Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Master's Degree in Film History -- in the Comfort of Your Own Home!

So, where was I? I’ve got plenty to talk about, especially the TCM Classic FilmFestival, but that will have to wait for another day. (And, yes, I know it’s a version of not getting to the point again …)

I had been talking about how moviegoing’s changed since I was a kid in the Stone Age.

     Growing up in Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s, I was lucky, we had nine television channels – 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, and later 28, and, still later, 56 – all of which had extensive film libraries, as well as regular movie broadcasts.·     

      Probably a Paramount -- something from the 30s.
  • Channel 2 (KNXT) had “The Early Show” at 4:00 pm, and “The Late Show” and “The Late, Late Show” after the 11:00 news.
  • Channel 4 (KNBC) had an afternoon movie hosted by Tom Frandsen. (The listings for Frandsen’s show sometimes confused me. They’d say “Live portions in color.” Literally for years, I thought that meant that the actors from the original movies would come into the studio and do their scenes again, only this time live from the television studio. I can’t believe I’m admitting to that.)
  • Channel 5 (KTLA) had the Paramount and Goldwyn libraries and had extensive shows on the weekends, usually hosted by the genial Tom Hatten (who also hosted the Popeye cartoons).
  • Channel 7 (KABC) also had afternoon and late night movies (other than Johnny Carson, movies, and occasional syndicated sitcom reruns, that was it after the news – and stations signed off at the end of the broadcast day and turned off the transmitter).
  • Channel 9 (KHJ) had the Million Dollar Movie (showing the same film every night all week and multiple times on the weekend) as well as Saturday afternoon genre pictures It was almost always Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake as Blondie and Dagwood, or the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, or Charlie Chans. If you were lucky, you got a Warner Oland Chan. A little less lucky, and it’d be Sidney Toler. If you were even less lucky, you’d get Roland Winters. But who cared? It was Charlie Chan.  Sunday afternoons, it was monster movies from the 50s, and Saturday nights, Larry Vincent would appear as horror host Seymour to mock the lousy monster movies he’d show. Vincent was later succeeded by Cassandra Peterson’s Elvira, but they were just two of the hordes of such hosts, pioneered by John Zacherley in New York and Ernie Anderson as Ghoulardi in Cleveland.
  • Channel 11 (KTTV) had the best movies, with a sprinkling of MGMs, Warners Bros, and RKOs in the afternoon – hosted by Ben Hunter, whose endless commercial interruptions were the inspiration for Johnny Carson’s “Tea Time Movies.” (Hunter’s toupe was almost as bad as Art Fern’s). I remember watching the 1965 Carrol Baker movie “Harlow” and, at almost the end, Hunter interrupted to sell some kind of snake oil or “you-finish” a-frame cabins for some fly-by-night company, after which they resumed the movie to show – literally – the final 30 seconds. But there was gold in them late-night hills, even if you had to wade through Ralph Williams, Chick Lambert (and his dog, Storm), Cal Worthington, and Pete Ellis to see it. (The late night movies were almost always sponsored by local car dealers, who insisted on showing us and describing pretty much every vehicle in the inventory)
  • Channel 13 (KCOP) was L.A.’s bargain basement station. Their operating budget must have been in the mid three figures, but even they had movies. Lousy ones, but they still showed ‘em. 
  • Channel 28 (KCET) was the PBS – or NET in those days – station, so they showed silents, foreign films, and other rarities the other channels left untouched.  
  • Channel 56 (KDOC) was one of the last players in this game, so they ended up with all the stuff that even KCOP had passed on – though they did end up with the Three Stooges package, so we’d watch then after school.
My point is, though, there was something almost magical about flipping through the channels (which almost always meant turning an actual dial on the front of your set) and stumbling across “Grand Hotel” or “Citizen Kane.” Even edited to shreds – most 90-minute or two-hour movies were shoveled into a two-hour time-slot, which meant they were almost always edited to squeeze in more of the endless car commercials – the good ones still retained their magic.

"Grand Hotel" -- edited so severely the rest of the cast was cut out.

You could almost compile a bucket list of movies you wanted to see, but when they were scheduled, you had to be ready to jump. I remember I once talked my mother into letting me stay home from school because KTLA was going to show the Marx Brothers’s first movie (“The Cocoanuts”) at noon, and I’d never seen it – and didn’t know when I’d ever get the chance again.  

 "Dear Principal Stine. Please excuse my son from school so he can watch the "Monkey Doodle-Doo."

So that was the thing. You had to be ready at a moment’s notice to catch a really good movie, and watch ‘em when you got the chance. Some you’d see over and over (KTLA seemed to be obsessed with showing Bob Hope’s “The Princess and the Pirate”), and some you’d see once, never forget, but never see again. I particularly remember a European spy spoof that featured the hero escaping the villains by literally flushing himself down the toilet. I have no idea what that movie was, but I’d love to know the title and see it again.

Things got a little better when – maybe capitalizing on the nostalgia boom of the 70s, maybe no – a number of revival and repertory movie theatres opened in Los Angeles.

The Encore. (Never mind the marquee.) King of Los Angeles revival theatres.

But that’s our chapter for next time.

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