Classic movie site with rare images (no web grabs!), original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Saturday, August 03, 2013

The Rollercoaster That Was Newsreel Theatres

Getting War News While It's Hot

I'll go ahead and nominate the most exciting screen stop of the 20th Century and open floor for debate. It's hands-down the newsreel theatre --- plural, that is --- as there were many at the format's peak, even if confined to urban locale where foot traffic was heavy and drop-ins kept seats warm throughout tense days of Depression and war. You could get in for a quarter (or less) at most. Shows lasted an hour, occasionally more (or less), depending on weight of current events. Newsreels theatres were not unlike nickelodeons that gave the industry birth. You could stop by anytime for shows running continuous early to midnight (beyond if nearby swing shifts were a factor). News never sleeps, after all, and houses harped non-stop on headlines they'd break, if not on screen, then via radio broadcast and teletypes pulsing at outer lobbies, the whole joint a nerve center to keep patrons in a war loop.

Freshest newsreels were at premium. Management cannibalized footage to compile a daily best of it. Programs changed as did headlines, sometimes twice/thrice in a day. Ads touting fresh reels were rushed to a bulldog or late night edition of local sheets. News houses were all about speed. You could stand before the lobby teletype and get scoop of the attack on Pearl, or go inside for glimpse of carnage. Teen and younger boys would graze on war reportage and count down days till they could enlist. Some venues had helpful wall maps to pinpoint areas of battle. Urgency got so great that you could drop in a Telenews (one among major chains) to see current bulletins, then return that afternoon for updated events. WWII enabled sensation selling that beat pants off fiction-based actioners. This was real-kill stuff, and who knows but what you'd glimpse a neighbor or family member onscreen carrying a gun. The ad here sold Authentic! Exclusive! Sensational! captures of the Russia campaign as depicted by The March Of Time, and what could be more pulse-quickening than Nazis crushed beneath mammoth Soviet tanks, or traitors executed?

Newsreel theatres would augment intensity with "soft" content of sport reels (also a major draw) and fashion reportage as lure to m' lady, even if she saw greater interest in Axis invaders "cut to pieces by Russian guerillas." The war had made a populace bloodthirsty, and sometimes it needed a cartoon or Charlie Chaplin oldie to soothe savage breasts, newsreel houses not 100% screaming Extras. It all had to end eventually, as would the world conflict, thus thinning of herds, inevitable as move to suburbs cut pedestrian traffic and led a mass public to comfort of new-installed televisions. Newsreel theatres would disappear like Kane newspapers dotting off a map one by one. The last faced closure in the 60's, a lot longer than you'd expect any to survive. There remains scant info on the (mostly) mid-century phenomenon, that result of so few records surviving. Who'd save file cabinets out of a defunct newsreel theatre? There was a marvelous article in the Film History journal (Volume 19, Number 1) entitled Family history, film history: Dad & the Telenews Theatre Corporation, written by Michael, Jennifer, and Nathan, Jr., Aronson, that overviews the newsreel theatre era and personalizes same by way of a family member who managed for Telenews in Dallas, Texas.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer discusses newsreels and their effect on Charles Lindbergh:

During the America First campaign in the months leading to America's entry into the Second World War, Charles Lindbergh would occasionally slip into a newsreel theater to gauge public opinion. An intensely private man, Lindbergh had an antipathetic relationship with the American public when he was the focus of its attention. What he found in the anonymity of a theater audience, however, was reassuring to him. They were quite demonstration in their reaction to what was being shown on screen, and by their cheers and applause and by their hisses, he came away with an appreciation that they were by no means marching with the Roosevelt administration towards greater involvement in what was then a European conflict. What impressed him the most was their silence in the midst of a segment intended as a propagandistic rabble rouser. The people he was sitting with were not intellectuals but neither were they ill-informed. More importantly, they were willing to think for themselves and to draw their own conclusions.

As the leading spokesman for America First, Lindbergh occasionally sat before the newsreel cameras himself, to have portions of his radio addresses filmed. Later, he would be a little annoyed to find that the sequences might be edited together out of order. The quality of the photography and sound recording was such, however, that he understood that the newsreel companies were attempting to convey a fair and accurate record of what he said, whatever the bias of their parent organizations. He appreciated the power of film in conveying a message and never hesitated to cooperate with them.


11:01 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

There was a theater in the train station in London, England when i was there in 1978 that showed nothing but short cartoons which,of course, were ideal for travelers who have time to kill but not for a regular movie.

11:16 AM  
Blogger ClassicMovieFan said...

I heard there were newsreel theatres that used a patented rear projection system with translucent screen--in order to make use of shallow storefront space--called TRANS-LUX.

6:45 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's true --- those storefront locations were often about the size of, again, old nickelodeons, or our own Allen Theatre that once graced Greenbriar's hometown. The Allen actually ran Cinemascope on a screen less than twenty-five feet wide, allowing the image to spill onto walls and exit doors on either side. Ah, for those "Good Old Days."

6:51 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer adds some more thoughts on the newsreel era and recalls his own movie-going trips into Philadelphia:

There were at least two newsreel theaters in Philadelphia, the News and the Trans-Lux, both on Market Street within one block of City Hall. They were small theaters, about 450 seats, no doubt taking advantage of the rapid turnover in audiences. By the time I started taking the bus into the city to see movies, in the late sixties, the newsreel experience had been dead and gone for at least a decade. The Trans-Lux had become the Apollo and both were showing second-run fare or features that hadn't been a big enough draw for the larger center city theaters. They were also functioning as flophouses, like theaters in New York on 42nd Street, places where men without homes could come in from the cold and rain. It was important, of course, to preserve order with such a clientele. When I saw "Valley of Gwangi" at the Apollo, I was impressed by the tall, beefy looking individual in a security uniform, who walked up and down the aisles, loudly smacking a billy club into the palm of a hand and looking meaningfully up and down the rows of seats. It was something of a distraction for me from the Ray Harryhausen special effects. I avoided using the lavatory, where predators were known to lurk. Later, almost inevitably, both theaters began showing pornography, and still later, both were torn down during the renewal of Market Street following the conversion of Reading Terminal into a convention hall.

The posters you reproduce are interesting. Of course, the program of a newsreel theater had to fill the 50 to 60 minutes and had to be changed often to keep up with new developments in the news. To an extent, they couldn't be too particular in how they filled that time. Everything about the exploits of the Soviet army--the guerrillas chewing up the Nazis or the "giant tanks" crushing them, were direct from Moscow and not without a lot of embellishment or recreations. The film footage from the allied armed services was also heavily sanitized before being released. The "March of Time" was a popular series, the "60 Minutes of its Day," with the "caught" footage of the mighty or not-so-mighty that lent it a quality of what would later be called "cinema verite." Its style was satirized by Orson Welles in the opening sequence of "Citizen Kane," while it was later employed by its producer, Louis de Rochmont, in such films like "House on 92nd Street" and "Boomerang." However, the "March of Time" was no mere documentary, no more than "60 Minutes" is, but offered a highly tendentious view of the events of the day. It was also notorious for recreating events and inserting them in its authentic footage, without letting the audience in on the deception. In a sense, the Luce organization was not so different in its presentation than its colleagues in Sovfilm.


7:08 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon sees the ghost of a newsreel theatre in L.A.! (Part One):


Wish I'd had the sense to take a picture of the backside of a venerable Los Angeles theater our TV show shot inside (the backstage portion) and behind, when I was working on it over six years back. It was painted with a sign, much abused by exposure, touting the fact that this was (when the sign was painted, at least!) a theater specializing in---yes, you got it!---newsreels. (Reminds me of the Redondo Fox I've spoken of, now long gone, which also had a well-worn, almost invisible sign painted on the back of it still proudly touting "Talking Pictures!"---and this was in 1970!) I vividly remember that it said the newsreels were running---back when they were---"24 hours a day". And not knowing what you cover here with the usual fascinating thoroughness, I must say a dim light when on in my head and I did think, "Well, sure...!" I know my late grandma, bless her, lived for the news. I know this because I was entrusted to her care on various occasions (this was my maternal grandmother), and she'd watch every single news program there was, often flipping from one at the end to another one on a competing channel. That's where I found out even as a pre-teen that these entities had little choice but to compete with one another with the same stories, each pushing them with gimlet-eyed intensity, comical in recollection except of course for the content. (That said, news delivery in my childhood was notable by its almost total sobriety, which varies today because the money men discovered that loopy behavior and in-jokes of surpassing inanity seems to 'draw the numbers'. Part of the general dumbing-down of America which proceeds without slowing, despicable though it should be.) I remember the sign also went into more detail, indicating the content of the news you could catch up on (generally speaking) in the theater. I believe I'd shot in this theater before, on a TV movie, and it is a wonderful old thing, which I even read once hosted W. C. Fields during his days of barnstorming around in vaudeville. And that, simply because I was reading a bio of Fields; you can infer that it must have hosted many other performers equally well-remembered, and even more who are not. Then, without question, it would have converted to motion picture exhibition. I with I could say this with absolute certainty, but I think it was---and still is---called the Orpheum. Too bad Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury, who looked like they'd live forever, are not here to ask about it, because in a wonderful interview also including Forrest Ackerman included on a DVD of Harryhausen tidbits from his youth (his Fairy Tale films, etc.), Bradbury elucidates that Broadway---the street this was near, but this is Broadway in downtown L.A.---was once the nerve center of the city. He said it was lined with movie theaters, and there was all kinds of shopping and teeming activity there. It's also the street where the famous (at least, locally, it is---or was, anyway) cafeteria, Clifton's, was located.

7:15 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two with Craig Reardon on L.A., Hollywood, and surrounding environs, then and now:

I'm happy to say that Clifton's is still open, continuously for God-knows how many years, and that a youthful developer is restoring it to health, and even adding a room that he found old blueprints and architectural plans for in the offices of the building that were never realized. He liked them so much that HE'S going to 'realize' them. You know, or maybe you don't (?), that like many aged cities, L.A. has slowly begun to revitalize itself. Hollywood came back to life, BIG time---it used to be dead (mostly) at night when I was a young man living nearby. I was born too young for the revival it's experienced---now, the night life there all week, especially Friday and Saturday, is startling. Packed. (Yet, what comes back to life in one area is sometimes reflected by a reverse trend in other areas, curiously enough. Elegant and wonderful Westwood, near UCLA, was a certain go-to area when I was a young man, for 'trawling', or for taking your 'catch' (i.e., your date!) to dinner, or out for drinks, or to a movie. Believe it or not, it's almost a ghost town right now. The landlords must've cranked up the rents higher than the trade can bear. Hopefully it, too, will experience a rebirth. I have many, many happy memories associated with Westwood, while ironically very few with downtown Hollywood during that period of my life (though I do have some happy memories of Hollywood when I was a child, and in my early 'teens, before its notable decline in the late '60s and all through the '70s and much of the '80s.) Boy, I really got sidetracked there---as usual! One thing leads to another. Many an old theater has survived by booking live acts, and these days that mostly translates to boring (to me) rock 'n' roll groups I've mostly never heard of, or vulgar stand-up "comics". There's a surviving member of the once vast and elegant Fox chain in the city of Pomona, where a friend of mine has staged many film 'tributes', some of which I've been pleased to participate on, and yet this theater survives almost exclusively on rock music. Same thing for the astonishing Wiltern on Wilshire and Western (hence the name).

7:16 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon adds some data regarding another L.A. landmark and its connection with the longest operating Science Fiction Society:

Hi John,

Pleased as always that you saw fit to append my comments to the reactions on your interesting posting about newsreel theaters, truly creatures of their day. Dan Mercer's is much more informative, but every little bit---perhaps---provides additional reader interest.

I did want to ask if you would consider adding something I obviously forgot when I banged out that communique, and that is the significance of Clifton's Cafeteria to genre fans, in that it was the meeting place in the 1930s of the world's first science fiction club (as far as I know), the L.A. Science Fiction Society---or, at least the longest-operating one. [Yes---see:] And, three members---at least---who became celebrated in their separate bailiwicks were Forrest J Ackerman, Ray Bradbury, and Ray Harryhausen. They all would meet together in what I want to say---with my memory, I have to qualify everything!---'The Green Room', which was a kind of fabulous room with real growing things all over the place. This is the same room in which those gentlemen taped their ca. 2003 reunion and talk which was taped and included on the collectible DVD I referred to ("Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years".) Here's a site all about Clifton's, which is being restored as I 'speak':

7:42 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016