On Tuesday, the American Cinematheque presents a memorial tribute to the Los Angeles poet, performance artist and musician Peter Ivers, featuring a newly restored 35mm print of David Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead. In the new book In Heaven Everything Is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre, Josh Frank (with Charlie Buckholtz) explores the life, work and cold-case murder of Ivers, who was the host of the underground cable show New Wave Theatre and composer of Eraserhead’s “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song).” This excerpt from the story recalls the moment Eraserhead first caught on with L.A. audiences at the Nuart Theatre and captured the imagination of a band called Devo.
Santa Monica, Nuart Theatre, Circa 1977-78, Midnight
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.