On the night of Black Dynamite's East Bay premiere, the line for the show stretched all the way from the Grand Lake Theater to Kingman's Lucky Lounge. It was late November and teeth-chatteringly cold, but folks had nonetheless come out in droves. They represented a broad cross-section of Oakland: intergenerational and multiracial, heavily but not exclusively male. Seldom does a movie have that kind of draw, observed Grand Lake owner Alan Michaan, especially at midnight on a Saturday. In fact, Michaan could recall only one other occasion on which he filled the 620-seat art deco movie house at the witching hour — a 2008 screening of Harry Potter. For local B-movie enthusiast Will "the Thrill" Viharo, who had been tapped to host Black Dynamite after losing his job at the now-defunct Parkway Theater, it marked a triumphal return.
Granted, Viharo was not without hecklers as he took the stage in a fez and sunglasses with his wife, Monica "the Tiki Goddess" at his side. Viharo kicked off the show as he has for more than a decade — with theme-related trivia questions, DVD giveaways, and a magic tiki drum. Not everyone in the audience cottoned to the white guy onstage holding up the movie, and Viharo heard at least one audible "Fuck you!" from the back. "Hey, who said 'Fuck you?'" he demanded. When no one came forward, he scanned the room for guilty faces. Heads turned. People pointed and whispered. But, eventually, the jeering stopped. Viharo had won.
In real life, Viharo is a polite, fast-talking guy with a lot of lime-green button-down shirts and tiki amulets, and the most extensive B-movie knowledge of just about anyone in Oakland. The walls of his apartment are covered with posters for every second-rate flick you've never heard of: The Girl Can't Help It; Kitten with a Whip; Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers; Jason and the Argonauts; The Incredibly Strange Creatures; Sugar Hill and Her Zombie Hit Men; Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!; The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad; and several others starring William Shatner or Jayne Mansfield.
Viharo says he used movies as an escape from his troubled childhood. His mother starred in several plays, although her biggest claim to fame was being anointed Miss Houston 1960. His father was a screen actor, as were some of his wives. Viharo actually grew up with an ultrareligious stepmom who took him in shortly after his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. At age sixteen, he set off from New Jersey and moved to California. Viharo says his Will the Thrill persona was born the day he bought his first sharkskin suit at a Telegraph Avenue thrift store. (The name "Will the Thrill" came from one of his co-workers, back when Viharo was a driver for a blood bank.) "It's an exaggerated aspect of my persona," he said. "It's not me per se, but it's me in party mode."
Will the Thrill emerged in 1997, shortly after the real Will Viharo published a private-eye novel with Wild Card Press, a company run by former Parkway Theater owner Kyle Fisher. In the interest of cross-promotion, Fisher convinced Viharo to host midnight screenings at the Parkway. The book languished, but the Midnight Lounge series was a hit. So much so that it ran every week until 2001, then switched to once a month, but grew increasingly more elaborate. (A couple of years in, Viharo changed the time slot to 9 p.m. and the name to "Thrillville.") Viharo started out with a different lovely assistant — his first wife — from whom he split in 1997. "Then I was auditioning new assistants and new wives," he joked. One day he plucked Monica Cortez from the audience, a pretty redhead with a Navajo symbol of Elvis tattooed on her back. The two would reacquaint a couple of months later at an Elvis birthday celebration. By then, they knew it was meant to be. Their love story roughly parallels Viharo's marriage to the Parkway, though the latter relationship eventually foundered.
Like every other Parkway employee, Viharo got only four days' notice before the theater's closure on March 22. But he already knew that the Oakland movie house and its sister theater, the Cerrito, were in dire straits. Parent company Speakeasy Theaters had gotten behind on its rent payments for the Cerrito, and it also owed the studios back pay for film rentals. "It was hard to do my job," said Viharo, who at that time served as the theater's programmer. "I couldn't book movies because they owed the studios so much money." In January, Viharo began hedging his bets, going to part-time at the Parkway and taking up another job as the publicist for Oakland's Conga Lounge and the Forbidden Island in Alameda. "When the chickens came home to roost, I already had my eggs in other baskets," he said. Ironically, Speakeasy's demise was a boon for Thrillville. "When the Parkway closed, I got all these calls," said Viharo. "It's like they were waiting out our marriage."
At present, Thrillville is a roving enterprise, with forthcoming shows at San Jose's Camera 3 Cinema, the 4 Star and Balboa Theaters in San Francisco, and Kingman's Ivy Room in Albany, where Viharo will host a Frank Sinatra birthday party this Saturday. Viharo sustains the business with his vast knowledge of B-movie arcana, and his retro, fez-wearing, martini-drinking, tiki-inspired persona. He and Monica seem to belong in a different era. Last year, they bought a two-bedroom apartment in an Alameda complex called the Capri, which screamed "midcentury modern," Monica said. Viharo turned one room into a "tiki lounge" with leopard-print cushions, wood carvings, ceramic mugs, and masks. He stocked the bookshelves with pulp-fiction novels and hung Bettie Page pinups on the walls, alongside all the movie posters. Monica pulled out the old carpeting, installed stainless-steel barstools, and color-coordinated everything down to the dishtowels and the green-olive magnets. One living-room wall bears a framed proclamation signed by Oakland councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan declaring August 30 "Mai Tai Day" in Oakland. (Viharo is spearheading a campaign to enshrine the mai tai as Oakland's official cocktail.) Beside the TV sit box sets of Gunsmoke, Mad Men, and the Dick Van Dyke Show.
Thrillville seems like a perfect convergence of Viharo's personal obsessions, and it's definitely gotten a lot of mileage since becoming a road show. The Black Dynamite screening — presented under the auspices of the Oakland Underground Film Festival — drew a far more diverse crowd than is typical for Viharo (He said Thrillville audiences are usually 90 percent white, even for blaxploitation films.) Nonetheless, it's unclear how long the operation will hold up without a theater to anchor it. Not to mention that Viharo is now married and a homeowner, without a steady full-time gig. "I look at myself sometimes and think, 'This is no thing for a middle-aged man to be doing,'" he said. Viharo considers himself a writer at heart, and he currently pens a column for Bachelor Pad Magazine, among other publications. "I didn't have any ambitions with Thrillville; I still don't," he said, hinting that he may some day tire of the personality cult. For now, though, it just keeps going.
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