The Cobalt Club was filling up nicely as I walked in, pleased to see Christy Turnipseed sitting at the bar in the lounge.
“Gin and tonic,” she said, displaying her glass.
“Then I won’t have what she’s having. Make it a rum and Dr Pepper instead, would you, Baxter?”
“Not a very sophisticated cocktail,” Christy observed.
“It is in Texas. Eakin with you?”
“He’s meeting me here for dinner.”
“I thought you might be scouting out a new home for the Birmingham Bad Movie Club.”
“No, we’re not likely to leave Lou’s any time soon.”
Lou’s Pub & Package Store is a Magic City landmark on 29th Street South. Once recommended by Esquire as one of the best bars in the South, it was opened in 1987 by the late Lou Zaden and has hosted the group’s gatherings since Christy turned a social media conversation into an IRL event earlier this year. The club usually screens a double feature showcasing the art of film at its laughable, lovable worst.
“You know, drinking this gin and tonic reminds me of Lou,” she said reflectively. “I’ve lived here in Birmingham my whole life and knew stories about the history of the place, and on my 21st birthday, my friends and I went to Lou’s because I wanted him to serve me a drink for the occasion. A gin and tonic with lots of lime. That was the first time I ever met Lou.”
I smiled as she remembered the respected, larger-than-life icon who died three years ago.
“He had this catchy line he used on all the women who came in. He’d always say, ‘Hey, baby.’ The guys he treated like crap. ‘Whaddya want?’”
“Sounds like a colorful guy.”
“He was. And he’s still there. When Mike Carpri bought the bar, he kept everything the same. Nothing’s changed at all, and I love that about it. There are pictures of Lou all over, and people still tell stories about him. He is still very much alive in that bar.”
“So how did it come to host the Bad Movie Club?”
“Well, you remember how the thing started on Twitter, right?”
“Sure. A late-night conversation about one film somehow turned into an ongoing symposium about our favorite bad movies. At the start, it was you and me and Donnie and Scott and Deon, and I think Randy and Karla might have been there, too. Eventually the thread got its own hashtag, #BHMBadMovieClub.”
“Right. We always talked about getting together, but I knew it was just say-so. It was never going to happen. I knew Mike showed movies on Monday nights at the bar anyway, and he’s been a friend ever since the Blue Monkey days, so I told him I had a group of people who love bad movies, and he was all for it.”
“Do you have a favorite bad movie?” I asked Christy.
“Well, this is good timing. Here’s a fellow founding member,” I said, waving to Donnie and Melanie Garvich as they entered the lounge. They took seats beside us, and Baxter produced two beers.
“We were just discussing our favorite bad movies,” Christy said.
“Oh, please, don’t get Donnie started,” Melanie said. “He could go on about that all night.”
“Let’s see, Donnie, your favorite is Plan 9 From Outer Space, right?” I asked.
“Absolutely. Edward Wood‘s greatest contribution to civilization, almost universally regarded as the worst movie ever made.”
“And Bela Lugosi‘s last film.”
“It was?” Christy asked.
“Yeah. He actually died before filming even started, but Wood used some old film clips of him and hired his wife’s chiropractor to run around holding a black cape over his face whenever Lugosi’s character was in a scene,” Donnie said, demonstrating with an imaginary Dracula cape. “That way, he could bill Lugosi as the star even though he was dead before they’d shot a frame of the movie. That’s cinematic genius.”
“And you can be sure that Fellini, Antonioni, and Orson Welles are still kicking themselves because they didn’t think of it first,” I said. “Here’s a question, though, guys: Why do you think we like bad movies? If a movie is bad, why do we want to see it again and again and again?”
Christy looked into her glass, as if the answer might be there. “I don’t know,” she said finally. “What do you think?”
I also took a moment to consider. “I think we feel a certain familiarity with bad movies that’s rather comforting. It’s like visiting with an old friend. Something about it makes us feel better. My favorite bad movie is Dangerous Money, an old B-picture murder mystery from the ’40s. The screenplay is awful, the mystery is so uninteresting and complicated that you don’t even care whodunit, the acting is wooden, and the comedy parts are more moronic than funny, but I’ve seen it more times than I can count. If I’ve had a bad day or feel kind of down, as often as not, I’ll sit down with Dangerous Money, and I feel better.”
“I think I know what you mean,” Christy said. “Maybe it’s nostalgia. A movie we grew up watching as a kid and thought was awesome might be really bad when we watch it as adults, but we still love it because it reminds us of where we were and who we were with when we saw it years ago.”
“It becomes a guilty pleasure,” Melanie added succinctly.
“Exactly,” I agreed. “And that’s something we all need a good dose of every now and then.”
As the evening whiled away, Eakin arrived to join Christy, Carrie arrived to meet me, and over dinner the six of us debated the dubious cinematic merits of such classics as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Catwoman, King Cobra, Ishtar, Waterworld, and Labyrinth, which Christy insists is a Jim Henson masterpiece rather than a bad movie. I never had occasion to meet Lou Zaden, but I rather suspect he’d have approved.