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Friday, July 20, 2018

Where The Stage Is The Show


Greetings Gate --- Here Comes Colonna!




The Chicago Theatre had variously 3,500 to 3,880 seats. It is still there and a supreme monument for picture houses the way they used to be. The place would open early (9 AM as here) and run late into the night. Bills were loaded with live entertainers to which a movie was often incidental. Most of patronage went to see the headliner and got impatient with screen fare they'd have to sit through two or three times in order to see the live entertainment over and over. Some would plant themselves in a seat and stay all day. Balaban and Katz owned the Chicago and other "Wonder Theatres." Both partners ended up running film companies, most notably Barney Balaban as longtime Paramount chief. Nobody knew the business like former exhibitors. The program here is Jerry Colonna ("You Crazy Or Sumpin?"), stooge-run-wild for Bob Hope and 40's definition of "zany." Colonna introduced more catchphrases into culture than we'll ever document, at least one I still use ("Greetings Gate") to nonplussed response. Whatever fat money Jerry earned was not from Bob (did anybody get into chips with Bob?), but from half-of-house terms he and other big names would exact for filling such vast caverns. Premises nut could be ruinous lest you load seats, as in all of them, overhead a monster to haunt sleep of management. A lure the stature of Colonna was essential to maintain lines at the door. They'd sure not come by this many thousands to see An Innocent Affair over three-weeks between late November 1948 and mid-December.




Continuous shows through days that continued into weeks was tax upon any artist's endurance, the unspooling feature an only opportunity to eat, lie down, tend to personal business. Coal miners had it easier than Colonna when he did stints like this, however sweet the pay-off. Hosting theatres often went with flow of audience demand. Bandman Tex Beneke, who traveled with the wildly popular Glenn Miller group,  would recall doing "six to eight shows a day" at presentation houses. "They were ... cutting out the feature movies and were just running short subjects in between our shows." Glenn Miller felt sorry for kids who sat in the theatre all day and "wouldn't leave." He'd arrange for box lunches to be distributed among them at his own expense. Fans grew to hate dull movies they had to sit through repeatedly for further dose of favorite performers. Many showmen would not take a feature on percentage basis because of split made with the live artists. For as much as the screen program mattered, even flat rates, low ones, were no bargain. We could wonder how many patrons left these Colonna shows singing praise for An Innocent Affair, or even a recall of having seen it.

7 Comments:

Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

So the question is why the theatre owners didn't toss the movie all together when they had a headliner? They could have scheduled an hour break between shows and cleared the theatre. Dedicated fans would have paid more than one admission and could have avoided sitting through the movie. The theatre owners would have saved on the film rental.

11:35 AM  
Blogger kenneth Von Gunden said...

Just guessing.... The studios (the NYC banks, rather) would probably not look favorably on venues that large in important markets that stiffed them. Of course, if they owned the theaters themselves it was one hand passing money to the other. But SOMEONE in the movie end had to complain, I'm almost sure, to ring box-office markers.
The Wolf, man.

1:36 PM  
Blogger williampl7 said...

Saw Red Skelton perform at the Chicago Theater in 1990. Great show in a beautiful palace.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

Or maybe it was a matter of audiences being conditioned to expect continuous performances and the freedom to stay beyond "This is where I came in". Would they have abandoned a house that enforced one showing per ticket? Did any theaters do so, beyond genuine big hard-ticket shows?

4:59 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

Jerry Colonna. My grandfather would just about fall on the floor laughing at the mere mention of his name. I've heard plenty of him on old radio shows, but have never really gotten him. That is, he rarely strikes my funny bone, certainly not in the same way he struck my grandfather's.

My parents and grandparents all came from small towns, so would have had no experience with live stage shows accompanying the movie. My grandfather's main memory was of pictures working their way down to their little small town theatre long after their debut in the big city movie palaces, often in prints that were beginning to look more than a little battered.

He used to laugh about a running gag on the sitcom THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, that the theatre in the tiny community in the hills the Clampetts came from was so far down the list that they were still getting silent pictures. Talkies hadn't worked their way that far down yet. He used to say you couldn't really appreciate that unless you had the experience of living in places so small that the latest movie opening at the local Bijou was "that old thing? I saw that ages ago" to people in the city.

9:06 PM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

My first movie theater memory, in November 1954 at just 4 years old, is the Paramount Theatre in NYC. To this day, I could tell you where I was sitting while watching Jackie Gleason and the Honeymooners and a neighbor dancing with the June Taylor dancers. Research shows that the movie was DRUM BEAT with Alan Ladd but it's the stage show that has lasted in my memory. My first and only one. The NYT ad shows the program starting at 8am with the last complete show at midnight.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Holy cow, Jerry Colonna and Jimmy Durante were two of my favorites whenever they appeared on TV in the '60s. Along with Jack Benny, guaranteed to have me falling off my chair laughing.

Couldn't help noticing the other live act in the top ad: Bert Wheeler and Rose Marie! If you haven't seen the new documentary about Rose Marie yet, you're missing out on something fascinating. Anyone who called Capone "Uncle Al" as a child had a hell of a life.

5:56 PM  

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