Shortly before Christmas, the Casablanca Restaurant in Harvard Square closed down, after being in business since 1955. I hadn’t been there in years but my first real job in Boston was as a graphic designer for a repertory film promotion company called Pollack and Thornhill. Thornhill was a character from North by Northwest. Pollack was JD, my colorful neurotic boss who taught me how to drink at lunch then go back to work in the afternoon. He chain-smoked in the office and I still have one of his old ugly ashtrays. He pretty much lived at the Casablanca bar until they shut him down for not paying his tab.
JD ran the Brattle Theatre, a quirky space near to the hearts of cinephiles since it turned Casablanca into a cult film in the 1950s. They were one of the many movie houses we promoted. Other theaters included The Orson Welles, The Nickelodeon and the Somerville Theater. The pay wasn’t great, but I had all the movies I could eat and I worked in Harvard Square as a designer, not bad for a 22 year old. This was the pre-digital era of graphic design. My tools were a sharp Xacto knife, an IBM Selectric and a Stat camera. I mostly created display ads for the local newspapers; The Boston Globe, The Herald, and of course, the Boston Phoenix, the indie paper.
Pollack and Thornhill, in debt and hounded by creditors, laid everyone off right before Christmas, 1983. I faced 1984 unemployed and uninsured, which seemed starkly Orwellian at the time. I began freelancing and found steady work at Fidelity Investments. Perhaps the repertory film business was in trouble but business was booming in the stock market. I also put in time at the Boston Phoenix, working a night shift creating display ads. Meanwhile, re-born as Brattle Hall Associates, programming at the art house continued and I continued designing for them and for the Janus Cinema, another small screen in Harvard Square they bought and renovated. Eventually, debt reared its ugly head again and the Brattle changed hands. This time, the employees took over and stopped trying to run a scrappy film rep company on caviar dreams and second-hand smoke.
Running Arts, created by Connie White and Marianne Lampke was founded in 1986. They steered the theatre through its financial maelstroms, its 100th anniversary, and restored its place as a great rep house. They also programmed indie performances, such as a Spaulding Grey residency. I continued to be their designer. When I eventually moved on to CVG and other publishing companies, I still created the Brattle flyer every two months. When I started Working Media, we brought them in as a client. Sometime around 1998 or so, ready to exchange graphic design for grad school, I handed off my designs and image archives to Ned Hinkle, who was working for Running Arts and eventually took over the Brattle in 2001. He, with Ivy Moynahan, still runs it today as a non-profit organization, the Brattle Film Foundation. (They recently raised money to install a digital projector.)
I was thinking about the Casablanca, and the Brattle Theatre, because the Boston Phoenix stopped publishing abruptly, two weeks ago. While its easy to be cynical about what a rag the Phoenix had become, it still was an important independent voice and it will be missed. For me, the Phoenix and the Brattle are intrinsically intertwined. They consumed part of me when I was young but thought I was old. I was a small part of their big thing. And, it occurred to me that I haven’t been to the Brattle in too long. I have my excuses. Like many people, I watch most of my movies at home. However, I better get my butt into one of their seats soon – because it’s great to see a film on a real screen with other people, the programming is as imaginative as ever, the concession stand still puts real butter on your popcorn, the balcony’s open, and nothing lasts forever.