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Monday, March 17, 2014

It Was Happening In Kansas City ...


The Showman King Who Gave Disney A Start

Disneyphiles know the story of teenaged Walt getting his first pro job as screen cartoonist for the Newman theatre in Kansas City. That was 1920, not long after the 2,000 seat luxury house opened (June 1919). Frank L. Newman had dealt film to KC patronage since nickelodeons. His Royal Theatre was a 1913 bid for elegance that would silence criticism of fleabag nickel houses. By 1920 when Disney approached, Mr. Newman was #1 Exhib, his named-after-self "Newman" a downtown palace among Kansas City pic-sites. Like Disney, this was a young man, not yet thirty, but a big showman noise and someone Walt was proud to be associated with. In fact, the Newman Laugh-O-Grams, two minute or so cartoons spun off local happenings, made WD something of a local celebrity. Frank Newman would be remembered best for this early boost of a celebrated filmmaker to come, but what of future accomplishments and continuing success of the Newman Theatre?


Greenbriar came upon a load of Newman ads from the precode era, each a bull's-eye at showmanship and mirror to selling on hometown level. As with Laugh-O-Grams, the Newman staff spun off KC events and used same for lure to ticket windows. Case in point from late May of 1933: "The First motion pictures of Mary McElroy's sensational kidnaping (sic)" as accompany to International House at the "Cooled By Refrigeration" Greater Newman. So far as Kansas City interest went, sensational was an understatement. Mary was the daughter of a local political boss who'd been nabbed from her bubble bath by a quartet of masked thugs wielding a sawed-off shotgun. A feisty gal (age 25), Mary told abductors she was "worth more" when informed the ransom would be $60K. Twenty-nine hours a captive and let go for a negotiated-down-to $30,000 (there was a Depression, after all), Mary was cause celebre among KC citizenry. The gang got rounded up (although one got away) and put to rock piles. Mary made visits and brought gifts to the miscreants, but her ordeal had worked a serious unhinge. Opium and ultimate self-shot to the head saw her out in 1940. Quite a story ... there's plenty of books and articles about it.


The Newman, like other theatres at grassroot selling, spoke to how their customers saw stars on a way up or down. Management would listen to patron comments and incorporate local-held opinion into ads. Note the promo for Clara Bow's newest, 1930's True To The Navy, where it's promised that "She's thinner, slimmer, peppier, and hotter'n ever." Was this Newman response to community complaint of the "It Girl" hefting up? Bad publicity had bedeviled Bow, some recent photos less than flattering. The Newman may have been trying to head off expectation that Clara had lost her It. Then there was clever emphasis on "body of a siren ... yet cursed with the soul of a wild beast" Kathleen Burke as Topic A of Island Of Lost Souls. Further appeal to precode sensibility was bawdy "If Your Wife Eats Crackers In Bed ... if she still takes ice after you have bought an electric refrigerator ... bring your case to William Powell in Lawyer Man." Ads could be as cheeky as shows they pushed, and where home-writ copy was concerned, it was every manager for himself. The Newman just happened to hire some of the cleverest.

1 Comments:

Blogger Mike Cline said...

As the song goes, "Everything's up to date in Kansas City. They've gone about as far as they can go."

11:49 AM  

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