ZAAT: Live at The Alamo!
By the early 1970’s, the road show era of motion pictures was almost extinct. The Jacksonville, Florida lensed ZAAT was one of the final films to be ballyhooed with individually tailored screenings when actor Wade Popwell once again donned the monster suit to entertain patrons at southern theaters and drive-ins. Ron Kivett, who created the hybrid fish / human creature costume when he wasn’t busy crafting the film’s story, travelled with Popwell to provide the almost daily maintenance and repair the suit required. In the first few months of ZAAT’s release, the dauntless duo travelled throughout the south and even into the Bahamas for special live appearances of the monster and his handler. Sadly, Wade Popwell passed away in 2006 but Ron Kivett and I recently had the rare opportunity to relive one of these appearances at the famous Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas and I didn’t even have to wear the costume!
The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is one of the largest revival theater chains in country. Their theaters show first run films but also program a healthy variety of rare cult classic screenings. Thanks to the efforts of Phil Hopkins at Film Chest Media Group, ZAAT was booked as part of the theater’s Weird Wednesday film series. ZAAT’s director, Don Barton, was originally slated to appear at the screening but health consideration s necessitated his opting out. Ron Kivett, who wrote the script and handled most of the special effects, was up to the task though with me in tow to pick up the slack and handle merchandise sales. I was already familiar with the Alamo gang due largely to their special volume of the 42nd Street Forever DVD series that features a commentary track by the group and a documentary on their cult screenings. There was no way I could pass up an opportunity to meet Fanboys of this magnitude.
Ron and I left Jacksonville the day of the screening on a four hour plane ride to Austin with all the crucial materials, including a video introduction Don recorded specifically for the event, in hand just in case our luggage was lost. Aside from almost missing our connecting flight in Dallas thanks to airline misinformation and miscalculations due to the time change, it was a smooth trip. We checked into our hotel shortly after arrival and relaxed for a couple of hours before the main event that evening.
Lars Nilsen, manager of the Alamo, met us for dinner at Threadgill’s Restaurant just across the parking lot from our hotel. This was a business dinner to discuss the format for the screening that evening and how we would handle the proceedings. As hard as we both tried to stay on topic, Lars and I kept drifting off onto just about every Fanboy subject you could think of and it became obvious quickly that we were kindred spirits. Fortunately, we did manage to cover all of our bases for the show while enjoying some really good home style cooking, although I think we were all a bit sluggish by the time we left and the two hour time difference wasn’t helping Ron or me.
We arrived at the South Lamar theater, one of five the Alamo chain owns in the Austin area, a little after 9PM and, to my surprise, there were already a number of people lined up for the 10PM showing of ZAAT. We briefly spoke to the waiting fans and then Lars took us on a tour of the impressive facilities. The entire theater is retro themed with spaceships hanging from the ceiling and walls adorned with posters for classic cult films and murals of vintage refreshment ads. It was hard to imagine that this was actually a first run theater that we were in. They even had a mock campsite set up complete with tent and camping gear to promote the film Moonrise Kingdom which was currently playing. There’s just not enough of that kind of thoughtful promotion in the theater industry any more.
After a run through the projection room, the sizable kitchen, and Lars’ office with a six sheet for Cleopatra Jones and the City of Gold on the wall outside, we were lead into the theater where ZAAT would screen. Patrons were already filing in as we took our seats at the front and enjoyed a couple of beers and some snacks before the show. The Alamo has a wait staff that patrols the theaters regularly so that all customers have to do to order is fill out a ticket and place it on the rail in front of them for the best in non-disruptive service. Before the show, a variety of retro commercials, film clips, and music videos were run to entertain the audience, which sure beats commercials and plugs for upcoming television shows that will be canceled before anyone knows they are even on!
At 10PM sharp, Lars stepped on stage and welcomed the sizeable crowd to the evening’s events. We were then introduced for a similar greeting just to let the audience know what they were in for. As we returned to our seats, a cool batch of vintage science fiction and horror movie trailers blazed across the screen followed by the Alamo’s signature warning that if anyone was caught talking, texting, or being disruptive during the film they would “throw your ass out”! You just have to love people that are that serious about their movie watching experience.
Ron and I had seen ZAAT many times but we were both extremely impressed with how well the Blu-Ray transfer looked projected on a full size theater screen. Ron forgot himself at one point and made a comment to me about the picture quality. Fortunately he was just admonished gently by Lars for his faux pa and not ejected from the theater! We thoroughly enjoyed seeing ZAAT returned to a movie theater in this newly restored version and it was even better accompanied by popcorn and a couple of beers!
Following the screening, we returned to the front of the theater and stared blindly into the blazing stage lights that were turned on us. The audience was definitely tuned into the program that night and asked all manner of questions concerning the production, distribution, and general history of ZAAT. I deferred to Ron for the most part since he had lived the tale but I did manage to get in a couple of informative tidbits and stories of my own to entertain the crowd. The final question involved this being Ron’s birthday since it was now past midnight and we were into the next day. As he acknowledged this fact to the audience, the Alamo staff presented him with a cake to commemorate the experience and we invited everyone to join us at the merchandise table outside to help us celebrate.
While the patrons were exiting the theater, Ron and I were led out a side door and directly into an alcove where tables had been set up for us to sell ZAAT related merchandise like DVDs, magazines, T-shirts and posters. While we set up and the audience lined up, Lars divided Ron’s cake into smaller pieces so that he could share it with the assembled group of about 40 die hard fans. We spent about an hour visiting, selling, and signing as well as eating a little cake and generally enjoying the true Fanboy atmosphere that events like this at the Alamo just radiate. By the time the crowd started to thin out, we were both exhausted after an exceptionally long day and were thankful our hotel was a just a few miles away!
Since we knew in advance that Wednesday was going to be a long day and we wouldn’t make it to bed until very late, we had wisely decided to stay over Thursday and recuperate. It was too late to get breakfast by the time we got up and moving so we decided on an early lunch instead. Prior to this though we trekked a few blocks up the street from our hotel to the world famous Austin bat caves, actually the underside of a bridge, where a huge colony of the winged mammals spend their summer months. After lunch we checked out one of the town’s many vintage shopping districts that Lars had recommended and marveled at how enamored Austin is with all things retro. We then headed back to the hotel for both an early dinner and an early night since we had a flight out the next morning at the literal crack of dawn. We didn’t even stay out past 9PM to see the bats take off en mass for the evening.
We were fortunate on Friday that our return trip to Jacksonville went without a hitch since we were both half asleep through most of it! We made it back safely with each of us impressed with the experience and contemplating return trips in the future. Austin’s retro obsession certainly makes it a top future destination on my travel list. Ron and I both agreed that this was a very enjoyable excursion and if history does prove the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema screening to be the last great adventure for ZAAT, and I certainly hope it doesn’t, I am honored to have been a part of it. I also can’t help but feel that Wade was with us there in spirit that night.