In August 1938, Emil Umann was manager of the Regina-Wilshire Theatre at Wilshire and La Cienega in Los Angeles. (Miraculously, this is 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 post Covid-19.)
Facing the bankruptcy of the business, Umann 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’. An unexpected hit, the triple-bill ran continuously at the Regina for 21 hours a day (though Kong Jnr. was dropped after the second day).
Universal studios had turned the page on its horror cycle in 1936, its last horror 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.
As a result, Umann was only charged a flat rate per showing for the two Universal 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. Umann hired the Hungarian-American celebrity to make nightly personal appearances.
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 movie theatres to promote the pairing of Dracula and Frankenstein.
Umann was left in the cold, though holding his one month’s mammoth takings. Ed Sullivan,long before his TV show, was in 1938 an ace Hollywood reporter. In one of his August 1938 columns he reported that:
“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.”
You can read more about the 1938 horror double-bill, how it revived Universal’s and Lugosi’s fortunes, and – arguably – created the formula for midnight movies thirty-three years later, here.