Emil Umann, the man who invented midnight movies?

Dracula and Frankenstine revival, 5th August 1938, the Regina-Wilshire Theatre. Image from the Bison Archives.

The last rites have been said for physical cinemas as often as sayers of sooth have predicted the imminent end of the printed book, the disposal of ballpoint pens (which are still the only thing you can sign the back of a credit card with), the unraveling of the Philips cassette tape market, and the meltdown of the vinyl LP.

So it is again at the time of writing in 2020 with the impact on film exhibition of the global Covid-19 pandemic. At various times in the 20th century when movie theatres were pronounced dead, similar sets of circumstances combined which then led to film exhibition’s resurrection, and which may point to its salvation again.

Arguably, the stars first aligned for midnight screenings as a successful business model in August 1938, when Emil Umann – manager of the independently-owned Regina-Wilshire Theatre at 8556 Wilshire Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90211, on the intersection with La Cienega – was facing the bankruptcy of the ornate theatre. The Regina had been built and opened the previous year by local businessman Joseph De Bell.

(Now renamed the ‘Fine Arts Theatre‘, it’s a rare example of an Art Deco picture palace in Beverly Hills which is still standing, though as of writing it’s waiting for a new leaseholder to take it on post Covid-19.)

Emil, born in 1901, married his twenty-one year old second wife Margaret Regina Levy in January 1937, according to The Billboard magazine. When the eight hundred-seat theatre opened a few months later, on 21st April 1937 – with a bill which included ‘That Girl From Paris‘, Bogart in ‘Black Legion‘, a March of Time newsreel and a cartoon – the new cinema bore his new wife’s middle name.

The beauty of Seattle-based architect B. Marcus Priteca’s building must explain why it’s survived for more than eighty years in an increasingly ugly and thoughtlessly-developed part of Beverly Hills. The non profit Los Angeles Conservancy describes the building as:

“Steep setbacks and clean geometric styling characterize the facade of this classic zigzag moderne theatre, whose street presence is defined by a neon-adorned marquee and vertical blade sign.”

Fine Arts theatre. Image from cinematreasures.org

Umann came up with a business idea which included several key ingredients that, combined, made for a four-week, round-the-clock money-making bonanza. Facing the bankruptcy of the business, he stumbled on a deceptively simple idea which was to bring together Universal’s ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’ in a four-day triple-bill with RKO’s ‘Son of Kong’ (though Kong Jnr was dropped after the second day… … in the photo at the top, of the line-up tailing along Wiltshire Blvd. on 5th August, you can see that the poster for the RKO gorilla picture is already obscured by the images of the Count and the Creature).

An unexpected hit, the double-bill ran continuously at the Regina for 21 hours a day. ‘Police had to be called to handle the crowds’ Variety of 10th August reported on page 11.

‘Hot Weather and picture shortage don’t deter Emil Uman, who found a way to beat the combo in his Regina theatre, Beverly Hills, without the aid of a gimmick. . Turning his house into a chamber of horrors, he booked ‘Dracula,’ ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Son of King Kong,’ three hours of goose-flesh drama. Police had to be called to handle the crowds. Uman is hunting more horror films.’

As Green Briar details on his blog, Universal had tried revivals of its hits from a few years before on the East Coast, in odd packages for distributors (‘Frankenstein’, or er Carole Lombard in ‘Love Before Breakfast‘… you know, for kids!) What didn’t occur to anyone, till Umann gave it the old college try, was simply putting the two already iconic monsters together in one show.

Universal was concentrating on cheap but successful light musical comedies such as ‘Three Smart Girls‘, and – in production in the same month as Umann’s ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ double header – ‘That Certain Age‘, both starring your own, your very own Deanna Durbin. According to Variety, other Universal pictures in the works in August 1938 included ‘Freshman Year‘, ‘Youth Takes a Fling‘ and ‘Untitled Bob Baker western’. As a result of Universal’s lack of enthusiasm for its roster of horror films in 1938, Umann was only charged a flat rate per showing for its two films. The rental fee for all three films was $99 per night (about $1820 in 2020’s money). He found himself with a lineup stretching down Wiltshire Blvd and his ailing theatre was printing money. ‘Dracula’ star Lugosi had – like the Regina theatre – fallen on hard times so Umann hired the Hungarian-American celebrity to make nightly personal appearances.

Rated “H” for “hiatus”

Universal studios had turned the page on its horror cycle in 1936, its last monster picture up till then being the Gloria Holden starrer ‘Dracula’s Daughter’. Following the financial disaster of ‘Showboat’, Carl Laemmle Snr and Jnr had departed the studio and with Jnr’s exit went Universal’s enthusiasm for more monster flicks as well. It’s often claimed that Universal’s horror hiatus, between ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ and ‘Son of Frankenstein‘ in 1939, was due to the British Board of Film Censors effectively “banning” films by way of its “H” certificate (rated “H” for “Horrific content”), limiting British audiences to patrons over sixteen and therefore eating into Hollywood studios’ profits from overseas exhibition. However, as Jim Ivers argues convincingly, this seems a lot like a story pieced together from half truths, concocted by Joseph Breen the rigidly Catholic and conservative head of Hollywood’s self-censorship board the Production Code Administration (PCA), to justify the PCA rejecting scripts with salacious or sacrilidgious content ahead of their production. (“It simply won’t turn a profit, boys! Blame the British.”)

The box office success of the pairing of the King of Vampires with the New Adam restarted Universal’s horror film cycle. The Regina double-bill in 1938 also revived Bela Lugosi’s flagging career, and created the blueprints for both the later “midnight movie” phenomenon of the 1970s, and the promotion of film franchises in the 21st century: particularly the marketing gimmick of personal appearances at fan conventions by stars, but wearing the costumes of their characters in the movie. In this indirect way you can trace cosplay’s origins back to Lugosi’s personal appearances at the Regina in 1938 as well.

Umman brought together the elements that would become ‘El Topo’ fans running around in bolero hats and capes at midnight screenings at the Elgin Theatre in New York’s West Village, in 1971, with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in attendance, and then a few years later to the cult of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, and to Tom Hiddleston dressing up as his character Loki in the Marvel movies, at Comic Con. ‘Rocky Horror’ is itself a reflection in the mid-1970s on the programmes of fading flea-pit Essoldo cinemas on the Kings Road, Chelsea, where the musical version of the show was first staged, moving from cinema to cinema as their venues were knocked down; much as the RKO radio mast crashes to Earth after the physical intervention of the planet Transylvania in the finale. ‘Rocky Horrror’ literally starts with a number listing ‘Science Fiction/Double Feature’ shows.

The ingredients of what would become midnight movies include films that evoke an instant nostalgia for the past, and have quotable lines and imitable imagery (“Listen to them — children of the night. What music they make”). Umberto Eco later referred to cult cinema as providing “a completely furnished world” for fans to inhabit. The Universal monster movies were, arguably, the first “shared universe” series Hollywood produced. Having combined the monsters on the same bill, it was then logical to give the public what it wanted, with films in which the monsters interacted.

Another important trait of midnight movies in the 1970s – which both ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ were deeply imbued with in 1938 – was a dark, opiated energy. The terms “midnight movies” and “cult cinema” became muddled up in the 1980s. There were only ever a handful of true midnight ‘hits’ – ‘El Topo’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘Pink Flamingos’, ‘The Harder They Come’, ‘Eraserhead’ and ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ – which film exhibitors knew could be relied on to fill a movie theatre after the regular programme.

Speaking to The Washington Post in 1981, when midnight movies had become a staple of independent and repertory film programming around the world, distributor Roger Grod of Alternative Film offered a pragmatic explanation of how midnight movies differed from ‘cult’ cinema:

“the word cult is a very major problem […] Our audiences [for midnight movies] either want to rock and roll, be frightened a bit or see a drug-type movie […] And it’s good for the exhibitors. It’s an extra revenue, particularly when they have to put up such tremendous guarantees for first-run films. They need to squeeze every penny.”

Both Universal horror films tick the ‘frightening box’, but also – through imagery of Dracula’s addiction to blood and Dr Frankenstein’s seemingly sexual excitement at robbing corpses – they tick the “drug-type movie” box as well.

The third and perhaps most important ingredient that Umann included was the presence of Dracula – Lugosi – himself. There are vague accounts earlier than the 1920s of midnight film screenings in Italy, or by Italian communities in the United States, which clearly mimic the Catholic midnight candlemass at Christmas. The physical presence of a film star in character, and the physical presence of the divine in the form of fire and sacraments, make for a fairly obvious anthropological comparison. In their ‘Midnight Movies’ book, authors Hoberman and Rosenbaum devote a section to the compelling case that midnight movies were a secularised form of religious ritual. The 1938 Dracula-Frankenstein double-bill at the Regina points to a more prosaic explanation for this combination of factors: instant, quotable nostalgia and a “completely furnished world” for devotees of the films; a dark, opiated energy in the movies’ content; and, lastly, the physical “presence” of the personalities in the film (either in the form of the actors or of fans pretending to be the characters).

The link from stage magic and Houdini’s fake séances, via “midnight spook shows”, to Emil Umann’s midnight show featuring the real Dracula, is the product of a feature of human psychology which the Catholic midnight mass also taps into. In the hours between eating dinner and sleeping, we’re more susceptible to the sense that the veil dividing wakefulness and dreams, life and death, reality and the imagination can – briefly – be permeated, and that the objects of our imaginations can therefore become fleetingly solid. This is the essence of all magic, cinematic and otherwise. In 1971 it was Lennon and Yoko, the brightest of the New York counterculture’s celebrities, as Elgin Theatre patrons. In 2013 it was Hiddleston as Loki at Comic Con. In 1938 it was Lugosi.

This also partly explains what’s happened to midnight movies and “R” rated Grindhouse films. Once fans are cosplaying characters from a movie like ‘Deadpool’, which plays with the fourth wall (“A fourth wall inside a fourth wall. That’s sixteen walls”) then the key elements of the earlier forms of cinema have been woven seamlessly into contemporary, mainstream film culture.

Black mass

Screening films late at night after the regular programme was nothing new in American film exhibition in 1938. During the era of racial segregation, white-owned theatres would often show ‘race movies’ such as the work of Oscar Micheaux in slots allocated to black audiences, including at midnight.

The image on the right, below is very rare piece of evidence of ‘race movies’ meeting ‘spook shows’, through the 1938 Dracula-Frankenstein double-bill: “Notice to COLOURED FOLKS – This same HORROR-SHOW Will Be Run for You Exclusively at the NEW THEATRE – tonite at 11:15!”

In 1929, stage magician Elwin-Charles Peck – who performed as El-Wyn – came up with ‘El-Wyn’s Midnite Spook Party’, a clever mix of the old stage magic act of a fake séance of the kind staged by earlier performers such as Houdini and Blackstone – which included projections of ghosts and puppets of demons, drawing inspiration from the ‘phantasmagoria’ of the pre-cinema era which had influenced Mary Shelley in writing her novel ‘Frankenstein’ – with the new entertainment of supernatural-related feature-length motion pictures. 1

“Spook shows” are a mostly overlooked crossroads in film culture where the fading popular entertainment of live burlesque embraced the newly-emerging pop culture of horror movies. Peck booked his show into vaudeville venues after the main evening performance, and showed low-quality films which he got from distributors at a flat rate, rather than pay the large cut from the takings demanded for better pictures.

Audiences for spook shows weren’t fussy about the quality of the movie on offer. They were showing up to spook shows in the Great Depression years from the late 1920s for the thrills, frights and ballyhoo of wily showmen like El-Wyn. Film exhibition of horror films works on a similar principle to that of roller coasters, fun fair ghost trains and quarantine partners, combining fear with intimacy, risk with trust (and, therefore, the possibility of experiencing both premonitions of death but also of the erotic.) Umann’s newspaper ad in Variety [right, below] was soon ripped off mercilessly by Universal, as you can see in the Bela Lugosi Blog’s comprehensive curation of publicity material following the Regina double-bill’s success with Lugosi in attendance.

Note that along with the cutesy spelling of ‘Midnite’ in ‘El-Wyn’s Midnite Spook Party’ and the weird Klansman-like cartoon ghosts, the ad is directed – we must assume – at guys, with the challenge “DON’T BE A SISSY!”. Umann’s Variety ad borrows identical language from the fairground – ‘We Dare You To Attend!’ – and calls itself a ‘Midnight Spook Show’ (the legitimate nature of the quality motion pictures on offer warranting the correct spelling of ‘midnight’, as did the physical presence of ‘Dracula’ himself in the form of its star Bela Lugosi). Although Umann’s midnight spook show only ran for four very lucrative weeks, it was a subtle yet significant inflection point in American cinema similar to Tod Browning’s 1932 film ‘Freaks‘, when carnival sideshows became, briefly, overground entertainment.

The compilation of of “spook show” trailers below gives a sense of the dark, campy energy of this forgotten backstairs offspring of vaudeville, burlesque, carnivals, state fairs, and the renegade “Forty Thieves” who made and exhibited exploitation films outside Hollywood’s PCA system.

While a lot of the imagery and humour in these trailers is tongue in cheek, and owes a lot to the adverts in the back of EC horror comics and the surreal eroticism of Betty Boop cartoons, some of the content of midnight spook shows – girls planted in the audience being abducted and “experimented” on by mad scientists in the movie shown inside the live show, a “gorilla” on the rampage molesting female members of the audience (which would carry altogether more implied meaning in segregated America than it would in 2020) – is still genuinely disturbing and terrifying. Jim Ridenour’s epic ‘Spooks-A-Poppin‘ documentary is a precious overview of this highly influential, quite weird, and woefully neglected chapter of American popular entertainment.

In the Thirties, many movie venues still doubled-up as vaudeville theatres as well. RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. – which made ‘Song of Kong’ – was a subsidiary of ‘Radio-Keith-Orpheum’, the movie company being a merger of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater chain and Joe (father of Bobby and JF) Kennedy’s FBO studio within the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). In December 1932 after ‘Frankenstein’ had been released, Boris Karloff, on a delayed honeymoon in San Francisco, found himself invited to appear on stage for two nights in succession with RKO vaudeville performers at the RKO Orpheum Theatre in Oakland where his film was playing. 2

The Monster of Frankenstein in person, plus eight RKO vaudeville acts. 25th January 1932 .

There’s a sad footnote to the story. When they saw his profits, Universal was quick to claim Umann’s idea as their own. The studio pulled the prints from the Regina and minted five hundred new copies of their two movies. Universal sent Lugosi off on a West Coast tour of personal appearances at theatres to promote the pairing of Dracula and Frankenstein. Umann was left in the cold, though holding his one month’s mammoth takings. Long before his TV show, Ed Sullivan was – in 1938 – an ace Hollywood reporter. He relates in his column of the time:

“Umann, instead of having a gold medal struck off in his honor, relates that the company jacked up the film rental on him to such an exorbitant amount that he had to give up the pictures after the fifth week.”

While Umann’s idea of putting Dracula and Frankenstein on the same bill worked gangbusters for Universal, reviving the studio’s interest in horror pictures, and provided Bela Lugosi with a new source of income from personal appearances at screenings (a publicity stunt memorably recreated in Tim Burton’s ‘Ed Wood’), things didn’t end well for Emil with the profits in hand from his miraculous four-week run. Umann – only thirty-eight years old, and remarried for less than three years to a twenty-two year old bride Regina, after whom he named his exquisite Art Deco movie theatre that stands to this day on Wiltshire Blvd. – died the following year, 1939, of kidney disease.

Until the 2020 pandemic, while it had the lease on the Fine Art Theatre, Laemmle Theatres (set up by Carl Snr’s cousins) charging a “flat rate” for showing films earned the chain the reputation for being a “Secret Path to Oscar Qualifying” since they provided services designed to ensure independent films can qualify for Academy Awards (one criterion of which is being exhibited in public).

Architecturally, the appealing and elegant building is in sound condition. All that’s really keeping audiences away for now is the coronavirus. Drive-ins are booming and there’s no reason to think that – through assigned seating and other simple precautions – beautiful independent movie theatres not beholden to giant, threatened corporations like AMC can’t recover, given adequate time and the movie-going public’s support.

(Through it’s exclusive deal with AMC, Universal is squeezing the theatrical window in which physical cinemas can turn a profit, to seventeen days. Much as Standard Capital Bank’s J. Cheever Cowdin, who chaired the board that took over Universal from the Laemmles, also had a hand in the demise of Emil Umann’s golden goose, and possibly in hastening Umann’s death a year later as well).

There would be a curious symmetry to the continuing history of the Regina Theatre should the building which gave new life to Dracula and to Universal Pictures in 1938 – and that helped to create what became the formula for midnight and cult movies much later on – have a role to play in the continuing future of theatrical film exhibition in the 21st century.

  1. Luckhurst, M. & Morin, E., 2014 ‘Theatre and Ghosts: Materiality, Performance and Modernity‘ Palgrave Macmillan, London, p99.
  2. Mank, Gregory W., 1990 ‘Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff : the expanded story of a haunting collaboration, with a complete filmography of their films together’ McFarland & Company, Inc., North Carolina, p91.