A Bottomless Treasure Trove
I’m here to propose theatre ads as a Great American Art Form. I’m not talking posters or lobby cards. Those were mass-produced and sent around to theatres nationwide. Besides, they were recognized long ago for aesthetic qualities we appreciate by way of thousands spent bidding on rarer ones. I speak of and celebrate those humble promotions decorating newspaper pages now yellowed with age. Civilians would notice them no more than grocery sales and attendant basted turkey art, but growing up for me was daily perusal of opener and holdover announcements, no two of which were ever the same. That’s what separated ads from one-sheet posters. Every one was different, and each reflected initiative and imagination of showmen who designed them. There were art shops for that in bigger houses, or district staff for the chains. Otherwise, a small exhibitor had early morning starts at preparing ads for afternoon or next morning editions. There were pressbooks to lend assist, replete with varied sizes to fit your advertising budget. Really creative managers shunned pre-prepared stuff for knowing better what their patrons wanted, constructing ads from the ground up and performing beautiful and individualistic feats as simply as you or I grill hamburger. Such was genius served fresh daily and discarded the next. Trade magazines recognized outstanding ads, but only insofar as they’d boost selling. No one lauded the work itself. They still haven’t. Am I nuts to rave over neglected masterpieces such as random sampling shown here?
So much depended on ad rates. Newspapers less grabby enabled lavish displays for the town’s showplaces. You’ll find, for instance, better and larger ads in most New York tabloids than in the Times, for it was the latter charging highest rates for limited space. Our own newspaper was sufficiently expensive as to alienate Liberty management at a crucial 1963-64 juncture, resulting in no ads whatever for nearly a year. I’d been scissor-happy from kindergarten and cut ads from neighbor’s subscription copies as well as our own. Scrapbook results have come to the rescue of many a Greenbriar posting. There was a Seven Faces Of Dr. Lao display from the Winston-Salem Journal scotch-taped to my desk in fourth grade, intended to remain until the Liberty’s playdate enabled classmates to see it. My efforts at promotion on George Pal/ Metro’s behalf was frustrated, however, by teacher intervention, and future ad preparation was limited to bookings for my imaginary Parkland Theatre, its bill-of-fare reflecting impossible childish dreams of shows unlikely to play within real-life reach.
I’ve sat down with exhibitors and stacks of amazing ads they tore off like daily duties (and that they were). If you do a thing often enough, you'll become good at it, and boy, did these guys get practice at art they perfected. Ideas were shared and bongos were quick to alert others of ones that worked. Let someone in Ohio dream up novel slants for all-night horror shows, and flyers he’d printed would head south for colleagues to emulate. Imagery of laughing heads, border encircling cartoon icons, and vampires springing out of graves became familiar sights, as one for all, all for one management forwarded arresting layouts to houses featuring similar programs. It was good business for everyone in exhibition to succeed, and not uncommon for key art from one film to bleed into ads for another. A singularly good tag line might sell half-a-dozen monster movies over time. The particularly ferocious Werewolf In A Girl’s Dormitory head shot was utilized for any number of dusk-to-dawn hooror-thons, and it mattered not if they actually included Werewolf In A Girl’s Dormitory among offerings. American-International had some of the best art going, especially their chiller stuff. Exhibitors cribbed it to a point where Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff issued warnings against theatre usage of AIP imagery to sell other company’s product.
Ads like these transport us closer to vintage moviegoing than we'll ever get otherwise. I like dissecting those with lots of detail and policy stuff. Live acts add flavor as well. Lurid come-ons were there from early on and naturals for programming aimed at youth. I wonder how many shows I've come across that promise To Scare The Yell Out Of You. Maybe 50’s juvenile delinquency became the problem it was because of all-night drive-ins celebrating hooliganism on screen. Those ads practically invited kids to tear the joint down. I’m like a pig in mud whenever old piles of newspapers present themselves. You might imagine best ads coming out of big towns, but as even tiny hamlets had theatres in those days, yokel gazettes printed movie sections often the inventive equal of anything urban sheets offered. There might be two or a handful of poster styles for a given major title, but there are thousands of ad variations for that same feature in surviving newspapers, in fact, as many as there were bookings. Consider too that most theatres advertising daily prepared multiple styles for pages up to opening. The way films were sold varied wildly from one community to the next. Ads generated at a manager’s desk reflected his/her personality and no one else’s. They’d monkey with billing and emphasize aspects of a show that exhibs twenty miles down the road wouldn’t dream of. Stars rose and fell in local courts of management opinion long before said status became apparent to employers back in Hollywood. Showmen were closer to cash customers and thus way ahead of the curve. They recorded an industry's progress (or lack of) through ads that were like ticker tape memorializing success and failure. Newspaper advertising is the richest untapped vein of picture history I know of. It’s frustrating in a way because you know you can never see a fraction of what’s out there, no matter how dedicated your search. To post this handful at Greenbriar is to place mere drops upon a vast ocean, but I’ll court the futility of same by revisiting ads from time to time, reassured perhaps by knowledge that we’ll never run out of them.