by Michael A. Gonzales
Watching the coming attractions for the upcoming Straight Outta Compton, a biopic about gangsta rappers N.W.A, brought out the excited boy in me; indeed, I havnt been as thrilled to see a trailer since the days when every weekend bought a new cinematic delight to the local movie house. Back then, in the dark ages of the 1970s, me, baby brother Perky and our Harlem buddies, had no problem getting in to see R-rated films at the local theaters the Roosevelt, RKO Victoria and, our most frequented spot, the Tapia. Located on 147th and Broadway, four blocks from our building, the Tapia was a large single-screen theater where every Saturday or Sunday afternoon the crew stomped down Broadway four blocks to our movie wonderland.
With a crew that usually included Stanley, Kyle, Marvin, Beedie and Darryl (we all lived in the same building), we plunked down our coins and watched every picture about crazy southerners (White Lightening, Walking Tall), weird science fiction (West World, Soylent Green) karate/kung-fu (Bruce Lee Lives!) bad horror (Mark of the Devil, Trog) gritty crime flicks (French Connection, Serpico) and blaxploitation.
For a time in the early 70s, every boy on the block wanted to be Shaft, Priest or one of the other tough guys wed seen on the Tapia screen. My homie Kyle, who we all called Cheese, used to really dig Jim Kelly and started doing this weird martial arts moves before pressing the elevator button.
During the generation when Tricky Dick was in the White House, across the country many former picture show palaces with their faded luster and busted seats, were quietly transforming into grindhouses. While those broke-down theaters looked as though they might go bankrupt or catch on fire at any moment, projecting double, sometimes triple-features of cheesy flicks, kept them afloat during those hard times. In Chicago there was the Fox, in Baltimore there was the Hippodrome and in New York City, up in my neck of the Harlem woods, there was the Tapia.
Opening in 1913, the theater was originally called the Bunny. In the 1950s, when my mom was a teenager, the name was changed to the Dorset. By the time I started going there in the Afro funk era, most like the rest of New York City, the Tapia was in decline. However, while the Roosevelt on 145th and 7th Avenue had a rep for its giant rats that ran over customers feet and the San Juan was just wack, the Tapia was a cool, clean spot without visible rodents.
A crumbling movie house with slopped floors, that joint was like our church where we sat in the darkness worshipping our badass heroes who were probably be blasting themselves out of a dangerous situation: be them Fred Williamson or Pam Grier, Max Julian or Tamara Dobson, Richard Pryor or Sheila Frazier, we saw everything at the Tapia. The theater was owned and operated by a Puerto Rican family that all worked together in the family business. More than once I watched the men changing the letters on the marquee on Thursday nights, standing on the wobbly metal ladder as they carefully placed each crimson colored letter next to the other.
After awhile, it became ritual for our crew to go every weekend, only missing out if we were on punishment or doing something dull with our otherwise wayward dads. When the Tapia opened their wide brass doors one o’clock for the first show, we paid our seventy-five cents and rushed inside. Sometimes I lingered in the large waiting area, between the front doors and the main theater and stare at the colorful movie posters inside large gold boxes mounted on the wall.
Back when movie posters (known as one-sheets) were still illustrated by top caliber artists, those thrilling images fueled my imagination in the same way comics did there was the ghetto explosive pulp of Robert McGinnis Cotton Comes to Harlem, the wild style comedy of Jack Davis poster for Five on the Black Hand Side and the female Black biker surrealism of Darktown Stutters painted by John Solie.
Although I mustve been on punishment went this batty flick flew into town, which features a fine, Black and female motorcycle gang and strange plot, my homie Darius James, author of That’s Blaxploitation That’s Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude, turned me on to Darktown Stutters as well as the East Coast pimp flick Willie Dynamite starring feature Sesame Street actor Roscoe Orman (Gordon). Although Willie was much less well known, the golden rule of both movies was, pimpin aint easy, fool.
Of course, The Mack was the pimp movie that inspired a generation of process haired, golden tongued hip-hop hustlers like my brothers from another Big Daddy Kane, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Jay-Z and now this cat who calls himself King Kunta. I went to school with Afro wearing, Playboy shoe having dudes who memorized Pretty Tony and Goldies dialogue as though they were reciting street corner Shakespeares.
Some cats learnt how to be iceberg cold on the mic, because The Mack served as their instructional video of the game. Personally, it still bugs me out that the same person that directed The Mack also made the gritty and wonderful The Education of Sonny Carson, another one of those films like Sounder, Sparkle and Cooley High (a movie I still watch once a year) that were really quality films became stuck with the Blaxploitation label simply because the studio did know what to do with the project otherwise.
Sometimes, I saw the manager at the Tapia taking a poster out of box and replacing it with something new. I made a habit of asking if I could have one and each time he said no. There was no wearing dude down. Finally he explained that the posters had to be sent back to the distributor along with the films. Prior to that I had no idea where the movies came from, they just magically appeared every week. Walking down the slopped floor to the concession stand, the buttery flavored aroma of fresh popcorn filled our noses with its divine smell.
After buying enough snacks to feed a small army from the pretty Latinas behind the counter, we marched into the huge theater. Overhead an ornate chandelier hung proudly, a reminder of the theater’s glorious past. My crew and I usually sat in the middle on the left side of the theater.
The audience was the usual crowd of street toughs, glue sniffers, reefer puffers, regular neighborhood kids and a few adults stupid enough to come to the movies on our day. Whoever was in the projection booth often forgot to switch off his light until someone hollered homicidal threats. Most days, the rowdy crowd could be as entertaining as the flickering features as they talked aloud, advising Jim Kelly that it was time to kick some ass, warning Charles Bronson that there was a mugger behind him or complimenting Pam Grier on the loveliness of her bouncing brown breasts; sometimes, they simply screamed something stupid when there was a lull in the action.
During a roaring car chase, a moaning love scene or brutal pimp slaps, the folks shouted snapped jokes and we all laughed. Our favorites were the flashy decked-out in colorful suits, snakeskin shoes and fur coats. For us kids raised in the post-civil rights era, we didnt have time for the shunckin and jivin of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dancing with Shirley Temple, Stepin Fetchit cooning and dried-out “Raisin in the Sun” dialogue was yesterdays news for us kiddies. With their “plans to stick it to the man,” the cinematic power of those striking images, to a generation in search of cocoa-hued heroes and black big poppas, soon became an obsession.
My generation grew up with heroes like Bogart, George Raft and Edward G. Robinson, Fred Williamson, the star of Black Caesar, told me in 1996. Black audiences werent accustomed to seeing a stylish leading character being tough. Sidney Poitier had style, but he was never tough or bad. In the 70s, we were the main stars carrying those movies, and we created characters that stood up for them.
Of course, Williamson was right; many of these films were simply variations of the Warner Brothers produced Little Caesar/White Heat model, but what the soul brothers and sisters had that our pale-faced counterparts lacked was scorching soundtracks that not only helped market the films as the songs played on the radio, but also sounded great in the grindhouse blaring through the ancient speakers. As the rhythms from the soundtrack washed over us the cinematic adventures became secondary to the driving funk grooves, lush Moog textures, blaring horns, stirring strings highlighting gruff vocals or wah-wah guitars of the music lulled us into a sepia dreamscape.
The wild boys from around my way dug deeply the funkified grooves of blaxploitation theme and score as we danced in our seats or sometimes in the aisles. Still, for every best-selling, instantly iconic Shaft soundtrack, there were artists like War (Youngblood) and Joe Simon (Cleopatra Jones) who barely got any recognition beyond their names flashing on the screen.
By the summer of 1978, thanks in part to the advanced Negros at the N.A.A.C.P. who lobbied studios to stop making what they deemed as stereotypical movies, the blaxploitation days were over and my family relocated to Baltimore. After graduating from high school three years later, I moved back to the New York City, returned to the old hood like Paul Winfield in Gordons War (directed by Ossie Davis, this is another fave), but the Tapia had been sold and the name changed to the Nova. In August 2002, the Nova shut down and site of so many of my childhood memories has become a ninety-nine cent store.