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Saturday, August 08, 2009

A Bottomless Treasure Trove

I’m here to propose theatre ads as a Great American Art Form. I’m not talking posters or lobby cards. Those were mass-produced and sent around to theatres nationwide. Besides, they were recognized long ago for aesthetic qualities we appreciate by way of thousands spent bidding on rarer ones. I speak of and celebrate those humble promotions decorating newspaper pages now yellowed with age. Civilians would notice them no more than grocery sales and attendant basted turkey art, but growing up for me was daily perusal of opener and holdover announcements, no two of which were ever the same. That’s what separated ads from one-sheet posters. Every one was different, and each reflected initiative and imagination of showmen who designed them. There were art shops for that in bigger houses, or district staff for the chains. Otherwise, a small exhibitor had early morning starts at preparing ads for afternoon or next morning editions. There were pressbooks to lend assist, replete with varied sizes to fit your advertising budget. Really creative managers shunned pre-prepared stuff for knowing better what their patrons wanted, constructing ads from the ground up and performing beautiful and individualistic feats as simply as you or I grill hamburger. Such was genius served fresh daily and discarded the next. Trade magazines recognized outstanding ads, but only insofar as they’d boost selling. No one lauded the work itself. They still haven’t. Am I nuts to rave over neglected masterpieces such as random sampling shown here?

So much depended on ad rates. Newspapers less grabby enabled lavish displays for the town’s showplaces. You’ll find, for instance, better and larger ads in most New York tabloids than in the Times, for it was the latter charging highest rates for limited space. Our own newspaper was sufficiently expensive as to alienate Liberty management at a crucial 1963-64 juncture, resulting in no ads whatever for nearly a year. I’d been scissor-happy from kindergarten and cut ads from neighbor’s subscription copies as well as our own. Scrapbook results have come to the rescue of many a Greenbriar posting. There was a Seven Faces Of Dr. Lao display from the Winston-Salem Journal scotch-taped to my desk in fourth grade, intended to remain until the Liberty’s playdate enabled classmates to see it. My efforts at promotion on George Pal/ Metro’s behalf was frustrated, however, by teacher intervention, and future ad preparation was limited to bookings for my imaginary Parkland Theatre, its bill-of-fare reflecting impossible childish dreams of shows unlikely to play within real-life reach.

I’ve sat down with exhibitors and stacks of amazing ads they tore off like daily duties (and that they were). If you do a thing often enough, you'll become good at it, and boy, did these guys get practice at art they perfected. Ideas were shared and bongos were quick to alert others of ones that worked. Let someone in Ohio dream up novel slants for all-night horror shows, and flyers he’d printed would head south for colleagues to emulate. Imagery of laughing heads, border encircling cartoon icons, and vampires springing out of graves became familiar sights, as one for all, all for one management forwarded arresting layouts to houses featuring similar programs. It was good business for everyone in exhibition to succeed, and not uncommon for key art from one film to bleed into ads for another. A singularly good tag line might sell half-a-dozen monster movies over time. The particularly ferocious Werewolf In A Girl’s Dormitory head shot was utilized for any number of dusk-to-dawn hooror-thons, and it mattered not if they actually included Werewolf In A Girl’s Dormitory among offerings. American-International had some of the best art going, especially their chiller stuff. Exhibitors cribbed it to a point where Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff issued warnings against theatre usage of AIP imagery to sell other company’s product.

Ads like these transport us closer to vintage moviegoing than we'll ever get otherwise. I like dissecting those with lots of detail and policy stuff. Live acts add flavor as well. Lurid come-ons were there from early on and naturals for programming aimed at youth. I wonder how many shows I've come across that promise To Scare The Yell Out Of You. Maybe 50’s juvenile delinquency became the problem it was because of all-night drive-ins celebrating hooliganism on screen. Those ads practically invited kids to tear the joint down. I’m like a pig in mud whenever old piles of newspapers present themselves. You might imagine best ads coming out of big towns, but as even tiny hamlets had theatres in those days, yokel gazettes printed movie sections often the inventive equal of anything urban sheets offered. There might be two or a handful of poster styles for a given major title, but there are thousands of ad variations for that same feature in surviving newspapers, in fact, as many as there were bookings. Consider too that most theatres advertising daily prepared multiple styles for pages up to opening. The way films were sold varied wildly from one community to the next. Ads generated at a manager’s desk reflected his/her personality and no one else’s. They’d monkey with billing and emphasize aspects of a show that exhibs twenty miles down the road wouldn’t dream of. Stars rose and fell in local courts of management opinion long before said status became apparent to employers back in Hollywood. Showmen were closer to cash customers and thus way ahead of the curve. They recorded an industry's progress (or lack of) through ads that were like ticker tape memorializing success and failure. Newspaper advertising is the richest untapped vein of picture history I know of. It’s frustrating in a way because you know you can never see a fraction of what’s out there, no matter how dedicated your search. To post this handful at Greenbriar is to place mere drops upon a vast ocean, but I’ll court the futility of same by revisiting ads from time to time, reassured perhaps by knowledge that we’ll never run out of them.


Blogger JAMES said...

Love to see the ads you display. I learned the "art" of theater ad preparation in my early teens from a seasoned smalltown showman. I was eventually allowed to do all the theater's newspaper ads. Rarely did I just use a press sheet ad. I enjoyed creating my own. Often it paid off quite noticeably at the boxoffice. My showman boss bragged that I could make a hit out of a bomb. Well, if it was a good movie that had mediocre advertising elsewhere I could make it more interesting. I would love to share some of my "artwork" with you but my scrapbooks were lost in a move years ago. I shall try to describe one of the ads though. The ads Universal had for SEND ME NO FLOWERS were not very interesting.
However, in the NSS pressbook there were some scene stills of DORIS DAY in her night clothes, locked out of her house when the wind slammed the door shut as she was retrieving the morning paper, milk and eggs. Her robe was caught in the door, her feet in fuzzy slippers had stepped on eggs and then on leaves, funny mess.
I used those photos as the centerpiece of the opening day ad.
I also operated theaters on Army bases at which I was stationed in the early 1960s. I made ads for the base newspaper (no cost) and made mini-posters out of pressbook ads and Boxoffice Magazine material to place on barrack and rec room bulletin boards. Not only was business improved over previous management I was able to use my creative side, something the Army did its best to discourage in soldiering. So, a thank you to you for sharing your love for this "art". James

6:56 PM  
Anonymous Bufffilmbuff said...

I also enjoyed this piece, especially the hand made ads you did as a kid. I did similar things at that age though I was trying for the roadshow type pix... "Today at 8 p.m., Reserved Seats now on Sale... In Superama 70mm and Stereophonic Sound." One of the many things your site documents so well is that often the hype and promotion is much more fascinating that the films themselves. Thanks as always for this great site.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I just love it when you post these newspaper ads..I used to love going thru the weekend paper as a kid to see if there were any Monster movies playing!I remember the AIP and Hammer ads well..Often when the family would go out on the town on a saturday,we'd take the movie section along to scour for suitable things to see..

5:19 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Glad to hear from others who enjoy vintage ads. Just found a few more I'll not resist putting up ... probably tomorrow.

11:38 AM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

show the one decent fight or special effects shot and/or the heroine implying she's going to remove something.

Now they play Carmen Burina or whatever it is and offer rapid fire shots of just about anything to imply intensity. With this approach you could make Mr. Rogers look like a summer blockbuster.

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is one facet of great old movies I caught on to 50 years folks would always save the entertainment section of the paper, and I loved to see the ads with their great graphics...many many years later I was lucky enough to buy some bound volumes of the Toledo Blade from the 20s, 30s and 40s. They were a treasure trove of great ads from great theatres, long lost. I have since framed several collages of them and even use them in scans for one of my theatre opener trailers. When I owned my own historic theatre, I had the local newspaper re-create an old time logo for my theatre advertising. Exploitation is a long-lost art when it comes to bringing classics back!
E. Chase
Lyric Photoplay Society
Toledo, Ohio
Running classic films now in 3 venues: Collingwood Arts Center, Maumee Theatre and Toledo Zoo Theatre

7:06 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I really love ads. Either the ones from newspaper and posters.

I'm happy to be able to be a contributor at Carteles Metropoliglobal. Many posters from Sweden in particular are simply terrific.

But I also love to find artwork done in my native Argentina. And thanks to friends in Buenos Aires, we were able to save a few ads from the local newspapers as well.

1:30 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Once you hit on a cute angle, showmanship is lots of fun. In the mid-1980s I found an original print of Laurel & Hardy's THE FLYING DEUCES and it was up to me to ballyhoo what is still the most commonplace L & H feature out there. How could I promote this as something special when everybody had already seen it?

Here's what I did. Fortunately for me, GONE WITH THE WIND and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA had just played theaters in reissue, and that became my angle. I used the same typography for those titles. The copy went something like: "First came the restored edition of GONE WITH THE WIND in 35mm... then came the enhanced LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in 70mm... Now! See THE FLYING DEUCES in 16mm! Restored print!" (Which was technically true: it was an Astor reissue print and I put the original RKO titles back on it!) "Forget the bad bootleg prints with the murky picture and the hissy sound! THIS is the way to see it!"

My turnout was way beyond my expectations, which only goes to show that if YOU think the show is special, other people probably will, too.

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Griff said...

Scott, you are indeed a showman! I salute you.

1:10 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Wow, Bill Robinson and Ella Fitzgerald live on stage! Boy, I'd have sat through something a lot worse than In Old California to see that!

1:06 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Love these ads. Great post.

7:59 AM  
Blogger Erik Weems said...

Designer/historian Leslie Cabarga produced five volumes of "Deco advertising art" which features predominately 30s era movie house advertising. Intended for graphic designers, the reproduction is printing quality line art with solid blacks. These magazine-style booklets are out of print but are well worth finding, it looks like the stuff was collected from Los Angeles area newspapers (Gauman's Chinese Theatre ads, for example).

I understand the pull on seeing the newspaper ads: I used to climb the fence at night to the local dump where I knew the news delivery guys junked whatever they couldn't sell/deliver. I'd rip the entertainment section sheets out so I could scissor monster movie and sci-fi movie ads for my scrapbook.

Since it was the Washington DC area in the 1970s, the Wash Post and Wash Star were still duking it out, and there were at least a dozen drive-ins still around, plus the indoor theatres, all competing sometimes with the same films, but with differing ads - it was informative stuff for a kid determined to learn every tidbit of info about films he mostly wouldn't get a chance to see.

2:09 PM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

Hi John! Terrific PLACE, THIS IS! it seems I'm not alone out here happily addicted to old newspaper MOVIE ADs ! To return to the grand old theatres w/ GREATEST FILMS EVER To revisit a WORLD of DELIGHTS that beat out Disneyland(SOUTHERN CAL)VISITS, ANYTIME! PLEASE, MORE OF THE SAME! thanks again!

10:43 PM  

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