Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Sunday Memory Drawer - The Movies of My Childhood

It's Oscar Day in Hollywood and the entire city appears to be on lock down.  At least, the parts that aren't under water.  But, take a gander at the photo above.   From an awards ceremony perhaps forty or fifty years ago.   The venue that year was the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium which still exists.   And dig the family cars dropping off arrivals.  No limos?   Wow.

When I was a kid, the Oscars started at 10PM Eastern time and way past my nightly appointment with the Sandman.  I missed it all.  But, there was the third grade when my teacher, Mrs. Popper, actually discussed the Oscars in class.  I used that leverage as a means to negotiate a late "stay-up" for that night's awards.   I mean, the teacher gave it to us as homework.

That would be the very first time I watched the Academy Awards.   Thank you, Mrs. Popper.  

But, I digress...

Today, it is fitting we talk about the movies.   And those years around my third grade class when I was starting to appreciate the amazing world of that silver screen in front of us.   At the RKO Proctor's on Gramatan Avenue in Mount Vernon, New York.  Or the Loews right around the corner.  Or the Wakefield underneath the subway elevated tracks in the Bronx.  Or the drive-in theater up in Elmsford.

Truth be told, as soon as I knew what the movies were, I was enthralled.   I didn't learn how to read with Dick and Jane.   I got my education from the movie pages of the New York Daily News or the New York Daily Mirror.

I learned how to print because I would leave notes for my parents whenever I wanted to go to the movies.  I did my research and would give them the title of the movie, the time, and where it was playing.   It even worked sometimes.

When I was supposed to be doing my lessons on the kitchen table, I frequently designed movie theater marquees and what they would say.   Sometimes, I used real movies.   Other times, I made up my own stuff.

Yeah, I was that kind of a goofy kid.

As I look back, there are thousands of movie memories from my childhood.  But, on Oscar Day 2014, I want to focus on a select few that really stood out for some reason or another.   I may have shared some of the associated stories before and they are worth repeating as I salute those films that really impacted me at a very young age.
"Some Like It Hot" holds a very special place in my own personal film history, as it was the very first time I heard a movie theater audience laugh. 

Out loud. I was very, very, very young, but I distinctly remember going to Loews' Mount Vernon theater to see it. It was even more noteworthy since it was probably the only time I ever went to an indoor theater with both my parents in tow. 

Back in those days, your neighborhood movie house ran two pictures and you frequently didn't pay attention to start times. You just showed up when you wanted to. There were many times when we would show up and see the final 20 minutes of one movie, see the next one, and then leave at the exact spot where we came in. Very weird and I would never even fathom doing that today.

We inexplicably arrived to see "Some Like It Hot" about ten minutes from the end. I remember very little except that it was the big chase scene through the hotel. And the audience was roaring with laughter. I did not know what to make of it all. 

Many years later, I truly understood.

There is not one single wasted moment or line of dialogue in this whole movie. Every word has a purpose and a function. And, more importantly, it gets you to where Billy Wilder wants you. In the palm of his hand. Laughing hysterically till it hurt. I've read the screenplay several times and it is a master course in film comedy. It should be used as a textbook in film schools all over the country.

I've seen "Some Like It Hot" probably 30 or 40 times in my life. It never gets old or repetitive. I've seen it on TV and on the big screen. It never gets any less funnier than it was the very first time. When I walked into that Loews theater across from City Hall in Mount Vernon.

And heard all those people enjoying a truly phenomenal movie.

"Bye Bye Birdie" was my first non-edible obsession. When I initially saw it when it arrived at the Loews Theater in Mount Vernon, I couldn't get enough of it. Because I wound up seeing it six times over the next seven days. I'm not sure why I skipped a day, but it must have been, in the most Biblical of senses, our day to rest.

Oddly enough, I went to see it all those times by myself.  The very first times I went to the movies alone.  I had sent the request form into my parents with a terse reply back.

"We don't like Dick Van Dyke."


So, as would happen many times over the next few years, my father would take me to the theater and ask the matron of the place to watch over me.   A different time and a different place.   You wouldn't dare do that with a young child in 2014.

Meanwhile, this film also probably marked the official grand opening of Len's Hormones. The ribbon cutter was none other than Ann-Margret. The poster to the left gives her limited justice. As a matter of fact, there was a similar pose on the cover of the stereophonic long playing soundtrack record and I will tastefully refuse to tell you what I used to do with that record jacket. 

And, in an incomprehensible twist, the other thing that made me love this movie was the presence of Paul Lynde as the father. I was, of course, way, way too naive to understand all the sordid details of Mr. Lynde's private life. All I knew was that I thought the guy was a stitch and that I wished secretly my father was just like this guy. Years later, I doubt that I wanted my dad to be cruising Santa Monica Boulevard looking for teenage boys.

I played the "Bye Bye Birdie" soundtrack on my record player constantly. I knew all the words to every song and wanted desperately to be in the show if it ever was done in my school. In retrospect, I creep myself out at how nuts I was about this movie. And now I wonder what the hell drew me to it, beyond Ann-Margret's multiple scenes in Spandex.

Well, the music is quite underrated. There are shows/movie musicals that have been more successful, but I couldn't tell one song from another. Indeed, "Bye Bye Birdie" harkens back to a simpler time. You probably remember the plot. It was a parody of the real life hysteria that happened when Elvis Presley was inducted into the Army. Perhaps it's all this teenage angst that drew me in. It was a harbinger of things to come. Amid all the drama of the world, these kids seemed to be okay and even thriving. Maybe that was the future I was hoping for. That life would be so comfortable that I could sit on the telephone and talk to my friends all day like the kids of Sweet Apple, Ohio did.

Like "Bye Bye Birdie," I came to this movie as a kid. Another film my folks didn't want to see.   They dropped me off at the RKO Proctor's after telling the theater staff to watch over me for a couple of hours.   Cinematic daycare.

And, yes, I was equally addicted to the words, the music, and the performances. I would walk to school, singing the songs like some loon. And that included doing "Gary, Indiana" complete with the Ronny Howard-perfected lisp. CBS seemed to run this movie once a season, and I would be plopped down in front of the set days and weeks in advance. 

There was something about the town of River City and the very special summer they experience that captivated me. Perhaps, it was because my hometown of Mount Vernon, New York was slowly evolving into something very un-special. For us, there would be no such thing as a boy's band. Instead, there would be gangs, riots, and hostility. If only our worlds could be about the ice cream social in the local park.

In my younger days, it wasn't always about going to the movies.   I fell in deep love with a few of them unspooling on the black and white television.

When I was about seven or eight, WOR-TV, Channel 9 in New York, had the weirdest programming. Other than Mets baseball, their daily schedule was made up of old movies. And they did something really bizarre called "Million Dollar Movie."

They would pick some old film from the 30s and 40s and run it twice every week night Monday through Friday. Then, on Saturday and Sunday, they would show it continuously over and over all weekend. It's a surprise to me that, at the end of this weekly cycle, some poor celluloid was frayed at the edges. Usually, the movies were completely from the B variety shelf. But, every so often, there was some gem that I could not turn off. "If You Knew Susie." "Hold That Ghost." "Buck Privates."

And "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

I caught it somehow the first night and I was drawn in on Tuesday. And Wednesday. And Thursday. And, by the end of the week, I had seen it probably 11 or 12 times. I knew every line of dialogue. Every lyric. Every dance step. Even where the commercial breaks were.


But, I never watched the first ten minutes. Because, at the very beginning of the movie, young George M. Cohan misbehaves and is spanked by his father. I never could bring myself to watch that. Perhaps, I ws projecting.

"Yankee Doodle Dandy" is the epitome of a star vehicle. If you put anybody else in the lead role of renowned songwriter George M. Cohan besides Jimmy Cagney, you don't have the same movie. You probably don't even have a good one. The film is his. Pure and simple. He acts. He sings. He dances. He glides. He wins an Oscar. Cagney was truly one of the unsung actors of our country's film history, and he reaches his pinnacle in this movie. 
And, speaking of the Million Dollar Movie... 

Thanks to that old stand-by WOR, I probably saw "The Big Circus" 30 or 40 times. Made in 1959 to capitalize on "The Greatest Show on Earth," I thought this movie was even better. Circus sabotage. Big name actors. Runaway tigers. It even had a train crash just like his predecessor. 

Sure, "The Big Circus" was cheesy. While some of the special effects were terrific, others were downright awful. At one point in the movie, Gilbert Roland, playing a famous Wallenda-like acrobat, attempts to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. There are actually some location shots actually filmed at the Falls. At the same time, other shots are obviously filmed on the backlot and look so shoddy when compared to the real thing.

I didn't care. Here was yet another movie theme song that I would sing out loud while skipping to school.

"There's nothing as gay as a wonderful day at THE BIG CIRCUS!"

I probably would be more judicious and less vocal with those lyrics today. But, nevertheless, if "The Big Circus" was playing on TV, I was there. I knew every line and every plot turn. Rhonda Fleming, as the circus PR agent, had the most gorgeous red hair and I wanted her to be my new mother. I didn't care that the movie was shot in widescreen and was subsequently butchered in image by Channel 9.  Along with "Bye Bye Birdie" and "The Music Man," this was cinematic nirvana for me.

By the time I was 12, the film disappeared from view.   Nobody ran it on TV.  It never came out on...ahem...VHS.   A major moment of my childhood was seemingly gone forever.

The movie was produced by Allied Artists, which disbanded as quickly as the Banana Splits.  As a result, "The Big Circus" fell into the Hollywood black hole. It stopped being played on TV. None of the classic movie channels had it in their libraries. I even went as far as writing Turner Classic Movies. Nothing. 

Totally deserving of a restoration, "The Big Circus" didn't even get a chance to be shown anywhere.

Like kids in grammar school, I forget about it from time to time. But, then, suddenly something jars my memory and my passion to rediscover it begins anew. I open a newspaper and see a picture of Rhonda Fleming at a charity event, so my writing partner prods me to find her address and ask her where the movie is. I stumble across a website created by Irwin Allen's estate. He was the producer, so, surely, somebody there must know. Nothing. I put the film far back in my mental hard drive once again.

Then, a few years back, a well-meaning good friend birthday-gifts me with a VHS version of the film that she tracked down somewhere overseas. While I get to savor "The Big Circus" again, I can't help but notice that the dub is terrible and obviously done off a TV transmission. In the widescreen and pristine era of DVDs, this is unacceptable. I bury the movie in my brain's graveyard one more time.

And, then, out of the blue comes the Aero Theater's showing of "Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" with live commentary offered by the film's crew and cast. Which featured Kathryn Grant Crosby, who also conveniently for me is one of the co-stars of "The Big Circus." 

I go into attack mode.

After "Sinbad," I see that Ms. Grant-Crosby is extremely accessible to the audience. I immediately make my way over. My first comment to her probably scared the pellets out of her.

"Ms. Grant, can I ask you something that has nothing to do with this movie?"

There was a momentary look of fear on her face, as if I was going to ask about how many shots she took to the head from Bing. I continued.

"One of my favorite movies when I was a kid was 'The Big Circus'..."

Kathryn Grant-Crosby beamed as if I had just told her that Bing had even more stock in Minute Maid. She smiled broadly and grabbed my hand.

"Mine, too."

I pressed on. "Can you tell me why it is not seen anyplace?"

"I don't know. We made it at Metro, but it was Allied Artists. Did you write to Irwin Allen's people?"

I told her that was a dead end. As well as Turner Classic Movies. We chatted for a few minutes.

She grinned. "Well, we both want to see it again, so let's work on it." 

Maybe we put the energy out there, Kathryn Grant Crosby and I.   Two years later, a glorious DVD was released by Warner Classic Video.   It rests on my book shelf today.   And I can be a kid all over again.

During my single digit age days,  I was a bit of an outcast in my own family.   Most of my cousins were older.   Perhaps by no more than seven or ten years, but there is a huge chasm when they're horny teenagers and you're still watching Popeye cartoons.  And they constantly reminded me of the age difference by wanting to have as little to do with me as possible.

But, God bless my cousin Gini.  She was the first and ultimately only one to show me any level of kindness.   And the act was as simple as this...

She offered to take me to the movies.  

And, oh, it was not just any movie.  It was Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."  Oh, sure, my parents had not really shown much censorship when they took me to the movies.   I came along regardless of the film fare.   If it got too provocative on the screen, the chances are I would be bored anyway.   I'd bide my time by simply running up and down the stairs of RKO Proctor's.

But, "The Birds" was different.   Because it was one of my cousins who was considering me "old enough" to see a horror movie.   Where birds attack children.  Where Suzanne Pleshette as the school teacher gets pecked to death.   Where the blood flowed freely.

I was in complete awe that afternoon.  Not because of the excitement on the screen.   It was because a cousin was finally thinking of me as an equal.   And wanting to spend some time with the little kid.
Okay, I did have one cousin who was my age.   Bobby, the son of my mom's sister.   They lived all the way out in Deer Park, Long Island.  The big attraction there was a backyard pool, where we drowned each other every summer.  But, during the winter, we'd be cooped up in the house while our parents smoked, drank beer, and cheated at Yahtzee.  Bobby and I were easily dispensed with by simply dumping us off for the afternoon at the Deer Park Cinema.

One such foray was for the movie "Goldfinger."  Once again, it was the day and era where our screen choices weren't necessarily given the so-called "parental guidance."  I didn't know who this James Bond guy was, but we soon found out.  Our jaws dropped at what we were seeing.   We were as adult as could be that day.

Staring at the screen at the naked woman lying dead in bed.   Painted tip to tail in gold.  

If our folks only knew.

We loved every moment of "Goldfinger" and it acted as a rite of passage for us.   Neither of us had seen nudity on the screen before.  

My father picked us up afterward.

"How was the movie?"

We murmured.  Okay.

Well, it was more than okay.   For both of us, we secretly had entered a new world of cinematic pleasure.  

We had grown up.   In a short two hours.

But, then again, that's what the movies always do for all of us.   Teach us.  Lead us.  Entertain us.   And, as you get older, your tastes might change.  But the flickering image on the screen still commands your attention.

Those are the movies of my childhood.   What are yours?

Dinner last night:  The salad bar from Gelson's.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My mother loved movies so we went every week.

I have clear memories of Darby O'Gill and The Little People (a rare foray with Dad), A Hard Day's Night, Mary Poppins, Dr. No, Goldfinger, Sword In The Stone, but also some flicks which are now quite obscure.

Who remembers Two On A Guillotine? The Secret Invasion? Gay Purr-ee? Thirteen Ghosts? X: Man With The X-Ray Eyes? List Of Adrian Messenger? Taras Bulba?
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians?

Movies were a treat. They got me out of our small apartment and into a world that was larger than life. The big screen, the color, the action, adventure, music, humor, stories. Hooked me good.