The Lee-Art Theatre in Richmond, Virginia was my first real introduction via the newspaper of “art house” cinema as it was in the mid-sixties, a mixture of serious adult-themed foreign language films (Sweden’s A Stranger Knocks, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion) and racy exploitation films (Russ Meyer’s Mudhoney, the Finnish film Helga), none of which I could see because admission was restricted to patrons over the age of 18.  

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The Lee-Art Theatre in Richmond, Virginia was my first real introduction via the newspaper of “art house” cinema as it was in the mid-sixties, a mixture of serious adult-themed foreign language films (Sweden’s A Stranger Knocks, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion) and racy exploitation films (Russ Meyer’s Mudhoney, the Finnish film Helga), none of which I could see because admission was restricted to patrons over the age of 18.  

" />

The Lee-Art Theatre in Richmond, Virginia was my first real introduction via the newspaper of “art house” cinema as it was in the mid-sixties, a mixture of serious adult-themed foreign language films (Sweden’s A Stranger Knocks, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion) and racy exploitation films (Russ Meyer’s Mudhoney, the Finnish film Helga), none of which I could see because admission was restricted to patrons over the age of 18.  

" />

THE LEE-ART THEATRE: An Introduction to Continental Adult Cinema

Lee-Art Theatre ad

Even as a pre-teen in Richmond, Virginia, I always
had a keen interest in movie promotions in the newspapers. I would study
the poster image, the featured actors, the taglines and slogans, the
title treatment, even the font style if it imparted any kind of
information about the movie’s essence. Consider, for example, the
title treatment for A Man Could Get Killed in
which the two L’s in Killed are represented by dead men with their
legs up in the air.

A Man Could Get Killed poster

Among my favorite movie houses were the
Byrd (Eddie Weaver would rise up out of the floor playing the organ and
introduce the evening movies), the Grand (a rundown, semi-grindhouse
which ran great double features like The
Minotaur
and Revolt of the
Slaves
), and the Westhampton (which must have been run by
an Anglophile since it always played the recent British comedies and
anything with Peter Sellers and Margaret Rutherford). 
But I never got to attend the one movie house that intrigued me
the most – the Lee Theatre. It had been in operation since 1935 but
closed in 1963 – Carry On Teacher was its
final film showing – and reopened in September 1965 as the Lee-Art
Theatre. I immediately became fascinated by the theatre’s new
programming and their provocative ad promotions.

Time of IndifferenceIt was
my first real introduction via the newspaper of “art house”
cinema as it was in the mid-sixties, a mixture of serious adult-themed
foreign language films (Sweden’s A Stranger Knocks
[1959], Roman Polanski’s Repulsion) and racy exploitation
films (Russ Meyer’s Mudhoney, the Finnish film
Helga), none of which I could see because admission was
restricted to patrons over the age of
18.  
So of course I became obsessed with some
of the films that played there, longing to see them and eventually
catching up with some of them years later such as Radley Metzger’s
Therese and Isabelle and Time of
Indifference
(Italian title: Gli Indifferenti), a
brooding 1964 melodrama about a decadent aristocratic family based on
Alberto Moravia’s novel and starring Claudia Cardinale, Tomas
Milian, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters and Paulette
Goddard! 
 

From 1965 until 1968, the Lee-Art
Theatre ran some of the most eclectic double features I’ve ever
come across and truly formed my opinion of what an adult art house
should be – a mixture of the highbrow, the lowbrow and the
controversial with a distinct sense of humor balancing the programming.
I don’t think there was a theatre anywhere else in the world that
ran double bills like Sinderella and the Golden Bra and
the Oscar nominated English drama, This Sporting Life,
directed by Lindsay Anderson.  Or John Huston’s
Beat the Devil and Radley Metzger’s Warm
Nights and Hot Pleasures
Sinderella & This Sporting Life

The programmer was clearly
targeting couples with a guilty pleasure as bait but offering a
respectable or even critically acclaimed title to validate their
attendance.

Unfortunately, the Lee Art Theatre never quite
achieved that “art house” respectability or regular
attendees and were eventually forced by financial necessity to cater to
the raincoat crowd with softcore movies like The Girl From
S.I.N.
and Olga’s Dance Hall
Girls
 

 

Soon they
were running X-rated films exclusively and “made history in a U.S.
Supreme Court case entitled LEE ART THEATRE v. VIRGINIA, 392 U.S. 636
(1968)
. The Supreme Court overturned a lower state court
decision that had convicted the owners of the theater of
“possessing and exhibiting lewd and obscene motion pictures.”
The Court wrote that the warrant originally issued to seize the films
“fell short of constitutional requirements.”

 

Lee-Art as Burlesque House 

X-rated films continued at the Lee
Art and by 1971 it was billing itself as “Richmond’s First
Adult Theatre.”  (from an internet site on the
history of the Lee Theatre at http://www.library.vcu.edu/jbc/speccoll/lee.html
 

Olga's Dance Hall Girls

The Lee Art Theatre was eventually
closed in 1993 and after extensive renovations was reopened in February
1996 as a performing arts center with the name THE GRACE STREET
THEATRE.
  

The Grace Street Theatre

l never did get a chance to attend
any films there – the unique programming had ended by the time I
was old enough to gain admission. But I have The Lee Art Theatre to
thank for an unconventional movie education by exposing me via the daily
newspaper to international films and actors and even a more worldly
vocabulary.  I pondered terms like “For
broad-minded adults only” or slogans like “Where Love Goes
Skin Deep” or “A violent drama of profane love” or
“Incredibly voluptuous….too much for one man.” What I
would give to see a theatre marquee now playing double bills like Lorna and The L-Shaped Room
or The Mark (with Stuart Whitman as a child molester)
and The Fourth Sex….or how about Fanny
Hill
and Carry on Cleo?  

House on Bare Mountain & The Mouse on the Moon

24 Responses THE LEE-ART THEATRE: An Introduction to Continental Adult Cinema
Posted By Medusa : May 31, 2008 9:24 am

You are a perfect example of Nuture winning out over Nature in that
old debate!  Clearly all those amazing cinema ads influenced you in
profound ways.  What a great kaleidoscope of images and
words to pique your imagination for all time!  The Lee
and all those other theaters made you the Morlock you are today! 
:-)Wonderful post!  And amazing programmers at the Lee
Theater, clearly!– m

Posted By Medusa : May 31, 2008 9:24 am

You are a perfect example of Nuture winning out over Nature in that
old debate!  Clearly all those amazing cinema ads influenced you in
profound ways.  What a great kaleidoscope of images and
words to pique your imagination for all time!  The Lee
and all those other theaters made you the Morlock you are today! 
:-)Wonderful post!  And amazing programmers at the Lee
Theater, clearly!– m

Posted By moira : May 31, 2008 9:58 am

Hi Jeff,Wouldn't it be fun to know if any of those
imaginative programmers from the Lee Theater were still around? I would
love to know the economic and aesthetic choices they dealt with back
then. In my hometown, you had to go to the Roxy Drive-In on the edge of
town for such outré fare, and even then it wasn't all that
racy…at least that's what I heard. For art flicks, the
distant NYC stations such as old WOR & WNEW used to show the dubbed
versions of European or kitchen sink school of English movies. Without
those influences, it was pretty much of a wasteland, cinematically.
Nothing as cosmopolitan as Richmond, VA!Thanks for the reminder
of life before VCRs and DVDs.   

Posted By moira : May 31, 2008 9:58 am

Hi Jeff,Wouldn't it be fun to know if any of those
imaginative programmers from the Lee Theater were still around? I would
love to know the economic and aesthetic choices they dealt with back
then. In my hometown, you had to go to the Roxy Drive-In on the edge of
town for such outré fare, and even then it wasn't all that
racy…at least that's what I heard. For art flicks, the
distant NYC stations such as old WOR & WNEW used to show the dubbed
versions of European or kitchen sink school of English movies. Without
those influences, it was pretty much of a wasteland, cinematically.
Nothing as cosmopolitan as Richmond, VA!Thanks for the reminder
of life before VCRs and DVDs.   

Posted By john : May 31, 2008 10:56 am

Living in washington,d.c in the 40s and 50s i was lucky to have three
"art" houses available to me. the bergman films always drew a
nice crowd. the racier italian and french were hot stuff compared to
american fare! the fellows that ran the one downtown acoss fron george
washington university eventully went into movie production. i think
their name was pappas. i remember a film from iceland i believe where a
censor scratched out of each frame to eliminate nipples and pubic hair!
we have come a long way since then but i must admit to being surprised
to see pubic hair in the uncut once upon a time in america. does anyone
out there remember the nudist camp movies where you got to see bouncing
boobies while playing games? the movies, i love them but what a
distorted view they gave of the real world.

Posted By john : May 31, 2008 10:56 am

Living in washington,d.c in the 40s and 50s i was lucky to have three
"art" houses available to me. the bergman films always drew a
nice crowd. the racier italian and french were hot stuff compared to
american fare! the fellows that ran the one downtown acoss fron george
washington university eventully went into movie production. i think
their name was pappas. i remember a film from iceland i believe where a
censor scratched out of each frame to eliminate nipples and pubic hair!
we have come a long way since then but i must admit to being surprised
to see pubic hair in the uncut once upon a time in america. does anyone
out there remember the nudist camp movies where you got to see bouncing
boobies while playing games? the movies, i love them but what a
distorted view they gave of the real world.

Posted By Earl B : June 1, 2008 5:42 pm

Your post reminds me of the 'Colony Art', a schizophrenic
little theater in my hometown that started out much like the Lee
(adult/foreign features) and ended up much like the Lee-Art (hardcore
stuff) – with the added benefit (?) of running G-Rated kiddie fare on
weekend afternoons (that's where I saw 'Mad Monster Party'
as a kid).  As a youngster, I couldn't understand how
the theater did any business, since their marquee never listed what they
were showing, and the glass display windows never showed any posters -
they were covered with tinfoil.  I guess with faithful
clientele, they didn't need to advertise …

Posted By Earl B : June 1, 2008 5:42 pm

Your post reminds me of the 'Colony Art', a schizophrenic
little theater in my hometown that started out much like the Lee
(adult/foreign features) and ended up much like the Lee-Art (hardcore
stuff) – with the added benefit (?) of running G-Rated kiddie fare on
weekend afternoons (that's where I saw 'Mad Monster Party'
as a kid).  As a youngster, I couldn't understand how
the theater did any business, since their marquee never listed what they
were showing, and the glass display windows never showed any posters -
they were covered with tinfoil.  I guess with faithful
clientele, they didn't need to advertise …

Posted By Helen : June 4, 2008 7:21 pm

It's hilarious reading about this. My family moved to Chattanooga,
TN in 1966 and we lived around the corner from the Riverview Art
Theater. I don't remember too much about what they showed because
when I went to the corner drugstore, I kind of just hurried by the place
afraid to look. I do know that before we moved there it was more of a
neigborhood theater because my brother's friend said he say It's
a Mad…World there. I do remember that they showed I Am Curious Yellow.
Then when Deep Throat came out, there was a line half way up the block.
That's probably the biggest crowd they ever had. It was basically
just porn by that time. Sometime in the 1980's most of the entire
block was torn down and turn into little boutiques and restaurants. Our
family used to call it the Dirty Movie theater. LOL.

Posted By Helen : June 4, 2008 7:21 pm

It's hilarious reading about this. My family moved to Chattanooga,
TN in 1966 and we lived around the corner from the Riverview Art
Theater. I don't remember too much about what they showed because
when I went to the corner drugstore, I kind of just hurried by the place
afraid to look. I do know that before we moved there it was more of a
neigborhood theater because my brother's friend said he say It's
a Mad…World there. I do remember that they showed I Am Curious Yellow.
Then when Deep Throat came out, there was a line half way up the block.
That's probably the biggest crowd they ever had. It was basically
just porn by that time. Sometime in the 1980's most of the entire
block was torn down and turn into little boutiques and restaurants. Our
family used to call it the Dirty Movie theater. LOL.

Posted By Molo : June 7, 2008 6:36 pm

I’m a native of Richmond who lived in the Fan District for many years. Your post brings back a lot of memories. I was also too young to gain admittance to the Lee Art but I did enjoy films at the Byrd and Westhampton. Another theater just down the street from the Lee was called the Biograph. It had a period when it ran some eclectic films as well. Nothing quite like those double bills from the Lee though. It mainly catered to the VCU crowd I think.

My brother has a collection of old newspaper clippings that I look through every now and then. I noticed the old adds for the Lee Art. It was a different world back then.

Thanks for your wonderful post and for bringing back to my attention the old Lee theater. I had remembered it mainly for the later years. Now I know that at one time it was a lot more than that. Oh and by the way, I finally went to the theater in it’s new incarnation as a performing arts center. I saw a friend’s dance troupe perform there.

Posted By Molo : June 7, 2008 6:36 pm

I’m a native of Richmond who lived in the Fan District for many years. Your post brings back a lot of memories. I was also too young to gain admittance to the Lee Art but I did enjoy films at the Byrd and Westhampton. Another theater just down the street from the Lee was called the Biograph. It had a period when it ran some eclectic films as well. Nothing quite like those double bills from the Lee though. It mainly catered to the VCU crowd I think.

My brother has a collection of old newspaper clippings that I look through every now and then. I noticed the old adds for the Lee Art. It was a different world back then.

Thanks for your wonderful post and for bringing back to my attention the old Lee theater. I had remembered it mainly for the later years. Now I know that at one time it was a lot more than that. Oh and by the way, I finally went to the theater in it’s new incarnation as a performing arts center. I saw a friend’s dance troupe perform there.

Posted By SomeNYGuy : June 9, 2008 5:53 pm

I can just imagine some horny kid or trenchcoated perv buying a ticket for Russ Meyer’s LORNA and finding himself face to face with the sensitive, serious, arty THE L-SHAPED ROOM instead. It’s a wonder audiences didn’t rip up the seats and hurl them through the screen!

Posted By SomeNYGuy : June 9, 2008 5:53 pm

I can just imagine some horny kid or trenchcoated perv buying a ticket for Russ Meyer’s LORNA and finding himself face to face with the sensitive, serious, arty THE L-SHAPED ROOM instead. It’s a wonder audiences didn’t rip up the seats and hurl them through the screen!

Posted By Garry : June 11, 2008 10:34 pm

Oh, man! What memories! I grew up in Petersburg, VA, about 25 miles south of Richmond(still live there). I remember the Lee-Art. I never went there as it had realy gotten a nasty reputation, in all senses of the word, by the time I was old enough. I did spend many a good time at the Biograph. Saw a lot of classic foreign films there. One of the Strangest Pairings I ever saw was Bunuel’s “Andalusian Dog” as warm up for “Deep Throat” during one of their Midnight shows. The eye-slitting scene grossed out the crowd expecting porn, while I laughed maniacally. Thanks for the memories.

Posted By Garry : June 11, 2008 10:34 pm

Oh, man! What memories! I grew up in Petersburg, VA, about 25 miles south of Richmond(still live there). I remember the Lee-Art. I never went there as it had realy gotten a nasty reputation, in all senses of the word, by the time I was old enough. I did spend many a good time at the Biograph. Saw a lot of classic foreign films there. One of the Strangest Pairings I ever saw was Bunuel’s “Andalusian Dog” as warm up for “Deep Throat” during one of their Midnight shows. The eye-slitting scene grossed out the crowd expecting porn, while I laughed maniacally. Thanks for the memories.

Posted By morlockjeff : June 12, 2008 12:27 pm

Garry and Molo,

I also remember the Biograph from my college years and saw many a great double feature there such as “Groupies” and “Monterey Pop,” “The Fearless Vampire Killers” and “Night of the Living Dead,” “The 400 Blows” and “Jules and Jim,” etc. But the midnight movies were always a big draw. Although I didn’t see that “Deep Throat” program, I did attend a previous midnight show of “Reefer Madness” that showed a trailer for “Deep Throat.” It was actually more like a highlight reel of sex scenes from the film and I remember the manager came down front to warn everybody first about its explicit nature. Most of the audience was high as a kite and just laughed but once Linda Lovelace appeared on screen with her mouth fully engaged there were a bunch of walkouts, mostly women. Yes, you never knew what to expect at the Biograph midnight shows.

Posted By morlockjeff : June 12, 2008 12:27 pm

Garry and Molo,

I also remember the Biograph from my college years and saw many a great double feature there such as “Groupies” and “Monterey Pop,” “The Fearless Vampire Killers” and “Night of the Living Dead,” “The 400 Blows” and “Jules and Jim,” etc. But the midnight movies were always a big draw. Although I didn’t see that “Deep Throat” program, I did attend a previous midnight show of “Reefer Madness” that showed a trailer for “Deep Throat.” It was actually more like a highlight reel of sex scenes from the film and I remember the manager came down front to warn everybody first about its explicit nature. Most of the audience was high as a kite and just laughed but once Linda Lovelace appeared on screen with her mouth fully engaged there were a bunch of walkouts, mostly women. Yes, you never knew what to expect at the Biograph midnight shows.

Posted By Vincent : June 22, 2008 2:06 am

In the 1960s, my father used to regularly patronize the Riviera Theater in Syracuse, N.Y., a neighborhood house on the South Side, not far from Syracuse University. It regularly showed Italian and other foreign films; he was on its mailing list, and we received postcards promoting upcoming shows.

On the weekends, it occasionally showed matinees; I can recall seeing “Santa Claus Conquers The Martians” (even at age nine, I deemed it stupid) and in 1966, at the height of Batmania, the Riviera showed several 1940s Batman serials strung together, which frankly I didn’t appreciate. (As an adult, with more historical knowledge about the character, things might be different.)

By 1968, the Riviera was showing the likes of “The Killing Of Sister George” and other art-house fare. It apparently closed sometime in the 1970s, after our family had left Syracuse.

Posted By Vincent : June 22, 2008 2:06 am

In the 1960s, my father used to regularly patronize the Riviera Theater in Syracuse, N.Y., a neighborhood house on the South Side, not far from Syracuse University. It regularly showed Italian and other foreign films; he was on its mailing list, and we received postcards promoting upcoming shows.

On the weekends, it occasionally showed matinees; I can recall seeing “Santa Claus Conquers The Martians” (even at age nine, I deemed it stupid) and in 1966, at the height of Batmania, the Riviera showed several 1940s Batman serials strung together, which frankly I didn’t appreciate. (As an adult, with more historical knowledge about the character, things might be different.)

By 1968, the Riviera was showing the likes of “The Killing Of Sister George” and other art-house fare. It apparently closed sometime in the 1970s, after our family had left Syracuse.

Posted By chris : March 31, 2009 12:19 pm

My former step father ran lee art in its last years.I was about 13.Mom and he were together for about 5 years. He was from Navada. We eventually concluded he at least had ties w/the mob. He let me work/help out there ,filling the coke machines.It always smelled exactly the same in there ,kinda ammonia cleaning agent like. Most every day when he came home,he would tell mom> of his day ,like how he used a 2×4 to beat the chins of back entrance intruders looking for a free show or warmth. The adult movies also had live preformers.X sex stars.
The end of this theater and thousands like it is blamed on the vhs and beta video tape ‘revolution’.Most owners/managers did not buy into it ,only to their financial demise. As depicted in “Boogie Nights”.

Posted By chris : March 31, 2009 12:19 pm

My former step father ran lee art in its last years.I was about 13.Mom and he were together for about 5 years. He was from Navada. We eventually concluded he at least had ties w/the mob. He let me work/help out there ,filling the coke machines.It always smelled exactly the same in there ,kinda ammonia cleaning agent like. Most every day when he came home,he would tell mom> of his day ,like how he used a 2×4 to beat the chins of back entrance intruders looking for a free show or warmth. The adult movies also had live preformers.X sex stars.
The end of this theater and thousands like it is blamed on the vhs and beta video tape ‘revolution’.Most owners/managers did not buy into it ,only to their financial demise. As depicted in “Boogie Nights”.

Posted By DAVID T. H. : November 10, 2009 1:17 pm

Dear Friends of Art House genre,

Enjoy your site and would like to be apprized of
further events & comments along the lines of “art
house” cinema.

My first job as a kid was at a drive-in theatre
owned by Ryan Brothers Ithaca Theatres, Ithaca NY.
I’ve always been an aficionado of cinema esp. film
noir, foreign films e.g. Bergman, Fellini et al

Accordingly,I have a special interest in Art House,
special nich and avant garde movies. Therefore, I.
would like to be counted as one of your friends and
I thank you.

E-mail me anytime.

Posted By DAVID T. H. : November 10, 2009 1:17 pm

Dear Friends of Art House genre,

Enjoy your site and would like to be apprized of
further events & comments along the lines of “art
house” cinema.

My first job as a kid was at a drive-in theatre
owned by Ryan Brothers Ithaca Theatres, Ithaca NY.
I’ve always been an aficionado of cinema esp. film
noir, foreign films e.g. Bergman, Fellini et al

Accordingly,I have a special interest in Art House,
special nich and avant garde movies. Therefore, I.
would like to be counted as one of your friends and
I thank you.

E-mail me anytime.

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