississippi, Jackson, p. 81. [↩]
- Mark Kermode, 2011, ‘The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex‘ Random House, London, p. 312. [↩]
- Paul Mason, 6th January 2011, ‘Diss capital‘, New Statesman. [↩]
- Phoenix is one of the South West’s main “Urban Heat Islands” (UHI) and “black” asphalt is the major underlying cause. Urban heat is a problem now facing every city in the world but it is a special problem for Phoenix due to the legacy of town planning in the post-War period, and reliance on two lane blacktop. The road surfacing absorbs and stores heat: summer temperatures in the Downtown area can reach 115°-118°(F), with asphalt surfaces even higher at 150°-170°(F). The heat is then re-released with nightfall, so the city warms up again. An UHI creates a perfect storm in that it leads to micro-climatic changes, with local wind patterns, cloud formation, fog, humidity, precipitation, and thunderstorm activity all affected. Indoor air-conditioning, and refrigeration to compensate, leads to higher CO2 emissions and more climatic warming. Phoenix is now at the forefront of various business studies advocating “cool pavement” technology intended to ameliorate the UHI effect.
PR Newswire, June 2011 ‘Asphalt Going Green with “Cool Pavement” in Phoenix‘ Emerald Cities Ltd, Scottsdale Arizona.
May 2011, ‘Phoenix’s Urban Heat Island‘ Phoenix Magazine, Scottsdale Arizona. [↩]