The TLA refuses to die
From left: The TLA's founding members, Claire Brown Kohler, Eric Moore and Ray Murray
After 32 years in the movies business, Adapt or Die might as well be the TLA Entertainment Group's motto. What started as a repertory movie house on South Street in the '80s expanded into a thriving video rental chain that later went bust when Netflix and other video-on-demand businesses came along. But instead of keeling over, the TLA got a second life through its DVD distribution business and is still making some of the most obscure (and bizarre) cinema available to the masses. Despite the group's prominence, Eric Bresler, a former TLA employee who started his own film festival this year, felt it necessary to give the TLA its due. “The history of TLA isn’t recorded anywhere in detail, “just [in] broad strokes,” he said when we profiled Cinedelphia earlier this month.
And so on Monday night at the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (an exhibition/film space run in part by Bresler), TLA's three founders – Ray Murray, Claire Brown Kohler and Eric Moore – gathered to give a quick and dirty history of the group, tossing around jokes and launching into wistful reminisces while speaking to the evolution of an industry now in turmoil.
The Theater of the Living Arts first opened in the 1960s on South Street as an avant-garde theatre under the artistic direction of actor Andre Gregory (best remembered for his cerebral banter in My Dinner With Andre). When this venture shuttered, the TLA was revived in the '70s as a cinema that catered to longhairs and beatniks (case in point: homemade apple cider was the only available beverage for some time). Still in their teens, the trio began working at this incarnation of the TLA different capacities; Murray was an apprentice projectionist while Kohler and Moore were ushers. The theater, fondly called the "the reupholstered sewer on South Street" by Philadelphia Magazine screened hard-to-see films, so when it closed in 1981, the trio banded together, determined to restore it. Murray, who worked as a projectionist at cinemas throughout the city, would gather his confidantes wherever he was that night. "We would meet in the darkened projection booths and go over plans for re-opening TLA," said Kohler. "We just followed him from projection booth to projection booth going over budgets."
Once revived, the TLA showed more than 20 films per week on a 38-foot-wide screen, one of the largest on the East Coast, according to Kohler's estimates and could even sell out a showing on a weekday, an unthinkable feat these days. Their weekly screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show was so popular that its ticket sales could pay the rent, enabling the group to show more challenging films, such as Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary, a controversial retelling of virgin birth (in his defense, Godard said it wasn't about the Virgin Mary but "a young woman named Mary"). Murray can still recall the "buckets of letters" they received when they screened this pope-condemned film in '86 and the crowds that would pray in front of the theater while it snowed and punk kids looked on in astonishment.
Despite the TLA's high profile, it was not a money-making enterprise (Kohler said they only made a profit when they sold the building). So, to cut costs TLAers would make bi-weekly trips up to New York, hauling back reels each weighing upwards of 35 pounds to save on shipping. Many of these prints now reside in the TLA's warehouse at 6th and Spring Garden, but will most likely be discarded: "It's a technology that's gone," said Murray.
Understandably, there was a moment in the evening when the group lamented the changing film habits that made it necessary for them to shutter both their video stores and the TLA Theatre, saying that viewers have drifted away from more challenging cinema, or as Kohler put it, "People don't want to read subtitles" to which Murray added: on three-inch screens "they're getting just as much looking at it that way, but often times stealing it."
A neuroscientist plays mind games with his comatose patient in Vanishing Waves.
Yet the trio hasn't given up on cinema altogether. They've embarked on a relatively new distribution venture dubbed Artsploitation Films. There's already 15 "international films with an edge" in the catalog, ranging from Indian hip-hop to a Japanese gangster film. Vanishing Waves, a science-fiction film from Lithuania will be playing this Friday as part of Cinedelphia, giving Murray a chance to return to what attracted him to cinema in the first place: "When you closed the doors and you had all of these people you felt like you were a showman, that you were entertaining people."