It’s hard to picture now, but folks once gathered at local theaters to see their favorite movie for the 10th time with others who loved the flick as much as they did, mingled in the parking lot with like-minded folks before heading to a music club, or just hung out to be seen.
For a couple generations, that place in Louisville was The Vogue, a ’40s-era single-screener in St. Matthews that served as an epicenter of the city’s alternative culture scene from the late ’70s until it abruptly closed in September 1998.
The Vogue’s legacy will be celebrated this month at Speed Cinema with screenings of 18 films that illustrate the eclectic perspective that made the theater more than just a place to watch a flick.
“The Vogue for me was kind of my social center for decades,” said Dave Conover, a longtime member of The Vogue “family” who runs a Facebook group devoted to preserving its memory. “Almost everybody I ever dated worked there. I met my wife there. I had my wedding reception there. It was an incredibly important place to me, and to a lot of other people.”
Conover is contributing memorabilia and his extensive historical knowledge about the theater to the Speed’s “Deep in Vogue” series, which will focus on both The Vogue’s varied film catalog and its significance in the alt-culture scene, which is hard to overstate. The theater was so beloved that news of its closing dominated local headlines, and developers eventual took the unusual step of preserving its marquee, which now glows above a row of boutique retail on Lexington Road.
“It was a social center,” he said. “A lot of people hanging out after hours. … You may not have gone there to see a movie, but you’d meet there and end up back there. The music scene in Louisville, Tewligans and other places, there’d be fliers posted everywhere. … There was a whole separate group of people who hung around in the parking lot who never went in because they knew that was where everybody was going to be.”
Conover was among the few members of The Vogue family who were at the theater 20 years ago on the night before its closed. Manager Carl Wohlschlegel, who for many was the heart and soul of the place, contacted Conover and other friends over the course of an uncertain day and ultimately let a handful of them into the theater before trucks showed up the next morning to haul off the projection equipment.
Conover left the theater with remembrances including light fixtures, the velvet queue rope, a seat, and the theater’s Academy ratio lens, which was used to show classic films made prior to the early ’50s, some of Conover’s favorites.
“I was in tears that night, and I realized I had to get that lens out of there,” he said.
The Speed series will feature some of this memorabilia, along with tickets, movie posters and costumes on loan from past shadow cast members of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which ran consistently at The Vogue for 24 years. Former employees will introduce some films, and local preservationist Winnie Hepler will share memories of going to The Vogue since it first opened in late 1939.
Conover, who hopes to release his own documentary about the theater next spring, helped select films for “Deep in Vogue” along with Dean Otto, the Speed’s curator of film. The process began with Conover’s collection of monthly The Vogue calendars, which were also pop art. The calendars were distributed around town and were a fixture on refrigerators. Conover inherited 20 years’ worth of calendars from retiring projectionist Jay Elliot, complete with notes about changes in schedule and even the type of lenses used for the screening.
Otto said he and Conover both started with a list of about 60 movies each, based on the calendars, and the culling wasn’t easy.
“You’ll have people who come up and say, ‘I can’t believe you aren’t showing ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ — that changed my life when I saw it at The Vogue,’ ” Otto said. “It was tough, but I think we got a selection of films that really capture the essence of what the theater meant to people.”
One pick no one would argue is “Rocky Horror,” which will screen Friday, Oct. 19, in the Speed Museum’s main hall to accommodate what Otto anticipates will be a huge turnout. Not as huge as they were in the glory days, though — The Vogue would often sell out its 800-plus capacity for raucous productions of the cult classic, including an actual motorcycle cruising up the aisles when Meat Loaf crashes Dr. Frank’s party. (Exactly why the chopper was dropped from the show is a minor contention in The Vogue lore, but it probably had something to do with the fire marshal or insurance.)
The Speed is going mostly all-in for its production of “Rocky Horror,” with Acting Against Cancer providing the shadow cast and the University of Louisville’s Student Activity Board providing “participation bags” to attendees (no lighters or rice, though).
Otto noted that income from “Rocky Horror” underwrote The Vogue’s mission to bring a wide variety of films to Louisville audiences. This breadth of programming set The Vogue a little apart from The Uptown and The Crescent, other single-screen neighborhood theaters that persisted into the ’80s but never quite built the same cultural cache.
The Vogue routinely screened international films, such as “Wings of Desire” (Oct. 27 at the Speed) and music flicks like Talking Head’s “Stop Making Sense” (Oct. 20) and kids’ matinees like the Dr. Seuss adaptation “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.” (Oct. 13).
Film buffs of a certain age who grew up in Louisville have very specific memories of how shows at The Vogue helped shape their passion. Conover saw his first Fellini film at The Vogue; two works by the famed Italian director, “Amarcord” and “Fellini Satyricon,” are screening Oct. 21.
He also remembers “stumbling up the aisle” after seeing David Lynch’s surrealistic “Eraserhead” for the first time.
Nerds will recall a 1996 screening of “King Kong,” which Conover help organize as part for the Wonderfest show he runs in Louisville, that was attended by special effects giant Ray Harryhausen. Super-collector Bob Burns also attended the show, bringing with him the actual armature of Kong created by his mentor, Willis O’Brien, for use in the 1933 classic. To film nerds, this was a really big deal.
Todd Brashear, the former owner of Wild & Woolly Video, said he remembers sneaking a beer into a late-night screening of John Waters’ exercise in bad taste “Pink Flamingos” and thinking he might throw up — and not because of the beer.
And even though he wasn’t part of the core The Vogue family like Conover, when Brashear got a little older and became involved in Louisville’s hardcore music scene, he knew the theater’s parking lot was a place where you could hang out and see people you’d also bump into at Tewligans and other rock clubs that defined ’80s alternative culture. The Vogue even hosted the occasional concert — Iggy Pop played there once.
“It was a place you could go and meet other weirdos,” Brashear said. “And I say ‘weirdos’ lovingly.”
The Vogue opened in 1939, selling tickets for 16 cents, and became an art house in 1977 under the ownership of Martin “Marty” Sussman, the late local theater owner who invested in keeping the landmark open. After The Uptown on Bardstown Road closed in 1990, it was the only historic neighborhood theater in Louisville until it closed in 1998.
The exact reason The Vogue shut its doors is another point of contention among local folklorist. Both Conover and Otto pointed to the emergence of home video as the likely main underlying culprit — people simply had other options if they wanted to see “Heavy Metal” for the 20th time.
Of course, there were ongoing financial difficulties that all single-screen theaters faced during the era. And The Vogue abandoned its repertory scheduling philosophy for several months to constantly show the surprise hit “The Full Monty,” pulling in near-term revenue but perhaps, as Conover said, alienating its core community.
At any rate, for two decades the city has had no hub where movies and alternative culture mesh as closely as they did at The Vogue. The greatest loss may well be the sense of community around the unique art form of film.
“Now we live in an era where people sit and watch movies on their phone, at home, or stream wherever they are at,” Conover said, “and it’s not the same as sitting in a theater,”
This month, at least, some of that experience will be revived.
Here’s the full schedule of films at the “Deep in Vogue” series at the Speed, complete with a few notes on the films, as appropriate. It’s not nearly as cool as a Vogue calendar, but we did what we could do. Otto suggested that people buy advance tickets.
Friday, Oct. 12
“Harold and Maude” (1971), 6 p.m.
“King of Hearts” (1966), 8 p.m. This French satire abut the absurdity of war was one of the many international films that showed at The Vogue.
Saturday, Oct. 13
“The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T” (1953) 1 p.m. This one kicks off a kid-friendly matinee double-feature.
“Forbidden Planet” (1956) 3 p.m.
“Touch of Evil” (1958) 6 p.m.
“Casablanca” (1942) 7:45 p.m. A restored re-release of the Bogart classic was closely tied to The Vogue’s reopening in the early 1990s after a major renovation.
Friday, Oct. 19
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) 8:30 p.m. Presented as part of After Hours at the Speed series.
Saturday, Oct. 20
“His Girl Friday” (1940) 3 p.m.
“Pink Floyd: The Wall” (1982) 6 p.m.
“Stop Making Sense” (1984) 8 p.m. Conover recalls people dancing in the isles during frequent screenings of this concert film.
Sunday, Oct. 21, 3 p.m.
“Amarcord” (1973) 3 p.m. Considered among the director’s most personal films, this satire of the fascist period in Italy kicks off a double-feature.
“Fellini Satyricon” (1969) 5:15
Friday, Oct. 26
“Koyaanisqatsi” (1982) 6 p.m. This experimental film, scored by Phillip Glass, may seem a bit drawn out to modern audiences, but it was groundbreaking in its day and a staple of the late-night Vogue scene.
“Female Trouble” (1974) 8 p.m. Not nearly as raunchy as “Pink Flamingos.”
Saturday, Oct. 27
“Stranger Than Paradise” (1984) 2 p.m.
“Liquid Sky” (1982) 4 p.m. An avant-garde sci-fi flick about space aliens who come to New York for heroin but decide people are a stronger high. A favorite among the late-night Vogue crowd.
“Wings of Desire” (1987) 7 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 28
“Cinema Paradiso” (1998) 3 p.m. This love letter to old cinemas is a fitting close to the festival, Conover said, since it was a favorite of many who worked at The Vogue, including manager Carl Wohlschlegel.