David Lynch Thanks The Nuart Theatre For Supporting “Eraserhead”

By on April 18, 2015

Several years after David Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead had become a Midnight Movie sensation, screening on Fridays at the Nuart Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard, in Los Angeles, Lynch appeared in this theatrical short — produced by Douglas Brian Martin, art director of Landmark Theatre Corporation, and shot by Eraserhead‘s DP, Frederick Elmes — and thanked the audience for their support and for being the first theatre in the country to screen the film.

You can tell that Lynch was a bit obsessed with Woody Woodpecker at the time, and traveled around with five identical Woody dolls.

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Lynch: “First of all, I’d like to introduce my boys — this is Chucko, this is Buster, and this is Pete… I’m David Lynch… and this is Bob, and this is Dan. And, we just wanted to get together and thank all the people that have supported Eraserhead through the years, and particularly thank the Nuart Theatre for its support. The Nuart was one of the first theatres to ever show Eraserhead. Also, the boys wanted me to wish you peace and happiness.”

Eraserhead certainly did not afford its audiences as many rituals as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but Douglas Martin tried to drum up similar collective activity for the movie by dragging a crowd to the Nuart every Friday to chant the film’s title when Henry first appeared on screen until the rest of the audience has joined in.

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Here’s an edited excerpt from Josh Frank’s In Heaven Everything Is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre (Free Press, August 2008; written with Charlie Buckholtz), recalling the moment that Eraserhead first caught on with L.A. audiences and captured the imagination of a band called Devo:

Doug Martin’s friends were tired, but worse than that they were bored.

What had started out as a gag and a favor for a friend — coming to the theater every Friday at midnight, chanting the name of the movie as soon as the lead actor appeared onscreen until the rest of the crowd chanted along — was starting to feel like a job. A job that didn’t pay.

“Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead …”

Well, for Doug Martin, it was a job. He worked in marketing for the company that owned the art theater where his identical-twin brother, Steve, worked as a projectionist. The theater had picked up Eraserhead — the dark, surreal first film by a young David Lynch — for a Friday midnight slot. With the manic popularity of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the midnight-movie trend had blossomed into a full-fledged craze. In the year since it had reinvented itself as an art house, the Nuart Theatre had held down the Saturday midnight slot with Pink Flamingos, John Waters’ cult raunchfest — including scenes of public urination, mother-son fellatio, consumption of dog feces, and the infamous “chicken fuck” — whose success was measured by how many people threw up in the aisles of a given showing, and which, based on that measure, had been a consistent, raving success.

Eraserhead, with its dark themes and obscure plot line, lacked the ready hooks of those films and was going to be a gamble for the theater. Lynch’s travails in getting his AFI thesis made were well known in the underground film scene. He had spent the lion’s share of the ’70s making the film in chunks, stopping when the money ran out and hustling to raise enough for the next scene. His dogged long-term commitment in the face of such a grueling stop-start process had earned him the respect of his peers.

Doug’s first marketing decision was to write off the possibility of any woman ever coming to see it. He aimed the advertising at college men, with the message that the film was so unsettling that they should not, under any circumstances, bring their ladies. This generated some buzz among the fraternity crowds, and all the macho disclaimers — you don’t want to see this, baby, it’s way too gross — piqued their girlfriends’ interest.

Looking around the theater he had already noticed young women trickling in to see what all the fuss was about. It had also been Doug’s idea to capitalize on the audience-participation angle of the midnight movie trend to build a base of devoted fans who would tell their friends.

Lacking the flamboyance that characterized most other successful midnight films, Eraserhead did not make it easy. Every Friday, Doug would show up with a couple friends, and the moment the main character with the title hairdo appeared on the screen, they would quietly start the chant.

“Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead . . .”

One of the first nights Steve projected it, only 16 people showed up. One of them was Stuart Cornfeld, a budding producer who had recently assisted Mel Brooks on his Hitchcock parody High Anxiety. When the film ended 89 minutes later, Cornfeld felt he was a different person — as if he had experienced a kind of cinematic rebirth.

When Doug Martin saw the film that night, he had a strange feeling of recognition. A few years prior, he had done some graphic design work for AFI, and one day, hanging out on the campus, he had stumbled upon an outdoor patio that gave him a creepy feeling he could not quite place.

It took him a moment to realize the patio was a film set. It took him another moment to realize that whoever created the set was making a very weird film. Which, in the vocabulary of unconventional film and music people at the time, was one of the highest compliments an artist could receive. That night at the Nuart, he realized that this was the same film from several years before. He realized also that his initial intuition had been correct: This was indeed a very weird, and very great, film.
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Steve, who had watched the movie through the projector window up in his booth, was hit perhaps hardest of all. The movie haunted him. Its strange musical set piece was particularly evocative: A character known only as “The Lady in the Radiator” — a platinum blonde in a shiny ’50s-era dress, with strange, mufflery protrusions emanating from her cheeks — sings a song consisting mainly of five words repeated slowly and sweetly, to beautiful and incredibly unsettling effect.

In Heaven, everything is fine
In Heaven, everything is fine
In Heaven, everything is fine
You’ve got your good things, and
I’ve got mine.
In Heaven, everything is fine

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Steve watched the film every Friday night for months, and once the general, pervasive creepiness of the Lady in the Radiator began to pass, he realized that something else about the song was nagging at him. The voice sounded so familiar, and it didn’t belong to the actress with the shiny dress and fuzzy cheeks. Scanning the credits, he saw Peter Ivers’ name, and it finally clicked into place. Doug had been given Ivers’ album Terminal Love as a present a couple of years back, and when the brothers listened to it together their reaction was similar to Doug’s walking onto the Eraserhead patio at AFI: Wow, this is very weird. It was quirky, smart, literate and funny.

Steve had been sure to buy Peter’s self-titled follow-up album as soon as it came out. He was one of only a handful of people to make that purchase. Despite a guest appearance by Carly Simon and critical support (“Ivers’s irony,” quoth Rolling Stone, “bitter and unpredictable, is vicious but worth watching”), the album died on the table. Warner Bros. dropped Peter from the label. Had WB’s marketing department figured out a way to reach the few thousand others who shared the Martin brothers’ taste for independent-sounding music, Peter may have had a chance at achieving with his record what Lynch did with his film. Lynch himself, after all, believed enough in their shared sensibility to charge Peter with writing and singing the number that would become the film’s centerpiece.

In 1977, though, America had spent much of the preceding decade in an explosive renaissance of artistic filmmaking and was far more primed to accept something strange and offbeat emanating from movie projectors than from their record players or eight-track cassettes.

Still, unlike Pink Flamingos and many of the other midnight films, Eraserhead was not an instant smash. Nor was it a flop; each week, a few more curious souls filled the seats. But for the Martin brothers, for whom the film had become something equivalent to a new religion, the buildup was painstakingly slow.

Cornfeld drummed up buzz with a convert’s zeal, dragging as many of his Hollywood exec comrades as he could to make the midnight pilgrimage. And Doug corralled his friends, week in, week out, to be ringers and start up the chant he hoped and prayed would catch on. But now, a little over a month into the film’s run, his friends had found other things to do.

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Tonight he was going to have to start a chant of one, a demoralizing task. At five minutes to midnight, Doug sat in the theater, anxiously brainstorming other ways to get the word out.

Out on the sidewalk in front of the theater, Steve paced and waited for last-minute patrons. He checked his watch one more time, then turned and walked back into the lobby. He was anxious to get the night moving and not particularly looking forward to another 2:30 a.m. closing time.

Then, through the glass doors, he noticed some guys hanging out in front of the theater, wearing what looked like matching homemade T-shirts. Handstitched into each shirt was the word “DEVO” — not like a fan shirt, Steve observed. Like a costume.

He stuck his head out the door and asked the obvious question. “Are you in Devo?”

“I am Devo,” was the answer he received.

Steve knew about Devo, and the guys outside the Nuart were just strange enough to be telling the truth. They were also intelligent, unpretentious and friendly in a Midwestern kind of way, definitely not from L.A. They had seen Eraserhead and walked over thinking maybe they would come see it again. Steve invited them in.

The screen lit up, the projector started cranking the reel. Henry, the antihero played by the actor Jack Nance, made his entrance onscreen. Doug took a deep breath. But before he could utter a sound, he was overwhelmed by a collective rumble. Unprompted by him, the rest of the audience had begun to chant.

“Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead… ” He looked around and began to recognize some of the faces, people who had been there for previous showings. They knew the chant, and they knew the cue.

Lynch’s AFI art film had officially become a midnight movie.

“Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead…”

All Doug had to do was join in.

Bonus: Check out this extremely rare David Lynch interview from 1979, shot by a UCLA student who was also working at the Nuart where Eraserhead was screening!

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.