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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

National Screen Service and Collecting Days Gone By

Forgive my drifting back to a collecting life long past, but these glimpses of the inner workings at National Screen Service call up a lot of treasure hunting memories. Imagine yourself standing at the counter shown here in the early sixties. I think I’ll have ten Vertigo one-sheets, four Rebel Without A Cause lobby sets, and about a dozen Forbidden Planet inserts, please. The nice man rings up your purchase --- That’ll be seventeen dollars, sir. The legend at the bottom says Return To National Screen Service, but a lot of theatres kept these posters. I’m sure I would have. Upon making my purchase, that venerable time machine would carry me to the present day where I’d realize around thirty-five grand for my NSS goodies, then back to the sixties I’d go for another load. The counter clerk would be thrice a millionaire had he carried home each night what they tossed in dumpsters each day. As it is, he probably earned fifty dollars a week and was happy to get it. These people worked in King Solomon’s mines without a clue as to riches surrounding them. A lot of National Screen retirees no doubt kick themselves every time Antiques Roadshow features some guy making thousands off a Frankenstein six-sheet he found lining a dresser drawer.

Moon Mullins was a fifty-year collector who lived in the town where I went to college. He would search ground and woods for Native American artifacts. His backyard museum made the Smithsonian look punk. Moon was also into movies. He built a theatre up the stairs from his indian relics. There was 16 and 35mm equipment, plus racks of film, nitrate and safety. I used to visit Moon’s all the time. We would go on road trips to search out attics and chicken houses for movie stuff. Scored a 35mm print of Laurel and Hardy’s Utopia in a tool shed thirty miles from the nearest stoplight. This is what collecting was like in North Carolina during the early seventies. Moon had a buddy who worked out of National Screen when they had a terminal in Charlotte. Every week he brought Moon a stack of posters and grocery bags filled with preview trailers on 35mm. This went on for years. Sometimes I’d stop by Moon’s on a summer day when it was a hundred degrees in the shade and he’d be cleaning nitrate film in a concrete storage bunker with his shirt off. All that alarmist stuff the American Film Institute put out about flammable stock was the bunk as far as Moon was concerned. Guys used to pull up in the yard sometimes and offer him features out of their station wagon. One had a 35mm print of The Searchers he offered to sell for fifty dollars, but Moon gave him the breeze. He figured it was hot, and besides, he didn’t know the guy. Ward Bond stopped in one day during the late fifties. Somebody had told him about Moon’s collection and he wanted to check it out. Moon was never star-struck. When Sunset Carson was down on his luck hosting a yokel UHF kiddie cowboy show, he hung around Moon’s to the point of getting on the man’s nerves.

There was a rival collector who lived not far from Moon. He had a mole at National Screen as well. Actually, Charlotte was full of depot loaders willing to liberate titles for a modest price. That’s how Homer wound up with hundreds of features stored above a singularly inhospitable pool room he operated. I gathered up three Warner cartoons and a 35mm Horror Of Dracula one night as Homer dispensed grilled burgers and cue sticks. The cost --- seventy-five dollars. Gone are the days. There was an old theatre downtown he had corrupted into a porn house. I saw Deep Throat there my freshman year. What a sad, forlorn place this was. Homer used to flush out drunks and somnambulants at closing time by putting on renegade prints of Sergeant York and Treasure Of The Sierra Madre he had bought years before from the old Dominant franchisee that handled WB reissues in 1956. Now they were chasers for porn flicks. I guess in a queer sort of way you could call it a repertory house, though I doubt Homer saw it in those terms. Legend tells of a time in the early sixties when he hosted a traveling Freaks show Dwain Esper was running through the Southeast after leasing the negative from Metro. The front of the theatre was dressed up like a fairground, and original cast members ballied on the street. The promotion had a real Nightmare Alley flavor about it. Daisy and Violet Hilton got stranded when Esper split with the receipts. Word is they ended up working for a grocer in Charlotte. One checked and the other bagged. Pretty sensible arrangement when you’re Siamese twins …

Didn’t mean to digress so far from National Screen, for their story is an amazing one and largely unknown today. These folks never got into the film history books, but there were 1200 employees nationwide, and they produced trailers, posters, and most accessories for virtually every movie released in the US. Their warehouses had to service titles going back at least ten years. Movies remained in service long after their initial release. Drive-ins would pay flat rentals for four or five oldies a week to fill in double and triple programs. Our own Starlite Drive-In finally got Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra in 1964, but who would have dreamed they’d back it up with 1937's Way Out West as a second feature? I remember my sister coming home from the Starlite one night in 1974 after seeing Red River (1948). Two weeks later they ran The Outlaw! National Screen was called upon to provide paper and ad art for all these. It’s a miracle they generated so much product in-house (many of the posters were actually created by lithograph companies outside of NSS). The artists and letterers shown here came up with those neat graphics we see on old prevues, and check out these austere working quarters --- to think some of the most stunning poster art of the twentieth century originated from places like this. Elderly ladies like the one seated here at the rewinds were responsible for inspecting trailers when they came back from runs. Of course, a lot of these were never returned. One time Moon and I checked out an old theatre in Gaffney, SC where the guy had a roomful of trailers, and was willing to sell. I came across a 35mm original release preview for Curse Of The Demon there. When the man said he wanted five dollars for it, Moon snatched the film out of my hand, loudly declaring that no trailer was worth over fifty cents. I was thirty years before seeing that trailer anyplace else. As for posters, check out these NSS staffers as they file away inventory. When the Charlotte branch closed, they hauled every bit of content to a landfill. Policy dictated that none of it be sold or given away. This was years ago. Someone with a transfer truck and a stout back could have put themselves by way of a lifetime annuity that day. Of course, the memorabilia would not be so valuable today if these people had exhibited greater foresight then.


Blogger convict 13 said...

Thanks again for such an excellent blog, where do you get all the time? Much Appreciated.

6:36 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

My first job out of college was working for a movie theatre chain in Boston. One of my tasks was picking up the posters and trailers at the local NSS and delivering them to the theatres. The NSS guys were friendly, always ready with the joke, but refused to slip any posters my way -- and they still had stuff going back to the '40s.

7:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your personal anecdotes along with insights on the business of film distribution and publicity show how film appreciation extends to many levels. Although not rising to the level of the adventures of an Indiana Jones (I don’t expect there are “life or death” efforts to obtain items – but wouldn’t someone wish they were in a position to endure the burns suffered if they could have pulled Rosebud out of the fire!), the stories and remembrances of collectors of the past decades dealing with the disposable aspects of what it is to create and market films (and what they were able to save) add to the cultural history of this form of art, information and entertainment. Thanks for sharing!

11:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Lucas said...

The second photo in your NSS blog shows National Screen Service artists designing promotional title cards for HERCULES and ALIAS JESSE JAMES. It wasn't until I enlarged the photo that my eyes really bugged out: the artist who's working on the painting of the mountaintop temple with the clouds is designing the actual title sequence of the Joseph E. Levine release of HERCULES. The original title sequence was a red velvet, gold letters and columns affair; Levine wanted something more dynamic and got an animated title sequence exclusive to the US. I had no idea it was created by National Screen Service... and here's the artist actually working on it! A real scoop, John!

2:05 PM  
Blogger The 'Stache said...

John, a great post. It's like taking a film history course reading your blog — and no tests! Thanks so much. I'd never even heard of the NSS.

8:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks as always for the nice comments, folks, and may I salute your eagle eye, Tim, with regards those "Hercules" credits, which was an aspect of this photo I had not altogether appreciated!

1:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey John. It's Geoff. I remember going on that late evening raid with you on Homer's film stash at his pool hall storage room ---- porn films in shipping cans were stacked from floor to ceiling on all sides of us. (If we had bumped into a stack, we could have ended up buried under a pile of 40-pound film cans --- collecting could be dangerous!) It was a miracle you found that Horror Of Dracula print in amongst all that porn --- a real 'needle-in-a-haystack' ! Years later, as you may recall, Homer sold that entire room full of prints to a guy in Australia. They loaded them onto a freight train in Hickory, NC, shipped them to California, and then onto a boat to the 'land-down-under'. That Horror Of Dracula could have ended up in a porn house in Australia if you had not liberated it. Ah, those thrilling days of film collecting gone by. I miss it.

1:43 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...


I did a newspaper article on R.E. "Moon" Mullins when I briefly worked for the Hickory Daily Record in the 1970s. I had been accepted to grad school on the G.I. Bill at ASU in Boone but could not afford the out-of-state tuition. My parents still lived in town, so my wife, our two kids and I moved in with them for a year until I became an in-state resident again. I spent some wonderful hours with Moon, his wife and Carson when he was in town doing shows out of WHKY-TV. I'm semi-retired and live in Ventura, CA, now. Being a long-time B-movie and cliffhanger fan, I've often wondered what happened to Moon's film collection. BTW, I recently attended the 75th Anniversary Celebration of Republic Pictures at their old digs in Studio City. Spelling sold them to Paramount and they are back at CBS Studio Center. They were one of the first places I visited when I moved to SoCal in 1994. They were in a warehouse on Beatrice Street in south LA at the time.


PS. Whatever happened to Ghost Town in Maggie Valley. Sunset had an interest in that, as I remember.

6:02 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey Chuck --- Thanks a lot for these memories of knowing Moon. He and I were friends for years ... he took me all over North and South Carolina to meet other collectors. If you get a chance, e-mail me. I'd like to know more about your experiences in Hickory ...

9:05 AM  

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