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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Columbia's Bat-Flash In The Pan

Long before all this "dark knight" nonsense, when Batman was just a comic book character, there was a cultural pestilence which came to call around 1965. "Camp" was the invention of a "with-it" generation discovering what social capital could be earned by ridiculing vintage movies. Not that any such pretenders understood what they were talking about, or laughing at, but condescending attitudes toward much of our film heritage is a burden we bear yet, as witness tittering audiences disrupting public runs of varied classics. Serials had been around since the birth of movies, being industry staples from silent days, and well respected as any of product out of Hollywood. Talkies found chapter plays diminished if still reliable audience pleasers (for by now primarily children), and it was only television's encroachment, with its cheaply produced (and free) kid programming that finally brought serials to a halt. The last one of them was released in 1956, but a lot of houses still wanted chapter plays, so reissues were commonplace right into the sixties. My own perusing of NC theatre ads revealed ongoing popularity for serials as late as 1967 --- our own Liberty Theatre played Panther Girl Of The Kongo that year. Perversion of the serial form, and the consequent ridicule of same, had its beginnings in art houses and college theatres catering to the camp movement, with opening guns aimed toward Columbia’s old Batman properties --- easy targets to be sure, as these were not particularly good serials to begin with.

There’s a really interesting talk with producer/collector/historian Sam Sherman in one of those terrific Tom Weaver interview books (It Came From The Weaver Five) in which Sherman talks about his own efforts to arrange serial bookings in a Manhattan art house in 1965. The exhibitor listened patiently to Sam’s ideas, got all the resource info from him, then put on the show without further input from Sherman. A raw deal for Sam, but the smash business indicated a big demand for serials, and it wasn’t long before other art/revival venues began looking for similar product. This was when Columbia stepped into the arena. Their serials had been in constant circulation anyway. Republic
was closed. Universal hadn’t listed a serial on its release chart in years. Without any meaningful competition, Columbia could use old prints already in exchanges and service theatres willing to pony up a minimal film rental. The new twist was that every chapter of the serial would play back-to-back in marathon shows lasting upwards of four hours. If twenty minutes of camp was fun (the maximum length of most individual chapters), imagine what a riot fifteen installments would be! Initial bookings, called An Evening With Batman and Robin, were unexpected bonanzas for art theatres in Cleveland, Champaign, Illonois, and at Chicago's Playboy Theatre. Fall of 1965 looked as though it was going to be the dawn of a new era for old-time serial popularity…

This optimistic report from the exhibition field, dated December 20, 1965, suggests cakes and ale for any showman willing to take a flyer on a Batman serial. Several dozen cities had booked the marathon, and San Francisco's Presidio Theatre actually committed its Christmas week to Batman. Virtually every situation reported holdovers. Curious crowds were plentiful, with concession sales unusually brisk (you get pretty hungry sitting through fifteen largely repetitious chapters in one gulp). Creative selling was order of the day at New Orleans' Peacock Theatre , as shown in this cool shot of Batman impersonator Roy Frumkes regaling youthful fans lined up at the Peacock entrance. When I saw this article, now forty years and counting since publication, I thought I recognized Roy Frumkes as the latter-day owner/editor of the Films In Review periodical. He’d also edited The Perfect Vision magazine during its glory days in the nineties. Could this be the same Roy Frumkes? I took a chance and e-mailed him (including a scan of R.F. in the Batman suit). All he could do was respond, ignore me, or turn me over to the district attorney’s office for further investigation. Fortunately, Roy responded (by phone!) and he couldn’t have been nicer. We had a great chat about his Batman experience, and he gave me some terrific dope about the New Orleans booking, along with permission to share it here (by the way, Films In Review is on line, and it’s fantastic --- go to this LINK and enjoy).

Roy was a senior at Tulane University when he volunteered to don cape and cowl for a Batman "personal appearance" in Dec. 1965. He’d served as assistant manager for Peacock exhibitor Bob Woodford, and it was Bob’s wife who made the bitchin’ costume Roy’s wearing in this photo (a real forties-era quality in that workmanship, don’t you think?). Anyway, they put Roy on a motorcycle and had him tooling around the Tulane campus and surrounding environs, waving to fans and generally spreading Bat-cheer among the locals. Only problem was, Roy hadn’t driven a motorized two-wheeler before --- and wouldn’t you know it? --- he couldn’t work the brakes on this one. First thing Roy knew, the Bat-cape got tangled up in the spokes of the tire (shades of Isadora Duncan) and Roy found himself being pulled backward off the seat. That upcoming hedge didn’t look so good either, and the wall behind it was even more daunting. Nevertheless, Roy and his cycle forcefully greeted them both, and as the Ventures might have put it, there was a total wipeout for the Peacock’s Caped Crusader. By way of further insight, Roy said weekend audiences were stout for the Batman show (especially matinees) and the place was fairly littered with hipsters, drama students, and bohemian types from Tulane. A couple of college chicks invited Roy to party, but he declined (in the belief they were just making fun of him in the costume --- typical camp philistines!). He freely acknowledges that he was too sensitive in those days, and could kick himself now for having turned them down (I feel your pain, Roy!). The Batman show was a success overall, but not enough so to inspire further serial bookings. Weekends were fine, but during the week it was a snooze, and the district manager put the kibosh on any more chapter plays for the Peacock. Leaving Bat-suits with unruly capes and motorcycles behind him, Roy went on to become a film producer, screenwriter, and editor (you can check out his bio information HERE).

The gravy really started flowing for Columbia in January 1966 when ABC premiered the Batman TV series. Those art-house marathons had been a fairly isolated phenomenon --- now the company was ready to go wide with pressbooks, trailers, and accessories for a nationwide push, which began a few months later in April. The "new" release plan called for the serial to be split into two shows, with eight chapters running the first weekend, and the remaining seven the next. Almost as unwieldy a schedule as those previous marathons, but they’d caught a wave with Batman, and were determined to ride him as far as public interest (and patience) would permit. Funny thing, there were actually two Columbia Batman serials, one released in 1943, and a second following six years later in 1949 (here’s some stills from both). The company was sufficiently capricious with these re-issues as to send out one when the other was promised, mixing up still images for press materials, all sorts of confusing signals for anyone trying to determine just which Batman serial they were going to see. One can only hope they didn’t mix up chapters within serials! There was no lack of merchandising tie-ins once the Batman TV craze took off. It must have really rankled Fox to see Columbia hauling all that coin, riding the coat tails of their video sensation. By the time Fox got a theatrical Batman feature ready for theatres in July 1966, their rival distributor had already taken much of the Bat-money and run. As you’ll note from the magazine cover shown here, Super Heroes were all the rage that year. This Warren publication was merely a reprint of articles that had appeared in the now-defunct Screen Thrills Illustrated, which was edited by Sam Sherman, the visionary to whom much of the credit should go for the whole super hero revival thing. The ad for 8mm home movies of the first Batman serial was a further attempt on Columbia’s part to exploit the old property. The aggregate cost of all six chapters was way out of my twelve-year old league, but a neighborhood friend did swing the $5.49 cost of the first chapter, though I found the reel itself fairly uneventful. As history has a way of repeating itself, I’ll note here that Columbia has yet again released the two Batman serials, this time on DVD. True to form, they were cashing in on the wake of another producer’s success --- this time it was Warners and the interest generated by their Batman Begins. Good old Columbia. Scavengers to the last!


Anonymous Ayres Orchids said...

Fascinating. I never knew about this whole pre-TV show boom in the serials. As a matter of fact, I loved the show as a kid, but had never thought about its being a takeoff on the serials until I read your article.

Thanks for the remark about the discouraging quality of "camp." I will never forget the time my dad took me to "a classic movie club" in Atlanta in the 1970s--one of the members was screening "Of Human Bondage" in his home. My dad's interest in stuff made a few years before he was born was limited, but at 15, I was already fascinated by the likes of Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Well, the adults in this club were just watching the film to ridicule it. I was sorely disappointed. I also remember feeling that Emory University students were busier laughing ABOUT the Marx Brothers than WITH them when Emory held its 1970s film festivals.

It's not that I'm for complete hushed reverence during showings or anything--but consideration for the time and temperament in which movies were made is always my favorite quality in an audience.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Dulaney said...

One of the two urban legends about the genesis of the Batman TV show involved the Columbia serials. While the story about the producer running across a Batman comic on a cross country flight is pretty common, every now and then I hear he (or a Fox executive) was at the Playboy mansion when Hef was having his "movie night" and one of the Bat-serials ran.

10:18 AM  
Anonymous Laughing Gravy said...

I think you meant BATMAN BEGINS, not BATMAN FOREVER. But a wonderful article! Republic (or somebody) released THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL as a 12-episode "feature" in 1966, too.

3:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can vouch for the reissues of Batman (1943) Serial--I first saw it in 1956 and I never missed a chapter at the glorious old neighborhood theatre I hung out at....I remember how gorgeous the print quality was on every chapter--probably original nitrate prints then still in distribution! I have both the reissues on DVD now--the first Batman didn't fare well as far as preservation--prints that the dvd is derived from look like dupes or poor reissues. The 1949 version is the opposite--gorgeous quality but not as thrilling story-wise as the first Batman.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Jerry Beck said...

Very enjoyable post! Love all your postings, but cartoons and serials are especially appreciated. I saw the BATMAN (1943) serial in 1966 at my local theatre (The MAIN STREET in Flushing, NY)in two parts, on sucessive Saturday matinees. I remember thinking it was so corny and poorly made - especially compared to the Adam West TV series - and yet, I enjoyed watching it all the way through to the end.

8:31 PM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

What's interesting about the serial stills is the cowl has an odd resemblance to Bale's cowl in BATMAN BEGINS.

10:10 PM  
Anonymous Mike from Ohio said...

The Columbia Batman serials caused a near riot at my local theater in 1966 when hundreds of kids were dropped off by their parents for an "all day Batman marathon" at the Beverly Theater in Huntington West Virginia. Once the credits started to roll, the kids soon realized they were going to have to sit through a 40's era B&W serial with old cars and Batman and Robin wearing loosefitting cotton costumes with floppy ears. Of course they had "assumed" they were going to see Adam West and Bruce Ward along with the flashy new Batmobile. Armed with their popcorn, candy boxes and ice from their drinks, they began to throw everything they could find at the screen. There probably wasn't an adult in the house. One kid was a particularly good shot and could hit the faces on the screen. A tough thing to do as the scenes changed, so everyone started looking for things for him to throw. At one point one of the objects thrown actually stuck to a face on the screen causing the kids to cheer and howl. Never durring the whole marathon did the management try to stop the mayhem. No doubt they were in the back waiting for the whole thing to come to blow over. By the time the lights came up the theater had been trashed. No doubt the show made money even with the overtime they probably had to pay to clean the place up.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Article on the Batman serials published Dec 23, 1965 from HTNS news service was syndicated and ran in many newspapers across the country. I suspect that is where the information on the relationship of the serial to Playboy comes from. It doesn't actually say that the serial was shown all in one sitting at the Playboy theater. It says: "...when the Playboy Club began showing one chapter at a time" and then "a movie theater beneath the club decided to play all 15 chapters at once...".

10:46 PM  

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