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Friday, January 25, 2019

Glimpse Back At What We Won't Get Back

Where Carolina Showgoing Had A Glow On

Seems to me that the older generation felt way more intensely about movies than we ever could. Photos like these suggest reasons why. First off, let’s agree that they simply had it better. Never mind if films then were superior to ones of a past fifty years, an argument to run in circles so long as there are minds to differ. But can we stipulate that going to theatres was a richer experience? Sampling here is 'nuff to neutralize argument to the contrary. I have a friend, now nearing ninety, who told of The Black Swan plus Marine recruits in stage drill, plus live swing, plus vaude acts of infinite range --- to which I pathetically propose The Gorgon with Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb among my treasured moments. Want to be humbled? Go visit what’s left of fans that grew up in the forties or early fifties. I’m drifting off specific topic of these photos, all from Cabarrus County in North Carolina. Cabarrus is home to Concord and Kannapolis, satellite towns increasingly drawn into force field that is rapid-expanding Charlotte. They were small bergs with large showman spirit, as is vivid here. Every day was eventful for these sites. Want to sell The Ghost of Frankenstein by mobile means? Put a dummy on a bike and let your ersatz Groucho peddle him about town, preferably by schools as they’re letting out. Where’s the sense of Grouch as chauffeur to the F monster? None I’d guess, unless the costume was left over from previously-promoted The Big Store. Small matter, for look who’s coming soon, and in person. To bicycle owners as parked out front, there was no bigger name than Bill Elliot. They would rather have seen him than Ty Power, Robert Taylor, and Paul Muni in tandem. I met several exhibitors that hosted Wild Bill at NC venues. A nicer guy never was, according to all (not so Ken Maynard, but we’ll pass that). But who, you’ll ask, were the Rodrick Twins, performing in support of Elliot? Might be locals, however way I found no online reference to them.

Here was an era when aluminum scraps could buy your way into brought-back The Blue Bird, once only at 3:30, time enough to race home from your red brick schoolhouse, gather admission from Dad’s (or someone else’s) tool shed, and make fleet way to air-conditioned comfort where what would otherwise be junk is now ticket to Shirley Temple and Bob Hope, assuming management doesn’t clear seats after The Blue Bird. Youth was encouraged by all media to help in the war effort. Junior armies sprung from everywhere. We’ve forgotten what aluminum translated to on battlefields, but I bet then-boys knew. It’s been told/retold how theatres were community centers, especially in wartime. Something intense going on all the time. Is that a truck backed up on the left to receive the first offering? The photographer waited until the crate was full up before snapping. Onlookers appear as though this was routine occurrence … still, they’d congregate at theatre fronts because something was always happening there. Just the people in and out was enough to engage, and who knew what nutty stunt might roll out the front entrance and take to streets.

Again with the bicycles, only now it’s 1959. And Concord kids still trust neighbors with their bicycles. When did it become necessary to put locks on bikes? May we date cultural collapse to such turning point? Leaving anything today on a public street that can be carried off is assurance that it will be carried off. Not so then, or at least we like to think not so. Was 1959 really such an Eden? I’d say it was at least for Kiddie Shows still a weekly ritual in small towns and large. Serials and short comedies were kept in service through the fifties, and well into the sixties at many venues. Greensboro’s “Circle K” club at the Carolina Theatre was using Republic chapter-plays right through 1966, despite no new ones being produced over the decade prior to that. Note the time: 9:30 to 12:00, “Every Saturday.” This was where children were parked, warehoused, whatever, for much of a weekend when they might otherwise annoy elders. Two-and-a-half hours could expand to nightfall if staff didn’t mind moppets staying to see Five Gates To Hell two or three times. Not to be forgot is theatres as social mecca --- youth equivalent of lodge meetings or the corner bar. Can we wonder at intense feeling they had in retrospect? B-west conventions went decades longer than I dreamed they could (all gone now). Anyone wanting to make sense of that phenomenon need only look at captures like these to know the paradise they lost, and we never found.


Blogger MikeD said...

Beaver Cleaver got his bike stolen in one episode and we put locks on our bikes in the mid-60's so bikes were "un-fair" game not long after that 1959 picture, at least in Beav's and my neck of the woods.

Fun reading as always!

8:18 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

"Ersatz Groucho" is now my new favorite expression.

6:06 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Television has given us much but cost us more. The shared joy of going to the movies is lost, lost, lost (to borrow from the judge in INTOLERANCE).

8:05 PM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

We had a Summer movie program for two years in 1963 & 1964 in Sioux City, IA. Started at 9 AM every Wednesday. You could get in with 6-bottle caps from RC Cola or $1.00. It was MC`d by our local kids show host, Canyon Kid. You got a box of candy when you went in & there was a number on it. If the host called your number, you got to go up onstage & play a game for prizes. The movies ok. Some titles were THE THREE STOOGES MEET HERCULES, THE LONE RANGER AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KEYSTONE KOPS, CAPTAIN SINDBAD, VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET, IT`S ONLY MONEY to name a few. I wish I could have picked the movies. I`d have shown THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS, ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, etc.

10:35 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

To quote myself: Going to a movie theater was once an event, even at a neighborhood house. Everybody was there for The Show, a big shared experience. Now the cineplex is an airport, where you're sent to one of many gates for one of many destinations. Sort of fun, but not the same thing at all.

11:08 PM  
Blogger Matthew Clark said...

I've read that the theater staff understood their responsibilities on the weekends and took pains to look after the children at the theater. Breaking up fights, calling parents when some were left behind, and even driving them home themselves, if necessary.
Here in Portland, Oregon in the 1940s, a theater chain owner always had a theater in a town he had some theaters in named The Blue Mouse, and he always did the Saturday kids matinee program. By the 1960s, he had to close his original theater in Portland and move into a former burlesque house as a second run theater, also called The Blue Mouse. By then, the big first run theaters started doing the kids matinees showing a program of cartoons and feature films like This Island Earth, War of the Satellites and Atragon.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Steve Martin said...

Can recall the flashing marquee...the smell of freshly popped popcorn.... the promise of welcome scares or laughter from the movie posters and lobby cards. This is something alas my grandchildren will never enjoy.

4:54 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Over two decades ago, my then-wife and I went to the Gem in Kannapolis to see "Men in Black." They ran a vintage Warners cartoon before the feature (from the looks of it, probably from a 16mm print). The Cannon towel plant hadn't closed yet.

7:22 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I drove by the Gem a few times, but never went in. It was a lovely little theatre, and I understand they did some great revival programs there.

4:33 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Before I enlarged that top bike photo, I thought the Ghost of Frankenstein dummy was supposed to be Katherine Hepburn.

1:24 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Inherited memories:

My mother, a kid in Duluth during the depression, remembered that a local theater offered free admission for an empty can from a specific brand of coffee. The theater would mark the cans with some kind of tool before hauling them to the dump (this was before wartime scrap drives). Mom and other kids would go through the cans at the dump and once in a great while find one that hadn't been marked, or was just thrown out by some foolish adult. Such salvaged cans were often in bad shape. The ticket taker might say something like "Better can next time, Miss", but accept them.

Years later, as a young nurse, she and fellow nurses met Eddie Bracken when he made a personal appearance at their hospital. She recalled that he was being very charming to her personally, then handed her back her wristwatch -- which he'd removed in plain sight of the laughing group while she was being starstruck.

My father's family ran a small theater in Minneota when he was a kid in the 20s-early 30s. He recalled that unpopped popcorn kernels were called "old maids" and accounted for much of the trash they swept up. He also recollected how an older brother riveted a leather strap to an electric fan and held it near a drum to provide machine gun sounds for "Wings". In the 1960s we visited Minneota, and the address had become a funeral home. We just drove by en route to relatives.

3:13 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer reports that Chicago showgoing also had a glow on ...

My mother was fading away during the last years of her life, with her day-to-day experiences like sunlight upon a screen, and as fleeting and ephemeral. Brighter colors remained in her memories, however, and among them were the excursions she and her sisters and friends would take by the Electric Train from Gary, Indiana to Chicago, to see a show.

The theater would be a palace with liveried attendants, and the presentation would consist of the feature, a newsreel, a short subject or cartoon, and a stage show featuring a big band, dancers, a visiting star making a personal appearance, or vaudevillians. Its little wonder that there are photographs of her from that time, a pretty but rather shy young woman in movie star poses probably copied from fan magazines, but finding their inspiration in those journeys to a magical world far removed from her own, with passage obtained for the mere price of a quarter.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

My mother once told me that, circa 1931, a theatre in Sheboygan, WI, offered $10 (in Depression money!) to anyone who would sit -- by themselves -- through a midnight screening of "Frankenstein" -- and that no one took them up on it. That's how scary it was considered.

6:57 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Amazing --- I wonder if it was the movie they feared, or the notion of sitting alone in an empty auditorium for over an hour. Those places could be pretty spooky, as I found out at more than one weekday matinee during the 60's, those years pretty dismal for the picture business, not only at the Liberty but a lot of other places.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

On my last visit to my hometown, dropped by the local fleapit, now a performing arts centre.... it is SOOO much smaller than I remember... both inside and out....

5:27 AM  

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