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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Putting Up A Great Front

Broadway's Rialto Celebrates Sherlock Holmes

Behold the above masterpiece of front design and marvel that such artistry was taken down and replaced on week or bi-week basis while Broadway's Rialto Theatre was operated by "Merchant Of Menace" Arthur Mayer, the Harvard-graduate showman best of all at his job and known industry-wide for it. Mayer didn't limit to exhibition, being analyst (his many trade columns), historian (a memoir, Merely Colossal, in 1953), and teacher/lecturer at USC, Stanford, Dartmouth, others. He'd begun at '07 graduation, worked Indiana theatres and later for Sam Goldwyn, was tabbed by Paramount to oversee publicity, cooked up the "Panther Woman" search for Island Of Lost Souls among varied stunts. Mayer ran the Rialto for bosses before assuming venue lease and splitting profits with Para for time left (to November 1935). After that, he knocked down the old Rialto, rebuilt from ground up, and took further lease of twenty years. From this, it was Mayer policy what prevailed, being thrill, horror, far-est out exploitation. The Rialto was first-run address of most Universal chillers from 1936 to fade of the cycle, Mayer according them balm of B'way open as singles, with fronts-of-house to set pace for others emulated, but never surpassed.

Ad space sold high as kites in NY dailies, so Mayer put his dollars on the street, where passerbys could be lured by siren tune of ghouls within. Universal's Sherlock Holmes group was strictly B, played beneath larger fish in urban markets, but The Scarlet Claw ran lone at the Rialto, a berth we fans would accord any Universal favorite, but which theatres too-seldom did when pics were new. Here was premiere of The Scarlet Claw on Broadway, in a spot seating 594, admission from forty to eighty-five cents, depending on showtime, and age of patronage. You could enter the Rialto from the street or a subway platform below. Shows ran to 4 AM, per sign at paying window. It sometimes played round the clock, Rialto being habitat for nightcrawlers. Gunshots could and did go off in the auditorium to faint reaction, crowds inured to mayhem on or off the screen.

Mainstream critics always condescended to success that was Rialto's, Mayer playing along as bemused intellect dialed down to primitive taste of his mob. He fed quips to popular press and saved nut/bolt of Rialto routine for trade reportage. Columns by Mayer are primer on how to sell hard and maximize biz. He likely did better off The Scarlet Claw than anyone else that used it. His two-week mid-May 1944 stand got $9K for a first frame, $6K the second ("upper brackets," said Variety). More dough was presumably dropped for War Bonds --- note extensive front-of-house pitching for those. "First Time On Any Screen" presumes a World Premiere, any thrill product in safest hands at the Rialto. The many 8X10 stills on display are unprotected, and I wonder how many were filched by fans bit young by collecting bug. Daily inventory must have revealed a gap or three to be replenished. Rialto's kept-busy art-shop had hands full at image blow-ups (that giant claw! --- Paul Cavanagh's head!), and yes, yes, yes, we must Buy More Bonds.

Sherlock Holmes was singularly exploitable because you could sell him for mystery or outright horror, depending on need. Rialto's Holmes looks like a chillingest thriller, title claw's oversized reach for a shrinking maiden like sci-fi fiends of a next decade. Here was no deceptive advertising, for The Scarlet Claw did come closest to monster merchandise out of Universal, regarded to present day as scariest of their SH dozen. Grind policy at the Rialto meant continuous dirge of projectors for all of operating hours, walk-ins oblivious to "start times." The Scarlet Claw is at 74 minutes accompanied by Donald's Gold Mine from Disney-RKO and a Speaking Of Animals short out of Paramount, plus a newsreel. All were one-reel subjects, total runtime under thirty minutes. Donald's Gold Mine dated back two years, but may have missed Broadway during interim, Disney cartoons known for at-times circulating for long periods in smaller markets ahead of keys. Speaking Of Animals was a live-action series, save some backgrounds and mouth-movement of livestock, dogs, etc. animated by Tex Avery, concept creator and aboard for initial entries. A few can be accessed on line, but none seem available on DVD. The shorts were popular though, and known to theatregoers in same way as MGM's Pete Smith Specialties or the WB Joe McDoakes.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I did a tribute to Tex Avery last year that covered all aspects of his career from Lantz to Lantz to commercials. I found a couple of good sets on dvd of the SPEAKING OF ANIMALS shorts tho none were the few Tex did. When Tex broached the idea to Paramount they were not enthusiastic. Then he made a sample with a horned toad saying, "I don't care what you say. I'm horny." That did it tho' nothing that wild is on any of the films I have.

Now to find a copy of Arthur Mayer's book. Thanks again. I love people who know how to promote.

9:45 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Complicated cardboard standees (is that the historic word?), two 8x10 B&W photos under each poster (behind the glass), and the occasional banner are the only lobby enhancements this late boomer can remember.

Still see the occasional standee, but rarely an interesting one. The last attention-grabber was a gigantic fire hydrant for "Marmaduke", dominating the lobby of an affectedly upscale local cinema.

For a time there was a lot of amusing display material for video releases, since those could still be an impulse decision. Now it feels like display ballyhoo has migrated into supermarkets and retailers as part of product tie-ins.

7:30 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Boy, I would have loved to have gone dumpster diving outside the Rialto back then. I would have filled up the house with all sorts of junk. Oh yeah, I did that anyway.

I used to pass over the Sherlock Holmes Theater Thursday nights on WOR Channel 9 back in the sixties for reasons I don't remember. I was fortunate that when I finally gave one a shot it was 'The Scarlet Claw'. Some of the others drag a bit. I've been hooked on Holmes since.

8:18 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Imagine having a complete set of Rialto fronts on 8X10. THAT'S my idea of treasure.

Does such a thing exist?

8:23 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Arthur Mayer knew his crowd, and I'm happy to report that Laurel & Hardy were always welcomed at the Rialto. New release or oldie, didn't matter, the Rialto regulars ate 'em up. He also let the East Side Kids into his hallowed halls (Mayer had even invested in the series).

I recommend "Merely Colossal," and there's also a lengthy chapter on Mayer in the more recent book "The Real Tinsel." Here's a verbatim extract from "Merely Colossal":

As a result of the success of the East Side Kids pictures, their producer, Sam Katzman, was promoted to a high-salaried job with Columbia Pictures. One day I screened a fine film, at least fine by Rialto standards, with numerous sanguinary murders and no emphasis on the true and the beautiful. A hard-hearted salesman, however, said that I could not play it unless I also contracted for another Columbia gem, Sam Katzman's LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Such was the practice of distributors before block-booking was legally abolished. So I looked at the Katzman epic. To raise the price to the exhibitors, it had been made in color of some early vintage inspired by a lover of chromos. The faces of the performers were patches of crimson and green. The foliage was blue and strange streaks of orange and crimson vibrated occasionally across the passionate purple sky. The Mohicans were fresh out of Harlem and their canoes prominently displayed the Abercrombie & Fitch label. I protested to my old pal, Abe Montague, chief of Columbia's distribution, that although Rialto audiences were of a notably receptive and uncritical character, there was a limit to even their readiness to accept anything offered to them. All to no avail. Eventually I played the two pictures. The one I liked was, at best, mildly successful. My patrons adored LAST OF THE MOHICANS.

6:09 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I always considered "The Real Tinsel" to be one of the great interview collections. It was quite an exciting find back in 1970 at the long-gone Hinkle's Book Store in Winston-Salem, NC, this when far fewer movie books were available to choose from.

7:09 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon recalls some grand displays he encountered while growing up in L.A.(Part One):


Love your stuff.

The piece on the Rialto chimes with earlier pieces and wonderful photos of some of Universals out-and-out horror pictures. How much fun must it have been to see those displays in full color, beckoning you into the dark? Wow. I thought I had it good with "Weird, Weird World" on local channel 5, regurgitating the titles we all know all too well, one at at time, every Saturday afternoon in the greater L.A. area in the early '60s. But, our local theaters, though sometimes---rarely---indulging in some outdoor ballyhoo, usually stuck with posters. I do however recall some out-of-the-ordinary 'decorations' depending upon the picture. Universal provided card-paper birds to be suspended outdoors and in the lobby for our local run of "The Birds" in '63, which most certainly added to the sense of occasion and anticipation when I went to see it with a couple of 11-year old buddies. I was 10. I ran a bit younger in my crowd, having been skipped ahead for some reason I never understood, since I was not exactly a phenomenal scholar. I think it was a move our family made which put me out-of-synch with the elementary school in another portion of the city, as per their semesters. Whatever! Back to the POINT, we all enjoyed "The Birds", and we were NOT too young to 'get' the grammatical humor in its famous accompanying announcement, "'The Birds' is coming!" I don't know who actually cooked that one up, but Hitchcock was one director who was easily bright enough to get it and O.K. it. (But, what the hell happened with the next one in line, "Marnie"? I happen to actually like "Marnie", but I think you have to be a real Hitch loyalist.)

I also remember large stand-up cardboard profiles which were generally 'merely' knockoffs of the posters, to promote certain 'big' films their studios wished to present as 'special events', not mere movies alone. Even such relatively-forgotten features as Columbia's "Cromwell" got that treatment. Certainly the Bronston films, and I'm remembering "El Cid" for one, had such little (or, BIG) stand-up teasers. Oddly, I remember a small (like, foot-tall) couple of stand-up displays on the candy counter---help, John, what's the formal name for the all-important, profit-margin-creating candy counter? My brain gets stuck in gear too often now. The...oh, forget it. It's not coming. Anyway, even that could be and was used to plug movies. Hey! I have had a redeeming moment! The "concession" stand. Ah. I feel better now, even if you're left with a big "----"!

7:14 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:

Sad to say, when I quote the title, but an innocuous MGM comedy, back in the day when they were cranking out plenty of them, this one called "The Honeymoon Machine", had a fantastic three-dimensional cardboard-and-spit publicity replica of the 'wacky'-looking "machine" assembled and set up out in the foyer at the Inglewood Fox, during the run of that comedy in 1960, I guess it was (?) It had lights that blinked on and off, and may even have been slightly animated. Of course, this was during a day where you could sometimes walk into a supermarket or a liquor store and see animated, stand-up cardboard displays---sometimes also backlit---plugging beer or God-knows-what-else. It was a staple of advertising, and I'm struck by the fact that these approaches seem completely passé today, when I give it any thought. Hell, we kids in the neighborhood sometimes were able to successfully beg the proprietors of these businesses to GIVE us these displays, lock, stock and barrel, when they felt they didn't need them anymore. They'd wind up cluttering or rooms or garages 'till our mothers would finally pitch them! But, they were definitely distant cousins of Mr. Mayer's elaborate, dimensional theater displays you've featured here.

Incidentally, one of the actors featured as a 'big head' in the "Scarlet Claw" display had his last bow in a movie I worked on, myself. It's Ian Wolfe, the perpetual old man, who really was a very old man when he had a bit part (deliberately cast by movie-savvy producer/director Warren Beatty) in "Dick Tracy", which was shot in 1989 and released in 1990. I think it was also the last bow for Mike Mazurki, and just possibly (but I wouldn't swear to this) Henry Jones. Wonderful character actors to be sure. I definitely remember seeing Ian Wolfe on the set and thinking to myself, "Wait a minute; that guy sure looks familiar." It wasn't 'till much, much later that the coin dropped. Mazurki and Jones were also frankly unrecognizable in their latter years versus the way they'd looked in their respective movie heydays, but that's not their fault, it's the fault of being human. Age really does cloak the younger version.

I also enjoyed seeing the GREAT frame grabs of money-mad Donald Duck. Reminds me of another Donald. As for "Speaking of Animals", I'd love to see this short. As you of all people know, these gags bled into at least one Paramount 'classic' (depending upon one's point of view, I guess!), "The Road to Utopia", with a 'talking' fish and two talking bears. And I think a talking camel appeared in another one, which might have been "The Road to Morocco".


7:16 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

It's hard to imagine Mike Mazurki being unrecognizable!

The description of 'Last of the Mohicans' was so funny that I looked over at IMDB for it. But I couldn't find one produced by Sam Katzman. But I did find 'Last of the Redmen' (1947) based on 'Last of the Mohicans' filmed in Vitacolor, starring those two Native Americans, Buster Crabbe and Rick Vallin, as Magua and Uncas. Apparently it showed up on Encore Westerns last September.

All this talk of cardboard reminds me that I once had a cardboard Mercury Capsule that I could sit in. There was a control panel that consisted of a battery operated view of the earth that would spin around. There may have been a small light bulb also. I guess the folks tossed it when they thought I had outgrown it and I wasn't looking!

8:28 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

If Rick Vallin's in it, it's usually a Sam Katzman production. Vallin had given understated performances in two East Side Kids pictures. At Columbia, Vallin was called in again and again to bolster one of Katzman's cheapie productions. (Including the fabled 1955 serial ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN AFRICA, with Vallin made up to resemble stock shots of Gilbert Roland!)

7:44 PM  

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