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Monday, May 11, 2020

From Annals of Grassroots Showmanship ...


For Exhibition Hall Of Fame: Willis Shaffer of Hutchinson, Kansas


Majestic sits management above who for purpose of this bally was a Hannibal of Kansas showmanship. Willis E. Shaffer rode high over rivals in his territory by always coming up with the better selling idea. Remember the contest he won in 1956 for push of The King and Four Queens, as reported by Greenbriar in June, 2016? That got reader response from Bill Shaffer, whose father Willis was. Bill has remained in touch and was generous enough to share the above theatre front playing Rock All Night and Dragstrip Girl, a marvelous footnote to the 4/26/2020 GPS column. Further correspondence with Bill results in today’s post wherein he and the Shaffer family look back at Dad’s ingenious boost on behalf of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the 1956 Hitchcock corker we all know, but never like this. I’ll leave Bill to describe details of the campaign in his own words, and add Greenbriar gratitude to the Shaffers for letting us bask in glories of a showman era as they experienced it.



The setting: an ancient and colorful market in Morocco. The characters: American tourists, Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, along with their young son. The family’s carefree tour of Marrakech takes an ominous turn when an Arab man stumbles towards Stewart and collapses in his arms, the handle of a knife protruding from his back. Attempting to help the stranger, Stewart finds brown makeup streaking across his hands. It’s just the beginning of a nightmare scenario for all three characters and it’s a pivotal, early moment from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his own 1934 British film, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Released by Paramount Pictures, this remake seemed to be highly successful among Hitch’s striking 1950-era output.



The film came to my dad’s theater, the Fox in Hutchinson, Kansas, for a glorious 4-day engagement. It was likely ‘Held Over’ for three more days, making it a week-long engagement. I’m not sure if everyone in Hutchinson could have seen it in that amount of time, but almost every film had a three-or-four day run back then, so it seemed like most everybody did.




Take a look at the attached photos. The exterior of the Fox Theater is classic, art-deco style, designed by the Boller Brothers in 1930. The foyer contained an enormous 24-sheet poster, mounted at second floor level. At 24 feet wide and 9 feet high, this billboard-style poster was the largest one available for any film – and it would have been installed weeks in advance of the movie’s run. The photo of the interior lobby shows the concession stand with room for a car promotion (or possible give-away) on the opposite side of the lobby.



  A multi-column newspaper ad promoted the Fox Theater’s premiere of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Check out the enlargements for comments from the preview audience and the “added attractions” for this particular show. I always loved the staggered show times - 1:30, 4:09, 6:48 and 9:30. Were show times ever more precise?



My dad told me about a special “Stag Screening,” which he had set up for Hutchinson businessmen and a few local politicians (including the Mayor). They were given special passes to come to this advance screening, held on Friday at 11:00 pm. Toward the end of the film, in a pivotal scene at the Royal Albert Hall, Doris Day is listening to Bernard Herrman’s dynamic crescendo while wanting desperately to help avert a potentially world-changing assassination. Her only option was to let out a piercing, classic movie scream!




At that same moment (scream still reverberating), a power outage shut down the projector and every light in the theater. Dad raced to the lobby, only to find more pitch darkness. The blackout included a large section of Hutchinson’s downtown. Dad quickly slipped back into the auditorium, armed with flashlights, and announced that there was a large power outage and that he had no idea how long it would take to get the power back on.

A number of the gentlemen in the audience, the mayor among them, stood up and said, “let me make a phone call.” And so, calls were made, people were awakened, and things began to happen. The Hutchinson elite simply would not leave the theater without seeing the final moments of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. The blackout continued for 45-minutes, but everyone stayed in the theater until they got to see the end of that movie.



Dad called his district manager, Elmer Rhoden in Kansas City, to let him know about the incident. Rhoden wired Hitchcock a personal message and sent a note back to my dad saying, “Hitch loved this!” This last photo, of Mr. Rhoden with Mr. Hitchcock and the movie’s stars, was taken during filming of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. 

8 Comments:

Blogger Mike Cline said...

Good ol ballyhoo.

As extinct in the theatre business today as the dodo bird.

6:59 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

A power outtage in the theater once happened while Stinky was watching Rain Man. Stinky would stay put 45 minutes for Hitch, but not for Tom Cruise.

2:00 PM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

The 4 DAYS ONLY doesn't surprise me as much as the STARTS SUNDAY. Was the rental cheaper than doing a STARTS FRIDAY where I would think you might have a larger weekend audience?

7:37 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The lost art of promotion. Wow! Thanks.

8:55 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Looking at your cover picture I looked up John Barrymore's height. He was 5 foot,9. Chaplin, 5 foot 5. Fairbanks was 5 foot 9. Always thought Barrymore taller.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

The power went out during a showing of HOUSE OF WAX (3D) that my mom and dad attended. The hideous killer was tracking a young female down a fog-shrouded street. Mom had enough, so dad took me to the make-up showing the next day.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Bill S said...

Jerry Kovar : Good point! I think they used either a 'STARTS WEDNESDAY' or a 'STARTS THURSDAY' set-up since movies then played only three or four day runs max. If a film started on a Thursday, the opening night would be soft and Friday would always be the BIG night. Films rarely played a full-week during that time unless you were living in Kansas City or Chicago, etc.

6:40 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

A malfunction in the projection systems caused a showing of Justice League that I attended at the Scotiabank Theater here in Toronto a while back to not be completed, meaning that the theater gave us free passes for another showing; stuff like that does happen at the movies from time to time, even now.

Although I love the Scotiabank Theater, I will say that I miss places like these even more, and wish that the movie theater chains would bring back movie palaces like this, with double features; the last time I was in a place like this was back in 1982 watching Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan at the University Theater, which no longer exists due to Famous Players not wanting to keep single screen theatres like this and the Eglington Theater in operation due to 'cost.'

10:57 AM  

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