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Monday, June 09, 2014

Have Yourself A Laffinest Laff Show


When Moviegoing Was One Big Joke

What a great idea was Laffmovie! A theatre, eventually four of them, operating on all-comedy basis in Boston, Baltimore, and flagship-base 42nd Street, where owner James Mage ground out yoks nineteen-hour-per-day. The NY house opened on 4 July 1942, Mage's guess (correct) that war-weary filmgoers could use more mirth. To that goal, he'd book a feature, short/cartoons in quantity support, with turnover every two hours. If you had a favorite comic, he/she was surefire to turn up, and often. Didn't matter how far back the stuff dated: a Chaplin Keystone from 1914 could accompany a latest Three Stooge, and the late 40's saw revival of the Ritz Brothers in The Gorilla, Laurel and Hardy as The Flying Deuces, Blockheads, or per ad above, The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup. Of course, kids came in abundance. Management hung fun house mirrors in the lobby, the kind you could look into and be distorted. Lots were already that way upon entering, particularly late at night, Laffmovie having to ditch initial round-clock policy because bums were using seats to flop till dawn.

The 12/26/42 Laffmovie Line-Ups
NY's 42nd Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue, was called "The Biggest Movie Center In The World." Where else could boast ten theatres on a single block? All were grind-driven, "shooting galleries" as Rialto manager Arthur Mayer called them, and product was fought over like scraps by dogs. Most all was oldie stuff --- Variety estimated that, for instance, Scarface and German-made M had played thirty to forty times on 42nd Street during the 40's. It paid to specialize then, and Laffmovie made sure theirs was Laffin' Place to walk-ins off the Main Stem. Groups of people, even husband/wives, would start down sidewalks, splitting up as they passed marquees so that each could see fare preferred, then regroup upon respective exit. Mage guarded the Laffmovie brand against interlopers. He couldn't stop them from showing comedies, but he could sure prevent unauthorized use of the Laffmovie name, and did, in court, on several occasions.

Copycat Chicago Tries Its Own Laffin' Variant
Although it was designated a subsequent house, the Laffmovie did on at least one occasion host a World Premiere, most notably for Monogram's Bringing Up Father in November 1946, to which the film's cast and Mono brass attended. The Laffmovie's success in Gotham would see two locations there, plus expansion to Boston in 11/44 (and later Baltimore), opening with prices scaled to a quarter's high. That brought kids, and parents wanting to drop kids. Management actually checked youth in the lobby with tags so that Mom/Dad could claim them later like overcoats or hats. "A competent matron" would watch children even if they weren't going in for the show, Laffmovie's hope that good will would inspire grown-ups to return and attend shows as a family. Straight serve of comic menu at Laffmovie meant "no trailers, no distraction, from entertainment," said manager William Grew, who'd countenance no lull to laffs. In fact, the Laffmovie kept records of crowd reaction to each and every comedy they played. When New York's venue celebrated a Tenth Anniversary in 1952, staff reviewed the 10,000 shorts, cartoons, and features run over a past decade in order to select eleven judged funniest for the birthday fete. NY's Laffmovie would become the Empire Theatre in 1954.

3 Comments:

Blogger Jeff Hitz said...

Chicago's Rialto committed an unpardonable sin in their poster, advertising Shivering Sherlock (sic) as a Curly film. I wonder how many film goers wound up disappointed back then.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

The Laffmovie was a big deal in downtown Boston. It was the former B. F. Keith vaudeville theater, and just before it went all-comedy, it was known as the Normandie. Two weeks out of each year, the management covered up the Laffmovie sign and put up a temporary Normandie sign for legal reasons: they had to do business as the Normandie two weeks annually in order to keep the rights to the Normandie name). Imagine the confusion when a patron expected to see Laurel & Hardy and Edgar Kennedy, and wound up seeing some British dramatic feature.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

Great piece, John. I "grew up" on 42nd Street in the 50s-60s and I believe I saw my first Chaplin at LaffMovie. Is there any way for me to save the article in my electronic scrapbook. "Save as...." doesn't seem to work. Thanks. Jerry

10:58 AM  

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