UNDERGROUND CINEMA 12 at The World Theater, 2159 N High


From 1967 to sometime in 1976, the World Theater at Lane and High was host to Underground Cinema 12, a late night celebration of outsider film.

Shown Fridays or Saturdays at midnight, UGC12 brought 90-120 minutes of avant-garde, experimental, counterculture, and camp films from New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London to audiences in Columbus.

UGC12 was created by Mike Getz, a nephew of Art Theater Guild owner Louis Sher. Bexley-native Sher was the owner of campus' World Theater. and about 30 other arthouse theaters in Ohio, Southern California, Arizona, and college towns in Colorado, Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. Bexley's Twin Theater (first 2-screen theater in the world) was one. So was Yellow Springs' legendary Little Art Theater. Getz was involved in the underground film scene in Los Angeles and interested in expanding access to these works which mostly just played at art galleries and private screenings. UGC12 began at the Sher-owned Cinema Theater in Hollywood in 1963. It was a hit there and Getz persuded his uncle to slowly roll it out to other theaters in The Art Theater Guild chain where it seemed likely to be successful. Cinemas near college campuses were an obvious choice.

The first UGC12 showing in Columbus was Friday, January 6, 1967.

Patrons were required to purchase a 25ยข membership and present their card at the door. Theoretically, making UGC12 a private show protected it from Columbus Police Vice raids. The World had run afoul of the bluenoses at the Columbus film censorship board many times and even been raided and shutdown a couple times. Some of the UGC12 offerings were a good deal more explicit than the theater's ordinary fare.

The midnight art film show was almost immediately a success. On weekend nights, crowds would start lining up by 11 PM and the queue would stretch south on High, past the pharmacy, around the corner, and down Lane Ave.

The opportunity to see something freaky and unusual was a powerful draw. Patrons also liked films that spoke their generation's language. it was exciting to see ideas and expressions that were locked out of mainstream media. The opportunity to witness movies created by visionary and eccentric auteurs instead of bland corporate product was another appeal. The probability of seeing something forbidden and smutty was an even bigger attraction. Given the histories of police raids and legal injunctions that accompanied some of the works, a trip to UGC12 was also something of a dare. You never knew when the Vice Squad might come crashing in.

A night at The World gave patrons something to tell their friends about Monday morning.

Standard Underground Cinema 12 fare included:

  • Art and experimental films like those of Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage, Rudy Burhkardt, Kenneth Anger, Robert Downey Sr, Stan VanDerBeek, George and Mike Kuchar, Jack Smith, and Jonas Mekas.
  • Psychedelic movies and light shows (popular with the often stoned crowd).
  • Counterculture films mocking The War, The Establishment, Nixon, John Wayne, Big Business, religion, suburbs, parents, middle class values, etc.
  • Arty B&W porn with poor focus, bad lighting and lots of skin and body hair. (Think of those hippies from Joy of Sex)
  • Depictions of then scandalous social groups--homosexuals, transvestites, occultists, nudists, junkies, etc.
  • Concert films of suitably trippy groups like The Plastic Ono Band, Donovan, Jefferson Airplane, The Rolling Stones, or The Grateful Dead were occasionally screened as well.
  • Old cartoons, vintage movie serials, B movies, and silent comedies with camp or nostalgia appeal.

Most of the films had certain things in common: A counterculture sensibility; drug use, drug slang, and drug humor; dadist and surrealist influences; heaping helpings of mostly female nudity and occasional heterosexual sex; irreverent and absurdist humor; repurposed music, TV, and film footage, and imagery used for dramatic or humorous effect; collage; lengthy (15 minute plus) close-ups of everyday activities; and droning, repetitive soundtracks. Almost all of the films shared a homemade look and extremely low production values. None of them were going to win any awards for cinematography. Consistently being in focus was usually a challenge.

Despite underground cinema's commitment to new visions and fresh voices, almost all of those voices were young, art school-educated, middle-class born, white men from New York City. Black, Latino, Indigenous, or Asian visions were absent. Creators not from the coasts were left out. Women's voices particularly were unheard. Female perspectives were not even imagined. Female characters fell into shopworn stereotypes and were mostly just sex objects or decoration. Homosexual and transexuals, however, were well-represented.

Who went? A lot of grad students and faculty. Intellectually curious upper classmen. Occasional artsy-types and freethinkers from Clintonville, Worthington, or UA who were willing to brave campus on a Saturday night. "Dozens of intellectual sado-masochists, weirdos, and eccentric humorists" were how one Lantern writer described the UGC12 audience. Another described it as "students with a few intense middle-aged men."

Initially, UGC 12 was strongly committed to the artistic and experimental films and, while these had their audience, they didn't fill seats like the more popular and accessible material. The Betty Boop cartoons, Tarzan serials, and Laurel and Hardy shorts were widely enjoyed and began taking up a bigger chuck of the program. Musical films with The Beatles and Stones, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and even some live performances with psychedelic light shows also started crowding out the subversive and artsy fare. Foreshadowing the future direction of the theater, sexually-themed material with lots of (female) nudity was also wildly popular and guaranteed sold-out shows. Most of the advertising for UCG12 featured repurposed skin magazine models or bikini girls and naughty wordplay to support the audience's belief they would always find something sexy at a show.

Three things ultimately did in UGC12. First, the underground became mainstream. Counterculture became the culture. Grannies wore dresses with hippie flowers. Schoolgirls had peace sign necklaces and long-haired boyfriends. Dirty old men dabbled in the Sexual Revolution. Film followed suit. The once transgressive and revolutionary was on the screen at suburban shopping mall cinemas. And nudity on film was suddenly ubiquitous. Second, most of the Art Theater Guild houses transitioned to porn theaters. The World made the transition in the early part of 1977. Porn was lucrative but porn theaters carried a stigma. Art house crowds, grad students, and college couples on a date didn't generally go to porn theaters. Third, The Rocky Horror Picture Show--the ultimate midnight movie--came along in 1975. It found its audience in 1976 and expanded to midnight shows at hundreds of theaters by 1979. Rocky Horror blew everything else out of the water.

Advertisements for Underground Cinema 12, various years. Note the use of collage, the hip and irreverent tone, and female bodies to generate interest.