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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Today's Greenbriar Obsession: Clipping Under A Microscope

Every theatre ad has a story. This one hails from Rockford, Illinois in 1937. The Midway was (still is) a Spanish Renaissance venue --- 1500 seats, maybe more, in its prime --- that often hosted live acts in tandem with screen fare. It opened August 3, 1918 and lasted until fires and urban blight shuttered doors around 1980. Later they tried reopening as a performance center but that died too. Now the Midway sits moldering away like so many classic theatres in dotage. The photo here is of recent vintage. I’d love seeing what the original marquee (long gone) looked like when this show ran. Patrons sure had an elegant lobby to wait in, as evidenced by the capture below from 1932. You can actually purchase the Midway Theatre for $312,000. All it would take is an estimated two to three million renovating the joint, then you could go broke showing movies again in a neighborhood said to be pretty dangerous. Those good old days as reflected here ain’t never coming back …

Betty and Benny Fox were the featured act that came two days into San Quentin’s engagement. He’d done Human Fly-ing since boyhood and she was named World’s Champion Flagpole Sitter, among other things. Actually, there were several Bettys. The first was Benny’s wife. Others were billed as his daughter, dancing partner ... whatever circumstances required. These two made hearts stop whenever they climbed a hundred feet up a pole to waltz on an eighteen-inch disc --- sometimes blindfolded. Invitations to their dance included ballroom, tango, rumbas, and leg-twirling jitterbug, always high enough to guarantee broken necks should they plummet. Assistants were paid well for nerve enough to watch these two close up. I’m not sure how they pulled their high act in a movie theatre, though the Midway did boast of one of the largest stages around at that time. Betty and Benny were both five foot four and made an arresting couple. They worked Big Tops and played the skyscraper circuit as well (as above). Benny had his own circus for a while, primarily touring US Army bases. Their Adagio Of Death was successful into the sixties and the act was seen on Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson. Unstoppable Benny performed into his eighties and liked telling of encounters with Burt Lancaster, Mae West, and Adolph Hitler along the way. I’d imagine he and Betty’s show at the Midway looked a little like Louise Brooks swinging over the audience in opening scenes from The Canary Murder Case. Theatre-going in those days really was a three-ring affair.

So as to get at least part of the Midway experience, I dragged San Quentin out of its Warner’s Tough Guy DVD Collection and watched. It was actually the first time, even though I’d longed to see it since looking at stills in Bill Everson’s The Bad Guys, a book my cousin got for Christmas 1964 (sometimes it takes awhile to get around to these things). San Quentin is a prison story the likes of which Warners did again and again throughout the thirties and beyond. Humphrey Bogart would be paroled from them in favor of headlining John Garfield, though it really didn’t much matter who starred in these as long as they wore stripes. The formula must have worked for sheer volume of prison B’s coming out of Warners. Sometimes there’d be a sleeper and an Alcatraz Island or Crime School would score "A" bookings and unexpectedly high rentals. San Quentin was made for just $365,000, but it doesn’t look cheap. There is plentiful second unit footage from the real joint into which players are neatly woven. Midway Theatre audiences would have had no reason to feel cheated, even discounting the lure of Betty and Benny Fox. I’d not considered selling possibilities of Ann Sheridan’s nightclub song in the film, How Could You?, but would accept the ad’s word that it was indeed at the top of 1937’s Hit Parade. San Quentin was an evergreen in and out of theatres for a solid twenty years until television foreclosed paid admissions. Warners combined it with Alcatraz Island for a 1950 dualler, and vid purchasing Associated Artists got San Quentin back in circulation through distributing sub Dominant Pictures just before sale to local freevee. We had theatres down here using it into the late fifties. San Quentin engages still for settings that don’t date (prison yards are presumably still just that), seventy minutes moving quick, and no purpose other than telling a familiar story economically and with every cliché intact save a montage of calendar leaves turning (there was, however, newspaper headlines spinning into close-up). I was glad for the incentive this seventy-three year old ad gave me to watch, even if I’d trade that for Betty and Benny Fox doing their Dance Of Death high above the Midway’s stage.


Blogger Samuel Wilson said...

John, I know where you're coming from re the Midway. In my home town of Troy, New York we have a Proctor's Theater that's been idle and rotting since 1978. The city wants to gut it while retaining the facade to create office and retail space while a thousand or so die hards want the theater saved at all costs in the belief that it could somehow be restored to its original function. Common sense says that's impossible but you can understand why people protest. The movie market has changed to make places like the Troy Proctor's obsolete, but the fact that it happened doesn't make it a good thing.

10:47 PM  
Anonymous Richard said...

A very expensive attempt several years ago to revive the one vintage theater still standing here where I live failed miserably. An investor sank a small fortune into bringing the grand old building back to life in an attempt to give modern audiences a taste of what movie-going was like in the good old days, but folks preferred to go to the multiplexes, and the old building was ultimately boarded up and abandoned once again. Right now there's a pull between groups wanting to turn it into live performance space and those who want it bulldozed as parking for a new office building recently opened across the block.


11:21 PM  
Anonymous East Side said...

It makes sense that Betty & Benny are doing their adagio of death across the street from a life insurance company.

4:32 PM  
Blogger The Great Bolo said...

Tab and Frankie each received twenty-five dollars (ha!).

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just watched San Quentin last night. Somehow I'd never seen it either. I loved the way Bogart would have a rotten-to-the-core look on his face one second and a hey-I-want-to-reform look the next. Great fun.

5:13 PM  

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