Monday May 1st – Open Thread
4 minutes ago
Life at The Hoka Theater
It's the ease of the wave – that’s it. You never catch anyone off-guard in Mississippi when it comes to friendliness. I've always been amazed that someone you've never seen before will call you by your first name or introduce himself with no fear of giving you a social edge. It never ceases to amaze me, Yankee that I am. Other places I've lived and visited you almost make yourself vulnerable to being friendly, but not here in Mississippi.
This tremendous friendliness! The most beautiful girls I've ever known and the beauty of the hills in this northeast Mississippi college town are here for me. Every fall and spring Nature throws the most spectacular costume party you've ever seen. This is what keeps me here in Oxford attempting to run an art movie theater. Showing critically-acclaimed and no commercial films is not the shrewdest financial scheme a reasonably enlightened soul could come up with. But here I am.
Six years ago I moved here from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where I skied a lot and became involved in the movie business so my days could be free. It was so easy and lucrative in the cool, dry Northwest. At one point I had theaters in Jackson Hole, Missoula, Montana, and Moscow, Idaho. In the clear air and litter-free North, young people would stand in line, sit on the floor, and if necessary wrap themselves in sleeping bags to awe at Chaplin, Fellini, Bertilucci, Coppola, and Ashby. In Oxford, Mississippi, I'm afraid Johnny Wadd Holmes, Linda Lovelace, and Annette Havens (one of the screen's most striking foxes) have all the awe's, and definitely the ooh's.
There are many reasons why the great "art" movies don't do that well here. Limited personal exposure has much to do with this, but the principal reason is parties, jobs, schools, and lovers. Lifestyles here are arranged around parties. If I'm showing Barry Lyndon and there is a five-keg party somewhere down University Avenue or in one of the sprawling apartment complexes, forget it, Kubrick. If Hollywood ever came out with a movie in smellarama with the essence of beer, I'd be rich.
Here is the only place I've ever lived where sleeping late is the true status. People just sit around, drink beer, and go over stories. As additional people arrive, new twists are added. It's why I believe so many good writers are from the South. People are good storytellers and listeners, and the imagination comes alive at four in the morning as the keg goes spurting and the coal-fire simmers.
I never drank until I moved to Mississippi, for it's so a part of the daily routine. I do now and I'm glad. My friends don't drink to escape, but for the taste, the buzz, the exhilaration,, and the ease of laughter. Tom Waits, the songwriter, sings it well: "The only time I have a drinking problem is when I can't find a drink." The Hoka, named for the Cherokee Princess who was given to Oxford from the federal government, is in its fifth year – a present-day miracle. The showing of late-night adult films has kept my doors open. The frat crowd will drop off their dates, sneak in a few beers, and damn if they don't have a blast yelling at the screen, teasing their brothers, and at the same time learning a secret or two to try on Sorority Sally, if they ever get alone with her, which is doubtful. You see, here everything runs in groups. You don't just date a girl, you date a sorority, a dorm. There are always at least fifteen other people around.
My business is finally becoming a success. At 8 p.m. we show a wonderful film, generally one I want to see myself. Tonight is Altered States; last week it was Kurosawa's Kagemusha. At 10:30 p.m. I show maybe a rock concert film, or more likely a porno show, and usually repeat the adult show at midnight. Sure, I'd rather show Clockwork Orange or Dinner at Eight, but, hell, I even catch myself looking at the adult films, just to check out the product, you understand.
About these X's. They've improved so much in just the past two years. It used to be the only thing left to the imagination was the plot. Now they have plots, and for the most part they're technically passable, many with exotic locations – I'm talking about countries, beaches, mountains (please get your head out of the gutter) – and they're surprisingly romantic and tender. Lots of kissing, hugging, and a real touch of kindness. I believe Emmanuelle being so classy and everyone being so beautiful and freespirited changed the genre of the adult movie.
Mississippi has the great stigma for being so backwards, yet the laws governing X-rated films are singularly progressive and sensible. Adults are allowed to do what they want, so long as they don't bother anyone – plain and simple, Mississippi isn't backwards; it just hasn't been exposed to other ideas because it has the feeling of such a closed and familial society.
On a recent week we took in $500 on Breaker Morant and $2,400 on Johnny Holmes and China Cat. I'll bet the six acres of marijuana Ole Miss grows six blocks from my house that more students know Johnny Holmes than Bogart. We do well with To Have and To Have Not because local boy William Faulkner wrote the screenplay for that Bogart-Bacall sizzler. We do well with Casablanca, too, for reasons having to do with the human soul.
Last summer we showed Bertilucci's 1800. What a beauty1 So many of the European films that make it to our land are so sensitive and romantic. There's a scene in IDOO where two young boys are comparing the size of their private parts. This is handled so tastefully that the most strict Southern Baptist would not be offended. It's so important to see life in other terrains of the Lord's world to comprehend how other people live. This is part of being of a university town.
This is what a university is. If a person never left Oxford, but came and watched our movies, I believe he'd become more worldly and wiser, and, yes, probably more horny. But at least that is still feeling. And what is life without feeling?
Last year we put in a small cafe in our lobby, serving homemade quiche, sandwiches, freshly-baked desserts, smoothies, and other foods. We stay open ti1 two or three in the morning, and business is great. We have a fairly consistent dinner business, then from 8 ti1 11 p.m. we're like a European coffee house, and after midnight (yes, the bars close at midnight; hell, we've only had them for seven years) all the drunks and night workers come by. And not to brag, the Moonlight Cafe is a real rocker.
I've started having bands in place of movies on a few occasions – authentic blues, jazz, even a band from Jamaica. The tremendous night music around, even in this Dixie town of only 10,000, would make W. C. Handy proud. Elvis Presley started bopping around just 55 miles from here. And Beale Street in Memphis is just 73 miles, 84 minutes, and two-and-a-half six packs from us. The ride to Mem his up the back winding road, along the h&u hills, reminds one of that wild and memorable ride in the Model-T Ford at the turn of the century from Bill Faulkner's The Reviers.
The Hoka, of course, is located just one block off the Square in an old cotton warehouse. I do all my daily business – post office, bank, advertising – by way of foot. And all the bars I frequent are within walking, on occasion crawling, distance. We walk each day to Billy Ross Brown's old ice house, wait for a bag to be filled from the delicious clear spring water, and carry the 25 pounds back the 92 paces to the theater.
They don't do that in the Bronx.
Mississippi is the lowest state on the scale of economics. That's because most of the people don't care how much they make. A tremendous number of the people I know just want to get by. There haphens to be more emphasis on sitting around and visiting. People here always have time. You know what I mean. They'll always stop and visit. I'll try what I can to keep that feeling on the top of my priorities.
I'd love all the country boys and stuck-up Ole Miss sorority girls who think all of Creation revolves around them to experience Linda Wertmuller's Battle of the Sexes and the strange political ideologies in Swept Away and the quiet, underspoken beauty of the great and classic films from Europe. I believe what I'm doing is important. I love exposing people to other types of ideas, and be damned if it ain't working. But who in Mississippi is in a hurry anyway?
Ron Shapiro 38, is owner and manager of The Hoka Restaurant and Theater. He spends his time “showing movies, making cheesecake, and watching girls.” Shapiro attended Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Colorado. Barton Segal is a 32-year-old graduate of Christian Brothers College in Memphis. He is assistant manager of The Hoka and The Rebel Drive-In Theater.