19 May 2007

Bury My Heart at the Loew's Kings

My parents, both aged nineteen. It's December of 1948, and they'd be married the following year --- on New Year's Eve of 1949.

Hard work, military service and more hard work would chip away at the 1950's, and by the close of that decade they were still childless.

As 1960 dawned, I arrived.

Mom would pass away in 2002, and Dad would follow five years later, on May 10th of this year.

Both played important roles in nurturing my love for vintage film, and I thought it only fitting to reminisce a bit here about just that --- despite the topic being far removed from the usual sort of thing I'm accustomed to writing. I was greatly surprised, touched and heartened to note the public comments posted on this Blog's last entry --- and even more so by the many more private notes of sympathy and encouragement sent to me via e-mail by readers of these pages, most of whom I've never communicated with before, truth be told.

I'm hopeful that readers may enjoy this somewhat scattered recollection, for I tend to believe that similar memories are held dear by a good many of those who regularly find their way to these pages --- for we all have to start somewhere. With that in mind, I dedicate this recollection to my readers as much as to the memory of my Dad.

Sorry, Pop... but it was Mom who introduced me to cinema in the early 1960's, when she decided I was old enough to accompany her to the Loew's Kings Theater (a Brooklyn, New York movie palace in every sense of that term) where "Mary Poppins" had just opened on it's original release. The next few days were spent happily babbling about the film to such a degree that, finally, my Mom asked me if I'd like to go see it again. I could see it again? But how? Hadn't it ended and vanished forever once the auditorium lights brightened, the curtains closed and everyone filed out?

A revelation! No, I was told, it was a "movie," and a movie could be seen time and again, and it would remain unchanged forever no matter how many times you saw it. It would look the same at age four as it would when you were forty. (In retrospect, I'm certain this simplistic explanation of cinema has much to do with my passion for film preservation and restoration, for I always feel somehow cheated to learn someone was responsible --- actively or not, for letting a film vanish without a trace.)

Once that great light dawned, movie-going became a weekly event --- and I stress the word "event," because that's how my Mom treated it. Whether our destination was any number of the still grand movie palaces that dotted Brooklyn or frequent visits to Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall, movie-going wasn't something to be treated lightly. I soon learned to reluctantly put up with being dressed in heavy, stiff little suits, dress shirts, clip-on bow-ties, headgear of all sorts, and leather shoes that would scrape my ankles as I walked in order to get the pay-off: a movie!

Then as now, my geographical sense was poor and I can't recall the names or locations of all the movie theaters I regularly attended --- but certain sensory experiences remain utterly vivid to this day.

I can recall the sense of stepping into a theater entry-way --- stepping onto the heavy rubber mat flooring (with little holes to drain away water, slush and street grime) before the impossibly heavy doors would be opened by a uniformed attendant. As it did, you'd feel a rush of air sweep over you --- air laden with the long vanished scent of a vintage movie palace --- and once it did, you were inside someplace special. It's impossible to analyze the ingredients in that peculiar and unique scent, but I recall it as being a mix of popcorn, fabrics, carpets, dust, an intermingling of hundreds of varieties of perfume and cologne, hair tonic, facial powder, perspiration, some of them probably decades old, and --- depending on the season, freshly cut flowers or balsam.

No matter how old the theater, (and most of the ones I visited dated from the 1920's or 1930's) the carpet was still thick and springy and surprisingly spotless, the lighting soft and subdued --- and the sounds of the city streets vanished behind you, replaced by the same hushed silence I equated with libraries and places of worship.

Every theater had certain physical features bound to intrigue a child, and I still remember some clearly. One had a bubbling marble fountain in the lobby with live goldfish swimming about, pecking hopefully at the pennies people tossed in despite signs warning against the practice. Another had dark blue mirrored walls in the lobby that transformed the reflection of patrons into dark ghostly images as they passed, and I also recall that the seats at the Loew's Kings had an unusually thick covering that felt smooth when you ran your hand down the back of the seat behind you, and rough --- like a new crew-cut, when you ran your palm upwards against the nap. I long puzzled over what caused the difference.

Some theaters had vestiges of earlier days still intact, but no longer functioning. One had a door labeled "Nursery" with fairy-tale characters etched on the glass panels --- while another had buttons on the arm of the seats that once would call an usher to the row for some mysterious purpose. Radio City Music Hall had, up until the theater's restoration, a panel built into the back of seats that would illuminate when you pressed a button, for the purpose of reading your program. The notion of 3,500 seat lights flickering on and off like fireflies in that dark cavernous theater suggests the amenity wasn't in use for long. Then too, all those tiny light bulbs to change! Of course, that never stopped me from hopefully pressing the button whenever I happened to think of it during the show.

I never imagined that these theaters, so huge, vast and sturdy would be largely gone by the close of the following decade. To me, they seemed as much as elements of the city's infrastructure as the subways, the Brooklyn Bridge, the skyscrapers, or the massive Edwardian apartment house in which we lived. But, in the end, most of them --- and the loveliest ones too, would be torn away or shuttered and bricked up like mausoleums, or converted into venues for activities they seemed so unsuited to. I was fortunate to have this early 1960's fleeting glimpse of another day and way of life just moments before progress and society deemed them unsuitably outmoded and disturbing reminders of a recent past the world of the 60's seemed hell bent on rushing away from as swiftly as possible.

Now then, my Dad's view of movies and movie-going were far different from my Mom's, likely because his side of the family hadn't been as hard-hit by the Depression as my her family was, and he'd attend upwards of five shows a week compared to my Mom's very infrequent childhood trips to Radio City Music Hall or the Roxy or Brooklyn Paramount when family finances allowed it.

Whereas my mom experienced the movies via Shirley Temple, Disney's "Snow White" and elegant MGM, Fox and Paramount fare, my Dad was raised on Serials, Westerns, two-reelers, cartoons, and anything that had the Warner Brothers imprint on it. Understandably, there were many heated household discussions as to what films I should be taken to, or not. In the end, both my parents would win out --- with each thinking themselves the victor.

My Mom would tote me along to whatever Disney film was in release, the occasional re-releases of classics, and countless imported children's films from foreign countries --- highly colored, poorly dubbed grotesque affairs that, in retrospect, might have been the cause of many a childhood nightmare.

My Dad thought little of such fancy fare, and in his company --- after promising my Mom we'd be spending the day in the park, or going on a drive --- we'd often end up at a local theater that was featuring a James Bond entry or secret agent movie rip-off, or "Planet of the Apes" and any sort of science-fiction film, or the latest Hammer Films British scare double-feature. Without knowing it, I was learning that there were films and then there were movies, and that there was a time, place and mood for each and, more importantly, that there was value in each.

Dad, being a camera buff (and notorious 8mm home-movie maker who disrupted countless family gatherings with blinding lights) I'd often accompany him to the big camera stores he frequented, among them Lafayette's in downtown Brooklyn, and Willoughby-Peerless in New York City. Both stores were very much a "don't touch anything" sort of place for a youngster, but my good (or reasonably good) behavior while Dad explored camera and projector equipment would always be rewarded by allowing me to pick out an 8mm movie to bring home. It was in this way that I first encountered films of an earlier time.

Even before I could read, I'd study the revolving metal rack holding reels of 8mm and 16mm films in boxes manufactured by Castle Films, Official Films, Blackhawk Films and many others I can't recall, looking for some visual cue that would spark interest. Box artwork was either sparse or non-existent at that time, so I'd invariably end up with a cartoon, or --- without knowing anything about them at that point, something featuring Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy or Our Gang --- simply because they looked like they'd be fun and the boxes were often brightly colored. Little did I know that the plain pasteboard boxes I skimmed past, with typed labels that I couldn't decipher, contained films and players now considered not only certifiable classics but also, in some cases, films that have vanished --- or nearly so, since then.

Oddly, I never questioned the lack of sound when these films would be projected at home. Indeed, most never had any to begin with, but all I knew was what I was told --- that they were old, but quite good --- and that my parents had seen them when they were children too. That recommendation was good enough for me.

There was a 16mm projector as well, which my Dad owned when he was in his 'teens, and which he hauled out of the closet only occasionally. A massive heavy brown metal thing, that sputtered and burned hot when running and always smelled of burning celluloid and simmering machine oil --- but which projected larger images of noticeably better quality than I was used to seeing at home. He only had a few reels of 16mm film left by that time --- they might have been nitrate prints for all I know --- but I believe now he obtained these from a local film exchange, as the reels contained fragments of films rather than complete subjects. All of these bits of film were tinted -- sepia, lavender, rose or a sickly green --- and I recall that Dad himself couldn't tell me much about what we were seeing, or who. Instead, above the loud clattering of the film chugging through the gate and over the metal spools, he'd read the title cards aloud for my benefit, and then invent his own dialogue --- always nonsensical, and changing with each viewing --- either a little or a lot, depending on his mood.

Included on the reels of 16mm film was a Chaplin imitator (he always prided himself in being able to tell the difference whereas nobody else could,) scenes from numerous Sennett and Keystone comedies, bits of business with chimps dressed as cowboys, a lion invading a society party, an early historical epic set in ancient Rome, numerous clips from Westerns, a railroad adventure that featured a robot working the controls in a switch-tower, and many melodramatic quiet (dull) scenes which we always sped past --- which were likely fragments of Biograph or Vitagraph productions.

By the mid-1960's, the monster-movie craze was in full swing and all the horror films of my Dad's youth had begun to air on late night New York television. My Mom had little patience for these films, but didn't intervene in my Dad's desire to have me see these films for the first time either. He'd carefully scour the television schedules, and would announce that "Frankenstein" was coming next week. "Who's Frank Stein?" "You'll see!," he'd warn me --- his face and voice leaving little doubt that this was someone I'd probably be better off avoiding --- but the bait was laid and the trap set.

Any misgivings I had were always put aside on the appointed night, as he'd gently wake me from sleep in what I felt were the utter depths of the night (probably 11PM or so) and we'd retreat to the living room where, still sleepy eyed and somewhat spooked just by being up and about at such a forbidden hour, he'd plop me down in a corner of the sofa, turn on the big black and white console television, and turn off all the other room lights --- for effect.

I'd generally be spellbound for an hour or so, before losing the battle to stay awake, and he'd carry me back to bed, where I was always surprised to find myself the next morning. I suppose because it all happened this way, I never was frightened of Mr. Frank Stein nor any other vintage horror film for the simple fact that no matter how chilling the movie, I'd always come out of it not only just fine but in the safety of my own bed too.

So, via Dad and courtesy of Chiller Theater (although I don't think it was called that then) I had an early exposure to the entire Universal horror canon, as well as "King Kong," and all manner of other creatures of the 1940's and 1950's films that populated New York late night television of the time. Ultimately, much to the dismay and exasperation of my Mom, there simply ceased to exist any other type of movie for me except monster movies --- and I'm certain there's many a reader of a certain age who experienced just that same sort of transformation as I did.

With "Famous Monsters of Film Land" magazine and, later, "The Monster Times" to stoke the furnace, along with a seemingly endless array of monster themed toys and products to attract countless small boys of the 60's and early 70's, I firmly moved away from all things Disney once and for all, and had shelves of plastic Aurora models to prove it --- many of them assembled at the kitchen table with Dad's help, and painted --- rather poorly, all by myself so I could claim total credit for the creation.

By the time the Monster Craze had begun to wane and fade, the 70's had taken hold and I was entering my early teens. We moved away from the old neighborhood and the fading movie palaces to another location, where shopping malls and small modern shoebox theaters were the norm, and all the relics from my Monster period were gradually discarded as I matured and developed other interests, until nothing was left. In what must be an equally lamented and oft-repeated scenario around the country, piles and piles of Monster magazines were tied up and left by the curb. Life and society had changed, imperceptibly but totally, as the last vestiges of the old were snuffed out by the upheavals the 60's and 70's brought.

Later, when attending my first film studies class, I found I had an advantage over most of my classmates --- for I was familiar with film history and silent film via the exposure my parents had given me to vintage product. Not so when the topic of early sound films was approached, for it was very much a blank chapter in film history to me. My parents had been too young to experience the transition (they were both born in 1929) and the only early talkies I remember being televised at that point were "The Cocoanuts," and the occasional "Our Gang" or Laurel & Hardy early sound effort --- which, purely by virtue of the performers, never seemed as primitive as they actually were.

Despite my ignorance of the period, the chronology presented in class didn't set well with me. Huge chunks of history and studio output seemed to be missing, as indeed they were, and the whole period was skimmed over with mention of half a dozen films, and glimpses of half as many assembled into what may have been a "Anniversary of Sound Films" sort of reel.

The school library had a copy of Miles Kreuger's magnificent "From Vitaphone to 42nd Street" compendium of Photoplay articles and advertisements, and I was immediately intrigued by what seemed a lost world of cinema populated by unfamiliar titles, names and faces. Where did it all come from? And, more importantly, where did it all go? I immediately asked just that of my film teacher, and he waved it all aside impatiently, assuring me that all those films --- musical films especially --- aren't discussed because they don't exist any more, and the reason that they don't exist is because they weren't at all good, and shouldn't I be asking about films we've seen instead of films I'll never see?

No. No, that didn't sound right --- and besides, who was he to tell me what I'd like and what I wouldn't? Suspecting that his dismissal of these films was somehow connected to the then current fashion for removing books like "Huckleberry Finn" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" from school libraries (both of which I immediately purchased and devoured) rather than just probable ignorance, I set out to find these films on my own and to see -- and hear --- for myself. The rest, as they say, is history. Or at least, part of my history.

In retrospect, without the encouragement (and incredible indulgence) of two wonderful parents, I know I wouldn't see and interpret things as I do now, nor would I feel the need to explore and, where possible, preserve fragments of not just my past --- but our collective past, as best I can.

In odd corners of the Internet, I find myself being cautiously referred to as an "Amateur Film Historian," but that's a title that would make both my parents --- my first and best film teachers --- very proud indeed.

Now... On With the Show!

Watch for a new "Vitaphone Varieties" post this week!


Your author, Age 5


Joe said...

Jeff: My sympathy on the loss of your dad. You've made a nice tribute to both of your parents here.

Joe Thompson ;0)

Anonymous said...

Great story, Jeff! I too, fondly remember the great old theatres of my youth, the smell--yes, you know it too! There was a unique odor as soon as you entered an old 1920s movie theatre. I last detected it in 1988 in the still-extant Boehm Theatre in Albion, Michigan. I was born about the time your folks were dating, so I remember the serials, the B-westerns, lots of cartoons and my folks having to look through the theatre for my sister and I late so many Saturday afternoons. Thanks for sharing your memories, and thanks for your attention to detail in the search for the obscure early talkies!

I too have taken those memories and applied them throughout my life so far: I've restored theatre pipe organs, owned a historic theatre, participated in a group of home theatre owners and now chair a film
society at a historic theatre in an arts center. (www.collingwoodartscenter.org)
(Evan from Toledo)

Don said...

Great blog, and great post. I was thunderstruck to see the Loew's Kings so lovingly referred to. It was my neighborhood theater, too -- actually the neighborhood had half a dozen theaters within a quarter mile of the Kings, but the Kings was the local palace. And a palace it was -- red carpets, brass railings, a grand staircase up to the balcony where the smoking section was, and ushers in bellboy-type uniforms. All this and a double feature for 85 cents!

I'm 10 years older than you, so I went on my own -- about every Saturday, usually to a Western or war picture. It was a bit of heaven, around the corner from home.

Ravel said...

I must thank this cute little author (age 5!) who was to become the writer of this truly wonderful blog. I went to most pages, reding this, listening to that and... Wow! Never seen such a great blog.