Disabled picket theater

by Kimberly Safford

from Jump Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 37-38
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

The day before COMING HOME opened in San Francisco, Jane Fonda and associate producer Bruce Gilbert held a news conference to promote the film. They talked about their "concern for realism" in COMING HOME, how they used over 100 paraplegic and quadraplegic vets in the film, how John Voight spent months talking to disabled vets and learning how to get around in a wheelchair, and how disabled veto helped shape the film with their suggestions, criticisms, and improvisations. Fonda also said, "We are aware of a terrible irony," that COMING HOME is opening in San Francisco in a theater which has no wheelchair access. To many disabled people in the Bay Area, this was "like showing a film about Malcom X is a theater that says 'whites only.'" I talked with Judy Heumane, Kitty Cone, Linda Gill, Mary Lou Breslin, and Eric Dibner from the Center for Independent Living (CIL) in Berkeley. Since 1972 CIL has organized around political and survival rights for disabled people.

"To us, the issue was crystal clear. We thought it was an incredible affront to open this film, which so many disabled people had been eagerly awaiting, in an inaccessible theater. Going to the movies is a normal activity for people. It's important for us to be able to do these things which everyone else takes for granted. We made it a political issue because here was a film about us, and we couldn't even get to see it."

United Artists contracted COMING HOME to Blumenfeld Theaters. In the bidding process for the theater (based on its size and the neighborhood it's in) there was absolutely no consideration of wheelchair access. COMING HOME ended up in a theater (the Regency II) which has a long escalator. CIL organized a picket for opening night, May 3, 1976, and over 100 people turned out. Close to half of the people coming to see the film were turned away.

"At first our strategy was just to picket on opening night. We hadn't really discussed demonstrating every night for the next two and a half weeks! But the following morning the media was calling us up and saying, "We're coming out to cover you tonight if you're going to be there." So we felt that if we kept picketing, and people kept noticing us, and the theater kept losing money, the film might be moved to an accessible theater. In the meantime we attempted to meet with Blumenfeld and negotiate a move."

"After a week of picketing and leafleting, we were totally exhausted. It's hard trying to run the issues by someone in 35 seconds. We talked to an awful lot of people. There were people picketing who had bit parts in the film and couldn't get into the theater. We tried to explain that the film was about disability, as well as about the war and a love relationship, and the issues is the film applied to the disabled community, who couldn't get in to see the film. For the first week we didn't try to stop people from going in, we just tried to educate. But then things deteriorated."

Blumenfeld, who still wouldn't meet with CIL, made a calculated move the Thursday night of the first week of picketing, transferring COMING HOME to the Regency I (right around the corner from the Regency II). No one was notified of the move, which Blumenfeld pulled off on the eve of the Friday-night-date rush. The Regency I has seven steps. Reducing a 30-step barrier to a seven-step barrier does not solve the problem for someone in a wheelchair; one step is one too many.

"The move really angered us, since it was obviously an attempt to fool the public, and Blumenfeld still wasn't meeting with us. There were rumors that he was trying to get a ramp built. But up to the end of the whole incident, there was never any evidence that he was trying to do this - he never even tried to get a permit. So on Friday night the media was claiming the whole issue was over, and there was a huge rush of people to see the film. We picketed anyway, but on Saturday morning we had a strategy meeting and decided we needed something more militant, and that would be a blockade. We decided we would chain ourselves in front of the steps to the theater. We heard - since none of us had seen COMING HOME yet - that in the film John Voight chained himself to a gate to protest something and stop people from entering so we thought it was appropriate that we do that too."

Many people who were initially supportive of the picket withdrew that support when the blockade went up.

"People told us we were infringing on their civil rights, that we were prohibiting their right to choose. We felt it was totally justified activity: Chains are very symbolic too! Fifteen people ended up in the chain, plus a large picket going around in front. It all happened so fast that the cops had no time to respond to it. Sunday night we blocked both doors - that's when the real pushing and shoving began. A lot of cops came down, one of them standing behind each one of us in the chain. Whenever someone wanted to get in, the cops would shove us forward, and the people would scramble over us. As time went on, the cops became like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, depending on who was around. They'd say to us, 'You are very courageous' or 'I really sympathize with you people,' but as soon as someone wanted to get into the theater, they were more than happy to shove us. And they really went after the non-disabled people who were supporting us (since that was their 'normalcy'), saying things like, 'Why are you people out here doing this?'"

"And the people who went in would crawl right over us - it was really gross. This was some serious scabbing! They had to see that movie tonight! Women went in, blacks went in, chicanos went in, gays went in - and a few disabled people went in who didn't want to identify themselves with other disabled people or organize around their disability (this is fairly common, as most disabled people evolve their political consciousness slowly). After a while the cops figured out how to maneuver the wheelchairs too, by tipping them forward onto the front wheels. At one point, the cops were shoving us, and we were shoving right back (those of us in electric chairs have a lot of power), and a couple of us got flipped out of our chairs. This really freaked out the cops, thinking they had tossed these poor cripples out of their chairs."

The theater didn't draw nearly as much as it would have if the blockade weren't there. Many people simply stayed away out of sympathy, and many joined the picket.

Blumenfeld offered all along to carry people in wheelchairs into the theater. The demonstrators refused to be carried.

"It's very dangerous to carry someone, especially in a 300-pound motorized chair. The people who work in the theater should not be asked to do this. For us, it's a very debilitating and humiliating experience."

When people went in to see the film, the theater management would announce before each showing that there really was no issue, that the demonstrators had refused the offer to be carried. After each showing, the audience was urged to leave by the back entrance, "so they wouldn't have to climb over us again and be embarrassed."

At the end of two weeks, United Artists had lost $185,000 and decided to pull COMING HOME out of the Regency I. Recently, COMING HOME has opened at the one accessible Blumenfeld theater in San Francisco, the Royal. Since the demonstration, a lot of discussion has been generated around wheelchair access to theaters and this issue is, at least temporarily, in people's minds. But the problem certainly isn't solved. Regardless of what film is showing, these kinds of demonstrations should be going on at all inaccessible theaters. Disabled people also want action on another common problem they face: theater management often demands that they transfer out of their chairs into a theater seat, contending that the chairs block the aisle and are a fire hazard.

"We say it's very dangerous for us to be out of our chairs (it's also an incredible hassle and very humiliating). If there is a fire, we're left in the seats while everyone else scampers out. When we're in our chairs, we're in control of ourselves. Some theaters have ramps they pull out when a disabled person wants to get in; this isn't what we want, ramps should be there all the time."


We would like to thank Deborah Hoffmann for the photographs accompanying this report. Others interested in these photographs should contact her at 1223 Blake Street, Berkeley, CA, 94702.