Why Winnipeg?
The 1975 Phantom Phenomenon

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by Doug Carlson

An overnight sensation

'Free list suspended'
Our first glimpse of the Phantom.
Winnipeg Free Press, Dec. 21, 1974

Phantom of the Paradise opened in the United States on October 31, 1974.  "Opened" is used somewhat euphemistically, as the movie inexplicably played to mostly empty cinemas and was gone quicker than that year's Halloween candy.

Phantom took a bit longer to make it up to the Great White North.  The first anyone would have heard of it in Winnipeg was from a tantalizing ad placed in local papers on Saturday, December 21, 1974.  "HE SOLD HIS SOUL FOR ROCK 'N' ROLL" the intriguing tagline promised.  Who was this helmeted character standing before a keyboard, surrounded by what looked like pill bottles and recording equipment?  Curious movie-goers fed up with leftover Christmas turkey would find out at noon on Boxing Day at the downtown Garrick cinema, where the film would play every two hours 'til midnight.

It is presumed that those first audiences liked what they saw, for Phantom screenings soon became the stuff of local legend.  Featuring Supersonic Stereophonic sound pumped from giant speakers more common to rock concerts, a massive screen and 820 magenta-and-purple seats, the luxurious 'op-art' Garrick cinema rocked out on weekends to packed houses singing along to every song and hanging on every synthesized word of Winslow Leach's doomed love affair with Phoenix.  (This writer recalls attending a Saturday afternoon screening and literally tripping over many sets of legs in a desperate search for an empty seat.)  It was not unheard of for a young Phantom fan to pay for a single admission at noon, only to stagger out near midnight having sat through six consecutive screenings...such was the reward for making it past the legendarily stern box-office gatekeeper, the Lady with the Big Red Glasses.  Music and murder, thrice nightly.

Phantom of the Paradise poster and album cover artFor most of us, the Phantom experience was a weekly ritual, spent with our friends in a lush downtown movie theatre that Timothy Leary himself might have decorated, catching an outrageous 91-minute glimpse of a tantalizing, if bizarre, adult world.  (This was not your older brother's Disney movie.)  Crackling with neon blues, greens, and purples against a gorgeous palette of leather-black, helmet-silver and blood-red, Phantom was also irresistible eye candy for a generation still accustomed to black-and-white TV.  It must also be noted that Phantom, in no uncertain terms, rocked; one is hard-pressed to find a more potent ten minutes in all of Brian De Palma's filmmaking than the sound and fury of his 'opening of the Paradise' sequence.  We'd simply never seen or heard anything like this before, in or out of a movie theatre.  For some of us, reality itself began to pale in comparison:  the weekday drudgery of Mr. Muggs readers and Hilroy scribblers was, of course, no match for Saturdays spent watching Beef being electrocuted with a neon lighting bolt...

For a generation of kids who spent their Saturdays waking up to The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, eating dinner to The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour, and going to bed watching Chiller Thriller, "getting" Phantom of the Paradise was a no-brainer.  It made us laugh.  It made us sing.  It made us cry at the end.  It made us want to be rock stars, or actors, or filmmakers ourselves.  What more did any 10-year-old want in a movie?

By late February of 1975, something was clearly happening. In the last week of the month, two ads appeared for sale of the brand new Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack album, which began flying off the shelves at downtown record stores like Kelly's, Mother's Music Explosion, Autumn Stone, Opus 69, and even their decidedly less hip neighbour, The Bay.

Opus 69 ad, Feb. 24, 1975. Click to enlarge
First known ad for sale of
new Phantom soundtrack LP

(Feb. 24, 1975)

The Bay, Feb. 26, 1975. Click to enlarge
'Suddenly It's Spring'
--in Toronto maybe.
(Feb. 26, 1975)

click on ads to enlarge

With stores barely able to keep the LP in stock, and the movie still packing them in six times a day at the Garrick, the staid mainstream press inevitably caught wind of what those pesky kids were up to in that "youth scene" of theirs.  As the Winnipeg Free Press (aka the 'Gray Lady of Carlton Street') reported in early March:

Youthscene.  Apologies to Andy Mellen

"Phantom of the Paradise...has become something of a local phenomenon.  The film has attracted a cultish following unprecedented in recent memory ... I've met many people who have already seen the movie anywhere from half a dozen to 13 or 14 times, usually taking at least one friend along each time.  The soundtrack album is currently the hottest record in Winnipeg, with practically everyone who has seen the film rushing out to purchase a copy."

Winnipeg Free Press March 10, 1975

The soundtrack continued to sell, and sell, and sell throughout March 1975.  By day, across the city, elementary and junior high schoolyards were witness to our very own passion play, as we acted out scenes from the movie during lunch hours and recess (I was always Winslow, if you're curious).  By night, we listened to the soundtrack until the grooves wore out, then received additional positive reinforcement from the seemingly ubiquitous TV ads playing late-night on CKY-TV.  Helplessly caught in a winter-long feedback loop, we obeyed our media masters and saw Phantom as often as we could.  Simply put, going to see Phantom of the Paradise was cool.  These were good times.

Where we go once we arrive

When did Phantom-mania peak in Winnipeg?  With the one-two punch of a hit record and a movie playing well beyond expectations, Phantom strutted through March of 1975 flush with success and blushing with an unexpected honour:  an Academy Award nomination on the 15th for 'Best Original Song Score and Adaptation'.  50,000 Canadians can't be wrong--can they?  (Well, maybe.  Those of us who tuned into the broadcast barely had time to glimpse a freshly-permed and tuxedoed Paul Williams as our hopes went down in flames when the Oscar went to...The Great Gatsby.  We wuz robbed.)

With the album hovering in the top 10 on the local music charts, the hardest-rocking track from the album, "Somebody Super Like You' as performed by The Undead, became, according to station manager Bob Laine, the most requested song on AM radio station CFRW.  So popular, in fact, that its airplay prompted A&M to release it as a Canadian single, a source of eternal pride for its singer, Peter Elbling (then Harold Oblong).

Somebody Super Like You Canadian 45. Image courtesy swanarchives.org
(image courtesy of The Swan Archives)


clip courtesy Deborah Znaty, Paradise Regained

The tipping point perhaps came with a full page ad on March 25, 1975, timed to take advantage of the upcoming spring break...er..."Youth Week":

Opus 69 - click to enlarge

Over the top: Opus 69 Youth Week Sale
WFP March 31, 1975
(click to enlarge)

Maybe it was the price - only $3.99, a full dollar less than it was only a month before.  Maybe it was the groovy black and purple bag they wrapped it in.  Whatever the case, Opus 69's cunning repositioning of spring break as "Youth Week" put soundtrack sales over the top.  Winnipeg alone accounted for nearly 40% of total Phantom soundtrack sales in Canada, which were rapidly approaching official (Canadian) Gold record status, according to Andy Mellen's latest 'Youthscene' column:

Youthscene
Winnipeg Free Press April 2, 1975

Winnipeg Free Press April 2, 1975

This was followed by yet another bombshell - a two-part Paul Williams special scheduled for broadcast on CKY radio the nights of April 3 and 4.  One lucky listener would win a phone conversation with the man himself.  (Who won this?  What did you talk about?  Contact us!)

Winnipeg Free Press ad, March 29, 1975. Click to enlarge

"Hey laaady!"But even the Phantom was not impervious to the onward march of the zeitgeist during the go-go Seventies (we had pet rocks to train...mood rings to wear...). By late April, crowds at the Garrick were finally starting to thin.  Despite his "18th WEEK!" on Winnipeg screens, the Phantom's outstretched hand seemed, all of a sudden, to be waving in desperation.

Goodbye, Phantom, goodbye

If all good things must come to an end, then on Thursday, April 25, 1975, it became clear that the management of the Garrick Theatre was, perhaps, trying to tell us something.  Trying to break something to us gently.  That they had some good news and some bad news.  That the bad news was that Phantom's time was nearly up.  Their "Dear John" letter was in the form of a most unusual ad; it started off well, bragging about the 108,830 Phantom movie tickets that had been sold to date (who knew they were keeping track?), yet immediately followed that up with a thinly-veiled (and it should be noted, poorly-worded) threat, suggesting that, ahem, if you hadn't seem it yet, you, er, might think about buying that ticket rather soon...

click to enlarge
April 25, 1975
click to enlarge

One week later it would all be over.

The last Winnipeg screening of Phantom of the Paradise at the Garrick Two cinema was at 10 pm, Thursday May 1, 1975.  (It was replaced on Friday, May 2, by The Great Waldo Pepper, starring Robert Redford.  This writer recalls seeing Waldo that weekend, and not tripping over any legs whatsoever...)

Other movies of that era had longer runs on Winnipeg screens (Blazing Saddles, for example, lasted 32 weeks), and some major studio films had shorter runs than Phantom's (Jaws lasted a mere 16 weeks). It should be noted that the queen of all cult movies--The Rocky Horror Picture Show--opened on Halloween 1975 and last only four weeks.  But Phantom of the Paradise's 18-week run in Winnipeg was the longest in North America...by about 16 weeks.

Going...
April 29, 1975
(April 29, 1975)

 

...going...
April 30, 1975

(April 30, 1975)

 
...gone.
The Great Waldo Pepper.  click to enlarge
(May 1, 1975)
click to enlarge

With impeccable timing, the Winnipeg Free Press published an unreasonably harsh Letter to the Editor on Thursday, May 1, the very day Phantom closed.  The writer, who was apparently "Shocked at Film" suggested that "...with a tasteless parody of homosexuality and numerous scenes of violence such as stabbings, beatings, disfigurements and ritual dismemberments, the film is, in reality, a sickening and decadent spectacle.  I'm glad I have no children to see this film.  I'm only sorry I saw it myself."  (Other than that, how did you find the play, Mrs. Lincoln?)


click to enlarge

This final kick in the gut seemed to close with sad finality an unusual chapter of our city's arts and cultural history, for at long last, this youth-corrupting abomination could no longer pollute the minds of impressionable Winnipeg pre-teens. The Bad Movie was gone.

But the Phantom would have the last laugh...with a bombshell announcement just two days later.

Next:  Paul Williams, Beatle

 
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