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Thursday, August 22, 2019

When Fandom Was Forever

Souvenirs Of Show-Going Long Ago

Above sits Myron Healey at the 1974 Western Film Festival in Memphis. Monte Hale is beside him. Mr. Healey was male support to Phyllis Coates as (the) Panther Girl Of The Kongo. I wonder if any of 520 fans attending Memphis ragged him for being in such a dud serial. Probably not, because for this nostalgia-driven lot, no serial was bad. I had just finished watching all twelve chapters of Panther Girl (not at once) and then came across coverage of the ’74 con in an issue of Film Collector’s Registry, a tabloid for those in the peculiar habit of hunting 16mm prints of films they loved as children. These folks knew who fest guest Kirk Alyn was because they were old enough to have seen his Superman chapter-plays theatrically, which means they were the only people to know them period, since both serials went out of circulation after 1948 and 1950, respectively. All we sprites could see was trailers duped off dupes that floated along dealer’s row at Memphis, Charlotte, Houston, elsewhere (the two serials are since on DVD). 1974 may have been a peak of interest in things nostalgic, FCR reporting that over 3,000 attended Houston that year (“the best ever!”). I never experienced a show that big. By the time I got in the swing of it (from 1976 forward), there were diminishing returns, if slower coming. Reports here made me realize what a boon these cowboy and cliffhanger meets were in their prime.

Imagine being in 50’s theatres to witness the corrosion of serials. It was assumed, at least by children, that they would never end, but insiders knew better. Program westerns were already going, soon to be gone. Panther Girl Of The Kongo had to disappoint on profound levels. It was, as they say, strictly from hunger, so threadbare as to be insulting. Three or four guys took pen to earlier and better Republic serials … now one writer (Ronald Davidson) did it all, as did directing Franklin Adreon, who also was “associate producer.” Once upon lusher times there were two helmsmen behind each chapter-play. The fallow decade saw increasing reason to stay home and look at The Lone Ranger or Cisco Kid on television, or Gene Autry’s vid program, which fans said, still say, was improvement on his features (didn’t matter; by 1955, Gene was off theatre screens). But it was important to get out of the house, join friends downtown for movies, never mind that so many fell down as entertainment. Social advantages made up for that, and there was always popcorn plus candy. I wasn’t there, so am projecting --- imagining, more like it --- though I’ve talked to enough elders who were present to feel what it was like to see a happy era die. I’d know a similar, if lesser, gloom in the early 70’s when the Liberty finally did away with Saturday double features (and we kept them longer than most any small town around).

This was what Houston and Memphis and the rest wanted to hang on to. Aging men (never women, unless in tolerant company of husbands that never grew up, bless both) came for these three or four days to relive Saturdays they thought would always stay a same. Celebrity lineups dazzled because so many were still alive from 30/40’s heyday. The 1974 Dallas show had Buster Crabbe, Duncan Renaldo (Trader Horn!), George Pal … on and on. At Memphis, stuntman for forty years David Sharpe mock-fought Billy Benedict and did a backwards flip. Lash LaRue was there because Lash was everywhere through peak period of star/fan shows (he’d give whip exhibitions --- did anyone trust him to flick cigarettes from their mouth or apples off their head?). The Lone Ranger Rides Again was shown twice because it was so rare and practically no one had seen it since 1939. Guests moved among fans, none anchored behind signing tables where all of movement was by assistants collecting twenty-dollar bills, as would become case at later autograph shows. So long as health held out, most old-timers were pleased to do these shows. Younger ones seemed vigorous as when they were screen-active, Jock Mohoney in Houston only eleven years past Tarzan’s Three Challenges. I got to meet Jock at a mid-80’s Raleigh show, this in lieu of customary Charlotte setting for reasons forgotten. The dealer’s space was like an airplane hanger and as arid. Jock was well into spirit of the con and yelled out “Bob, you old queer bait” to one collector older than he was, and it seemed like good a time as any to ask about doubling Errol Flynn in a hazardous leap from top-of-a-staircase to crash upon Robert Douglas’ double in Adventures Of Don Juan. Jock was ten minutes explaining it thoroughly to me and now I can’t remember a thing he said. Was I too star-struck to retain any of our conversation?

Stars who survived became bigger stars at collector shows. Panther Girl Phyllis Coates had wit and attitude to go with total recall of a past career. I lately looked at Filmfax plus a Tom Weaver interview for her take on that benighted serial. She lost part of hearing thanks to a rifle that went off in her ear, and had to have penicillin every time she came out of nasty water in Republic’s backlot lake. Would it have been worth all this even to be in a good serial? A tougher breed, I’d guess, but you could say that about all the names who flew east for fan jamborees. Side query: Were there ever western/serial shows in California? --- and if not, why not? Sometimes a more mainstream face would show up and regret doing so mere steps into hotel lobbies. Virginia Mayo didn’t look happy with Raleigh. One old duff in cowboy garb asked if she’d pose under the “Jimmy Wakely Clock,” to which I heard her reply, “What the hell is a Jimmy Wakely clock, and who the hell is Jimmy Wakely?” How soon greatness is forgot. Actually, the JW clock had a kind of obscure majesty. I wondered at the time how it came to be, and I’d ask now what (the hell …, as Virginia would have said) became of it? Engaged fans of forty-five years ago have disappeared surely as that Jimmy Wakely clock. I refer for instance to the Max Terhune Appreciation Society, founded in 1973 by a film collector named Minard Coons. Minard revered Max from when latter and his funny dummy supported cowboys in the late 30’s. They got to be friends after Max retired. There was also a 70’s chapter of the Buck Jones Rangers, endorsed by Buck’s daughter, with a larger latter-day membership that you’d expect for a star deceased since 1942. These then, were but two instances of fan loyalty and how long it could thrive.

Those parades have passed now. No more shows, at least ones dedicated to matinee days. Film Collector’s Registry is gone too, long since as with The Big Reel and Film Collector’s World. Classic Images comes a closest to keeping lamps lit. I look at old ads in these papers and think how we had to climb Everest to own movies common as dirt today, and as cheap. A dealer named Joe Rogal had stuff that collector dreams were made of. I remember a time, 35 or so years ago, when he walked into a Columbus lobby with Mogambo on IB Tech. $400 and it’s yours. Imagine paying that for any one movie now. Had I wanted to own Panther Girl Of The Kongo, it would have cost as much. A Blu-Ray, on the other hand, runs $19.95, for which image quality compensates for lack of pride in ownership. Collectors wanted to possess movies in large part because no one else could have them, that hobby’s coin of the realm. Notice everybody gushing over the 50th anniversary of Woodstock this month? Well, these serial/western fans had their Woodstocks every summer, in fact numerous times each summer, wherever promoters could book a hotel and inveigle past stars to fly in and feel the love.


Blogger Jeff Hitz said...

This may be the first article I have ever seen with a mention of Phyllis Coates and no mention of her being the first Lois Lane in the Superman TV series.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I was at Rochdale College I got the bright idea to show five serials together chapter by chapter weekly which worked fine until stock footage from one showed in another, sometimes three at once.

That was a lesson learned the hard way.

Always look before you show.

5:48 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The use of stock footage in serials was a big issue even if you saw the chapter weekly on television. Not only that they repeated footage from previous episodes but also they used things lifted from previous serials or even features. The worst are the 15 chapter long serials that also include two or three "cheaters" in which they recap things seen previously.

3:28 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Aaaaa...great times at those fandom shows. Talked with several hundred folks from the older movie days. A huge majority of these 'celebrities' were wonderful and so appreciative they were remembered for their work in TV and the movies. Once in a while there was one who was a jerk. I always wondered why if they were going to be unpleasant to the attendees, why bother coming. Yes, Adam West and Robert Vaughn, I'm talking about you. And once in a while, one could even talk to a fake celebrity. During visits to various shows, I got to meet two Lee Aakers and two George 'Foghorn' Winslows. The fake ones and the real ones.

A great chapter in my life.

8:07 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I was nine when PANTHER GIRL ran at the town's "kid" movie house, The State. Kids today are probably a lot more sophisticated than I was back then, but I thought it was pretty cool. It didn't hurt that admission was fifteen cents and bag of popcorn a dime.

2:04 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

We have a quarterly toy and collectible show out here that usually manages a celebrity or two. They tend to boast recent sci-fi and horror credits, but faces from the 60s or 70s are often featured. I'm reluctant to approach, but usually loop by their tables.

The older actresses were recognizable and attractive for their age. Dawn Wells had a funny line of T-shirts, most playing off the Ginger or Mary Ann debate. Yvonne Craig was laughing and game when a fellow in a Batman suit invited her to pose on his Bat-bicycle (she was wearing a dress). I recall Cindy Williams leaning far over her table to chat with a very small girl. The actress who played Miss Yvonne on Pee Wee's Playhouse had a impressively goofy Christmas costume, posing in character and suggesting fans put her on their greeting cards.

John Saxon looked like a friendly grandfather, affably posing with people while a bubbly older woman -- Mrs. Saxon? -- held the cameras. Richard Kiel was likewise smiling and sociable, but it was startling how small his body appeared to be in relation to his head (evidently he had health issues late in life). Butch Patrick drew a crowd, but then his area had the Munsters' car (original or duplicate? Either way, I would have paid to sit at the wheel).

The one that made a deep impression was the actor who played the paralyzed Captain Pike in the original "Star Trek", done up to look like Jeffrey Hunter who played a livelier Pike in the flashback footage. He sold framed autographs and photos of himself, and had a big painted backdrop of the Enterprise bridge behind him. At one point, when I was far away from that area, a voice rang out: "I WAS ON STAR TREK, DAMMIT!" There was a little nervous laughter and the hall quieted down again. He was there a couple of different years. An exhibitor told me he was a nice guy, but the memory I have is of a thoroughly disgruntled-looking man sitting in a shrine to his moment of ... what?

The shows themselves seem to be prospering. The thing is, the toys and collectibles -- and, increasingly, the celebrities -- tend to be far too new to qualify as nostalgia. I may be ready to set up my own shrine of disgruntlement.

4:53 PM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

Happy times.

I never made any of these Western shows, but I regularly haunted the East Coast Nostalgia Conventions – held in venues, now, sadly as long gone as the Nostalgia Craze itself. I got to meet Buster Crabbe, Jock Mahoney and a host of others. Also, I was a regular at the Friends of Old Time Radio Convention – and was amazed at the caliber and quality of guests.

I think the Nostalgia Craze (which, I think, took place between 1968 and 1974) was a fascinating phenomena, and clearly a reaction to (against? Amongst?) dramatic changes happening at the time.

Does anyone know of any definitive article, study or book about the Nostalgia Craze? It would seem to be a very, very fertile topic for some pop historian.

7:32 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Sort of on topic--I'm a bit too fascinated about the nature of celebrity fame and glory, lost and found and lost again. Some celebrities are secure about their mark, others have a rather obscure TV or movie credit to hang onto dearly. I also think of remakes that may eclipse the original performers ("hey, that was my role!"). One must have a very healthy sense of self not to be so sensitive to the vagaries of fame as validation. That, plus no matter what your celeb status, the key is to be gracious to people and happy with whatever there is.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Young folks today (Damn! I actually wrote that!) don't know about any star or celebrity more than five or ten years in the past. Wow. I knew about silent film AND radio stars when I was a kid and in college. My theory of popular awareness is that of a slowly flowing river. You see things (young actors and comedians) coming your way, then they're in front of you (giant stars and household names) and then they slowly drift farther and farther down river until they disappear around the bend and are out of sight and out of mind.
"Who's Gary Cooper?"
"Get me Gary Cooper!"
"Get me a young Gary Cooper!"
"Who's Gary Cooper?"

9:47 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Never cared for that word "nostalgia." Does a person reading TREASURE ISLAND, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, LES MISERABLES, THE MALTESE FALCON or any other of millions of books do so out of nostalgia?

Each generation remembers strongest that which it has directly experienced, particularly in its youth. Don't fault young folks for not knowing who Dashiell Hammet or Gary Cooper is. They are not part of their experience. Introduce them to Hammet and Cooper. Make them part of their experience.

When I first watched METROPOLIS and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) in superb 8mm prints I bought from John Griggs (with money I earned cutting chickens with a band-saw for Kentucky Fried Chicken) there was nothing nostalgic about the experience as these films were not part of my youth (and I was still a youth).

Nostalgia is a term invented by the media to describe a regard for quality programs we had experienced as a kid. It is a term which devalued that experiences by making it sound like yearning for days gone by that can never return.

Read anything by John Taylor Gatto. The young today are deliberately being made stupid by our education process. That has always been its purpose.

Many is the time a young person has walked in my door, seen a movie they had never heard of starring people they had never heard of who then walked out wanting to know more.

That is the job (and the only job) of an educator (not a teacher). Thankfully, over the course of my life I have met many great educators. A great many have been among the young and older people who came into my Cineforum in Toronto which is why I fight so hard to keep my door open (it being illegal to welcome strangers into our home in Toronto (that, by the way, was the Sin (the only sin) of Sodom.

Once I had seen METROPOLIS and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in 8mm, silent and without any kind of accompaniment on my bedroom wall at 17 I wanted to see more.

When I began scoring music to silent films my desire was to have the audience surpass their expectations.

I felt that properly scored THE BIRTH OF A NATION would be as powerful today as it had been in 1915. To that end I brought to Toronto a man who had played first violin in the orchestra which accompanied that film when it premiered at Clune's Auditorium in 1915. He had, at 16, played first violin through 365 performances of the film. His name was Bernard B. Brown. I learned a helluva lot about film and film sound from him over the three days he was in Toronto.

When THE TORONTO FILM SOCIETY asked me to present THE BIRTH with the score I have created for it as part of their series in a 600 seat auditorium that presentation was given the acid test.

When it finished everyone was on their feet cheering and stomping exactly as in 1915. I said a silent thank you to Brownie.

I know from direct, personal experience what can be done with these great films and TV shows.

Please dump that damn word "nostalgia."

11:50 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Thank you, Reg Hartt, what a wonderful and perceptive response! I think you nailed it. I've experienced this myself with my sons. I don't know much about their current favorites, to be honest (especially in the music arena). My son Tom watched THE JOLSON STORY with me when he was about ten years old. His comment: "He was a really good singer". My son Will loves Mack Sennett comedies. He has autism, and he can identify multiple supporting comedians and character names. It's a joy to pass on this art to a new generation. It's so true: they can't appreciate it until they're exposed to it.

12:27 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

"Nostalgia" should refer just to the comfort-food memories of one's own past. I'm a big fan of the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, and in watching them my mind goes to the 1940s, which was before my time. One of the MPI discs had an unrestored clip -- THAT was nostalgic, taking me back to washed-out PD tapes and fuzzy reception on UHF channels.

Robert Youngson films are nostalgic for much of present company. Even though we have complete, pristine restorations of many of the films he excerpted, we flash back to local broadcasts on Sunday afternoons, and remember the appetites bestirred.

Pretty much anything from Disney's lifetime is nostalgic, Uncle Walt being such a presence in boomer childhoods. But while modern kids may enjoy vintage Disney, and may in time feel nostalgic over specific memories -- my niece's little sister would repeatedly watch "Pollyanna" and go weepy every time -- it's not the same. People may have nostalgic memories tied to a Beethoven symphony, but that doesn't make him a Golden Oldie.

There's often another phenomenon at play. People develop a fascination with worlds, real or imagined, that are separate from their own but nonetheless can be vicariously explored. They range from Trekkies, Sherlockians and Jane Austenites to serious history buffs to collectors of almost anything to kids obsessed with dinosaurs. For myself, it's a fascination with a pre-TV world of shorts, cartoons and Bs, and with the self-invented silent comedians.

If you find a point in this, yell "Bingo".

3:33 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Bingo to DBenson! That shot of Myron Healey brightened what was looking to be a pretty gloomy day at work. And I was unaware of those western roundups until I stumbled onto the Lone Pine fests in '95. But over the last decade or so, I've become fascinated with life in England in the form of what PBS has to offer in the way of mysteries, police procedurals or just day to day soaps. I don't watch the current U.S. offerings of those type of shows, but slap an English accent on them and I'm in. Crikey!

7:00 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

@Mike Cline, this is why I'm glad I never bothered to pay for the autograph singing of Adam West at the 2014 Fan Expo here in Toronto.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Betty Boop, Bosko, Buddy, Tom & Jerry (human), Tom & Jerry (not human), Scrappy, Wiffle Piffle, Popeye, Bluto, Olive Oyl, Little Lulu, Little Audrey, Little Roquefort, Lil' Swee'pea, the Little King, Farmer Al Falfa, Krazy Kat, Felix the Cat, Julius the Cat, Henry the Cat, Katnip, Mickey, Minnie, Flip, Cubby, Foxy, Oswald, Kiko, Puddy, Pudgey, Pooch, Grampy, Gabby (well, maybe not so much Gabby), Goofy, Gandy, Dippy, Droopy, Screwball, Dingbat, Dimwit, Porky, Daffy, Bugs, Beaky, Speedy, Sniffles, Foghorn, Wile E., Pepe, Elmer (as in Fudd), Elmer (as in Elephant), the Road Runner, the Fox, the Crow, the Ant, the Aardvark, Donald (sailor suit, not bone spurs), Daisy, Huey, Dewey, Looie, Mortie, Ferdie, Knothead, Spinter, Pipeye, Peepeye, Poopeye, Pupeye, Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, Wally Walrus, Buzz Buzzard, Cuddles, Sugarfoot, Mighty Mouse, Hubie, Bert, Willie Whopper, Yosemite Sam, Sea-Goin' Sam, Sahara Sam, Baron Sam Von Schpamm, the Duke of Yosemite, Tweety and Sylvester, Swifty and Shorty, Heckle and Jeckle, Ickle and Pickle, Hunky and Spunky, George and Junior and so, so, so many more... old time theatrical cartoon characters. I love 'em all!

Black and white or color, 20's, 30's, 40's, 50's, even 60's, I love old cartoons and, no, I am not uncritical. I can tell the difference between a Paul Terry Aesop's Fable and a Tex Avery Red Hot Riding hood. That doesn't mean I can't enjoy both. The 16mm features are, for the most part, long gone from my shelves. But the dozens of those little animated gems are still neatly stacked, ready for frequent review in the movie room.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

Interesting about Max Terhune and the Max Terhune Appreciation Society. I knew him only for a brief appearance he made on "I Love Lucy" as a ventriloquist seeking a nightclub job.

2:55 PM  

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