At each Down in Front event, performers let loose during a notoriously bad B-movie. The month’s film must fulfill one requirement—it can’t be too self-aware. It must be “earnest” in its awfulness, said Stuart Landon, a core DIF member and director of community engagement at Midtown Cinema.
For instance, in December, for the fourth year in a row, DIF featured the 1964 film “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” Before the show, crowlers of Zeroday Brewing Co. beer cracked open to help warm the funny bone as the night’s four performers—Jennie Adams, Matt Golden, Felicia O’Toole and David Ramon Zayas—mingled at the front of the room.
Shortly after 9:30 p.m., Adams gave a short introduction to a sold-out room, the lights dimmed, and the whole cast announced, “Down in front!” as they sat down with their microphones. The roasting of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”—chock full of cheesy dialogue, creepy characters, offensive makeup and bad special effects—was underway.
When Landon became Midtown Cinema’s community engagement director, he looked to other arthouse cinemas around the country to see what they were doing to connect with the public.
“It was one of those group efforts back in the day when I first started at the cinema as the manager,” Landon said. “Many of us were big fans of ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000.’”
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” was a quirky 1980s and ‘90s TV series in which a janitor, trapped in a theater, is forced by his mad scientist overlords to watch bad movies. To preserve his sanity, he builds robots to keep him company, and, together, they mock the awful dialogue, sets, acting and everything else.
The first Down in Front show took place in the fall of 2013 with the screening of the cult classic, “Little Shop of Horrors.”
“It was the first piece of programming we did that wasn’t our normal programming,” Landon said, adding that it took about a year before they attracted consistent crowds.
Landon recruited Adams, who was involved in local improv. Within the first year, the two founders and Golden became the core company of DIF. At first, they emulated the three-performer format of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Instead of two robots and a man, though, “it was two gays and Jennie,” Landon joked.
Today, they perform with a fourth guest each month, agreeing that an extra person helps to balance different moods.
Throughout DIF’s three-year history, a few “deliciously bad” movies have become yearly staples, like “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and “Trolls 2.”
For the rest of the schedule, Landon, Adams and Golden have an ongoing Facebook thread to brainstorm and pick movies a few months in advance, Golden said. The team has learned from experience that the films have to meet a universal standard of bad.
The group showed “The Notebook” a few years ago in honor of Valentine’s Day, even though Adams was reluctant because “people really love that movie.”
On another occasion, they chose “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” During the show, an audience member, misunderstanding the premise, got angry at the performers for talking over the movie and left.
“So, now, we make a statement before each show: ‘We will be talking into microphones and making fun of this. If it is your favorite film, you can leave now and get a refund!’” Golden said.
Collaboration & Community
The improvisers donate their time to each show, but the close-knit nature of the Harrisburg theater community has helped build a diverse roster of regular and enthusiastic performers.
“It’s been nice to pull different improvisers and comedians from different groups around this little community, which is crazy that there’s so much comedy in such a small city,” said Adams, who also is the education director at the Harrisburg Improv Theater.
Generally, they don’t prepare much for each show or watch the films beforehand. In the case of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” though, it was the fourth time Golden and Adams were witnessing the atrocity.
“Oh, I’m dreading it!” Adams said.
Nevertheless, they were able to feed off O’Toole, Ramon Zayas and the audience to come up with new jokes.
O’Toole, a local drag performer and co-creator of the Sundae Best Variety Show, compared DIF to what she does in her living room watching terrible movies with her roommate.
“This honestly doesn’t make me nervous,” she said.
The goal is simple, O’Toole said.
“People have so much stuff going on in their lives,” she said. “If I can give them two hours of a show at Down in Front where they can just forget about that and laugh, yeah, that makes me feel good.”
Down in Front performs monthly at Midtown Cinema, 250 Reily St., Harrisburg. The next show is slated for Feb. 10 at 9:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.midtowncinema.com.