Thursday, January 28, 2010
THE GHOSTS OF MOVIE PALACES PAST
Stephen Whitty writes about movies and entertainment for the Newark Star-Ledger, one of New Jersey’s largest newspapers, if not the largest. This weekend, he wrote a piece that you can read here lamenting the fact that there are fewer and fewer choices for New Jersey movie fans when it comes to seeing old movies. Whitty laments that while the advent of DVD and the Turner Classic Movies cable network are keeping classic films within reach of viewers, it used to be so much easier to see an oldie-but-goodie.
Whitty cites the decline of two venues for the change: the revival house movie theaters and the programming of local TV stations, both of which featured classic movies among its offerings.
The revival houses were an important part of keeping the legacy of classic movies alive. In fact, throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s it was these theaters that helped revive and create new interest in many actors, directors and film genres, especially comedy… and especially among college students. The silent movie comedians (particularly Buster Keaton) as well as 1930s iconoclasts like the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and others all gained new life (and fans) from these showings.
One of the coolest things about revival houses was that many of them were literally housed within classic movie palaces of yesteryear. The classic movie palaces were wonderful places with huge lobbies, thick velvet curtains and ornate decor. They often had both a balcony and a raised platform where an organist played live music before show time. TCM recently ran this short documentary about classic movie palaces that have been restored and put into use as revival houses:
The stage was put to use for announcements, contests, giveaways and most spectacular of all, live entertainment from bona fide movie stars! In the 1940s you could actually go to one of these movie palaces and see the likes of Laurel & Hardy, The Three Stooges, Bela Lugosi, Abbott & Costello and many other legendary stars giving special performances for their fans. Imagine being able to go back in time and see some of those shows – surely one of the better uses for a time machine! Here’s some rare color home movie footage that a fan shot when Laurel & Hardy performed on stage at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee in the early 1940s:
The idea of a live show preceding an often unrelated movie (see the photo up top – Laurel & Hardy performing a live comedy show before a Dr. Kildare medical melodrama is certainly a disconnect) gave way to shows that actually worked interactively with the movie. The best examples of this were the “spook shows.” A group of performers including a magician and actors in monster costumes would perform spooky tricks, often ending with the lights going out and the monsters going out into the darkened audience in the glow-in-the-dark masks, causing all sorts of havoc. The trailers for these shows always over-sold the thrills, but once you were in the theater and the lights went out, it didn’t matter – those glow-in-the-dark masks were thrill enough!
The “spook shows” ultimately left the mainstream theaters but there were revivals, such as the amusement park version that Kirk Demarais wrote about here on his blog (Kirk does a great job at explaining what a traditional spook show was) and more recently, ubiquitous character actor (and the man who has graciously agreed to write the foreword to my “Scared Silly” book) Daniel Roebuck has performed on-stage as his alter-ego, Dr. Shocker – a cross between a traditional “spook show” magician and the costumed, make-up wearing horror movie hosts of yesteryear. You can see Dan do his thing here:
While the comedians that appealed more to adults benefitted from the revival houses, the kid-friendly comics catapulted back into the limelight via television. The ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s turned out to be a goldmine for acts like Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, The Little Rascals, The Three Stooges and the Bowery Boys – at least in terms of their popularity (after all, several of the featured players passed on during those years, if not earlier). TV also gave a boost to the “movie series,” including such popular comedies as the Blondie, Ma & Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule series.
Television really was so much different before the WB, Fox and UPN took over local stations’ programming. As I detailed in an earlier post, the local stations had local flavor, and all were dedicated to running classic movies. In the New York tri-state area, you could get more than enough classic comedies, mysteries, sci-fi and horror films. In fact, the three New York-based independent stations had competing horror movie shows, often hosted by personalities like Zacherle. The phenomenon of horror movie hosts was recently highlighted in the documentary “American Scary”:
You can read about the horror movie shows from the New York area as well as the annual Thanksgiving King Kong and Godzilla monsterfests at DVD Drive-in by clicking here – a great site that has archived various pieces on these fondly-remembered movie shows. They even include complete episode guides and scans of original TV Guide listings and ads! And you can witness big ‘ol Godzilla getting his holiday brouhaha on right here:
Stephen Whitty wrote a follow-up to his article which you can read here. It seems he received a lot of feedback on it, including a note from me. Stephen noted all the feedback he got and even graciously included a plug for my blog, which I greatly appreciate. He also offered an additional piece that you can read here which highlighs the revival houses that still serve the New Jersey area, including the Jersey City Loews, a wonderful movie palace where I’ve seen Abbott & Costello’s “Hold That Ghost” and a host of classic films starring the likes of Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges; as well as the Lafayette Theatre in nearby Suffern, NY where I saw a stunning remastered print of “Abbott & Costello Meet Captain Kidd.”
All of this is a just a long (winded) way for me to encourage Scared Silly fans to take advantage of seeing classic movies on the big screen whenever you get a chance. Support your local movie palaces. And if one of your local TV stations decides to run an old movie, watch it – and tell all your friends to do the same. The movies are an artistic legacy, and as more and more modern films become “created by committee” and driven by marketing and focus groups, we get farther and farther away from pure artistic visions reaching the screen. We can’t turn our backs on this legacy. For example, I take every opportunity I can to impart a little film history to younger movie fans that may be unaware that many of their favorite films are inspired by films that came before, whether well-known or not. Films like the world renown “North By Northwest,” which served as the basic template for every action movie blockbuster that’s followed; or films with cult followings at best like “Kansas City Confidential” that provided directors like Quentin Tarantino and his peers with limitless inspiration. You should do the same!
THIS WEEKEND: DON KNOTTS (FINALLY) SPENDS THE NIGHT IN THAT HAUNTED HOUSE IN “THE “GHOST & MR. CHICKEN!” UNTIL THEN, ENJOY THIS BRIEF INTERMISSION: