Movies have always been produced as mere disposable popular entertainment. They were made simply to recoup their costs at a profit, and thereafter be written off on balance sheets as depreciating assets. Universal Pictures destroyed all the silent films they had in storage on purpose. But now, as many have discovered, classic films offer surprising residual values, too, and these include more than just the evergreen monetary exploitation of such movies in new media and new markets.
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Looking back across their history, among so many other draws, motion pictures also represent priceless, authentic time travel. They reflect otherwise lost bygone eras. They are cultural artifacts. Plus they often unwittingly make political statements and reveal evolving prejudiced attitudes, for both good and ill. All of which render vintage films worthy of study, besides the entertainment they provide. So all films have value.
And it is not just which particular classic films we saw that is so interesting -- and that our parents and grandparents saw, too, for that matter -- but also where we saw them. Going back a century, movie theatres were designed to seduce one with the feeling of being transported into some kind of magical illusion. Kit Rachlis has written that cinemas “don’t just prepare you for the dream you are about to enter, they are part of it.”
Some of us (and our families before us) lived in the urban centers and therefore were able to attend spectacular motion picture palaces. These were the first-run movie houses, full of grandeur, with their murals, towering columns, and sweeping staircases. They were enormous cinematic cathedrals, like the Roxy Theatre, and Radio City Music Hall in New York. Or the Million Dollar Theatre, and the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Each film presentation at these venues was an event. Then, now and forever, to watch the curtains part and see a great silent film unfold at one of these lavish houses, while listening to a Mighty Wurlitzer organ score, is truly a matchless experience.
In 2008 the international Laurel & Hardy society, Sons of the Desert, held its convention in Amsterdam. The highlight was a tour and 35mm screening at the renowned Tuschinski Theatre, recently the object of a painstaking restoration. The results are breathtaking. When at last after the program (where almost continuous laughter rocked the house) we had to depart this magnificent Art Deco palace, I heard someone remark, “It was as though none of us had ever seen these films before! What a difference it makes, to see Laurel & Hardy movies we thought we knew so well, in a setting like this.”
There are historical groups such as The American Theatre Organ Society, and also The Los Angeles Conservancy, which take an interest in saving and celebrating these cinemas. The LA Conservancy sponsors annual programs like The Last Remaining Seats series as fund-raisers in order to “recognize, preserve and revitalize” landmark film palaces as architectural wonders as well as cultural resources. The architect Charles Moore explained that the original intention of such grand old theatres was “to carry you for a few special hours away from the tawdry and the pinched.” And so they did.
Across the heartland of America, however, and far away from the European capitals of London, Berlin, and Paris, there was another kind of movie-going experience -- smaller theatres, neither uptown nor downtown, but rather located around town and in small towns. These were the ubiquitous, bread-and-butter neighborhood sub-run houses, patronized by the majority of movie-goers. Where prints were sometimes worn after use in the first-run cinemas, and where the quality of exhibitors’ showmanship varied too. For one thing, during the silent era in smaller communities, which could not support the cost of a live orchestra or a Wurlitzer organ for musical accompaniment, there might be just a single piano player. So that the live score provided would depend on the ability (and sometimes late-night sobriety) of that lone pianist!
Growing up, were you lucky enough to see great movies at the local picture show? Not the usual screen fare, but exceptional shows? Is that where you were introduced to favorites you still enjoy? Was it a special place that you recall fondly? A comfortable, inviting home away from home? Maybe a beautiful and ornate movie theatre just down the block, or at least nearby? Where you saw films projected upon an impossibly huge silver screen, in the dark? With a large respectful audience, but without commercial interruption? Can you still taste the delicious, hot, buttered popcorn, too? Are you still trying to finish that carton-sized box of Dots?
Tell us about your first movie-going experience! Also, what, if anything, do you remember about where and how you first saw Laurel & Hardy? What did you think ?
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This was the only way those classic Hollywood movies, the ones made during the days of the studio system, were meant to be seen by the artists who created them. Each picture was intended to be viewed writ large on a movie screen, as a shared discovery, in a group experience. With a certain amount of collective dreaming. The work product of all the cinematic masters was created according to that business model, including films by Thalberg, Disney, Selznick, Stevens, Sennett, Roach, Lubitsch, Hitchcock, Hawks, Wilder, Wyler, Whale, Welles, Capra, and of course Laurel & Hardy, later Woody Allen, and as W.C. Fields said in his incomparable THE BANK DICK, “Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the rest of ’em.”
These were artists, some were also showmen. They knew what kind of film satisfied the most and what kind of exhibition worked best: theatrical.
Given the choice, even yet today, plenty of film fans still prefer to get out of the house and go to an event – go see movies with friends at a clean, comfortable theater, with plush seating, as a larger than life experience. How else to explain the whopping worldwide gross amounting to hundreds of millions just generated by the brand new vampire-romance sequel THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON? Otherwise why wouldn’t the predominately young girls who are putting this film over at the box-office simply wait a few weeks to buy and see the DVD at home?
While it is true – and understandable -- that families no longer habitually support today’s often less than wholesome movies, packs of young boys, too, still do herd together to patronize theatres in order to see films like the kind Judd Apatow produces such as SUPERBAD (2007), or Marvel’s current SPIDER-MAN cycle; just as young girls (unfathomably) flock together for a bloody good time giggling with one another through NEW MOON.
The shared, group experience. Social occasions, in the dark. With something intangible going on in the charged air. These components contribute to an altered reality inside a crowded movie theatre. There is no question about it.
Were you introduced to movies that way? Especially the unique and remarkable movies like CITY LIGHTS (1931), BIG BUSINESS (1929), SWING TIME (1936), RIDER OF DEATH VALLEY (1932), CITIZEN KANE (1941), SEVEN CHANCES (1925), THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), BULLDOG DRUMMOND STRIKES BACK (1934), THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939), TAXI (1932), STAGECOACH (1939), FLY MY KITE (1931), MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1935), SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), TROUBLE IN PARADISE, (1932), LAUGHTER IN PARADISE (1951), PATHS TO PARADISE (1925), and REMEMBER LAST NIGHT? (1935). Like those. Like wow. Even as revivals, even in film society screenings…I remember them all.
If so, if you first saw your own list of favorites in the right kind of theatrical situation, then you know what sort of magic happened in those neighborhood movie houses – the “nabes” as Hollywood trade papers called them -- sometimes creating wonderful, lifetime memories which one can happily never forget. Just try sometime.
And because of that, you also know that seeing films any other way is simply not the same treasured experience. “Home entertainment,” for example, is not a group experience. Even if a group is present, is there ever anything intangible going on? Is it ever a silent group experience? Or is some classless Neanderthal who believes the movie exists to bring you his or her alleged humor, insistent upon narrating everything as though you have lost all powers of observation and hearing? Do you ever discover anything, except possibly in the refrigerator? No, not likely. Instead, you need to be, as TIME magazine’s Ben M. Hall described it, totally focused, inside a darkened theatre, with “an acre of seats in a garden of dreams.”
And he is not talking about those little pre-fabricated cement bunkers in the multiplex cinemas usually found in shopping centers.
Reflecting on those movie-going days summons powerful recollections for lots of us. Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning novelist and playwright William Saroyan (a discreet but deep-dyed Laurel & Hardy fan) wrote an essay on the subject in 1972. He called it PLACES WHERE I’VE DONE TIME. Specifically, that place was the Bijou Theatre, located “in the very heart of Fresno, on J Street, above Mariposa, in the middle of the block, on the west side of the street.” Tickets to get in cost a dime. Saroyan spent many happy hours there, watching low-brow westerns, serials and two-reel comedies. He loved them; I love them, who doesn’t love them?
“A lot of kids just couldn’t afford the dime to get in,” Saroyan wrote, “and they sneaked in. I did, too.”
Good for you.
Hugh Hefner, another Laurel & Hardy fan (“They were and are so underrated, and their comedy wears wonderfully well”), is forever telling the parade of media elite, who line up to interview this cultural force about PLAYBOY magazine and the empire it spawned, how 1930s movies were the source of his dreams, his imagination, and his inspiration. And how he spent his youth dutifully worshipping at the altar of the Montclare Theatre in Chicago. That is primarily where Hefner got his values, peering up and into this unique, silver screen window on the world, and all for pennies, gladly deposited in haste at the box-office of this neighborhood theater.
Since then Hefner has donated many millions of dollars for the cause of film preservation. He wants to give back. He has, too. Even now most nights of the week Hefner attempts to recapture that same boyhood experience, and revisit those feelings, so powerful were those early black and white movies, projected in that darkened theater, just as they also then held sway over the popular imagination of all America, as well as much of the rest of the world.
“My dreams came from movies,” Hefner says. “I believe that the dreams of the world come from Hollywood. Seeing those images up on the screen, you could be transported to another place, where all things were possible. And so I believed they were. It was no coincidence that the Montclare Theatre was located at the end of a streetcar line, and at the end of the rainbow.”
With any of us for whom movies imposed a powerful influence, we want to share those values, and hold onto those feelings and memories. When the Montclare Theatre was torn down, Hefner managed to obtain a souvenir piece of the inside paneling. Along with a lifetime of fabulous cherished mementoes, he keeps it upstairs in his bedroom.
As a small boy, my own parents took me to see shows (but only selected shows) at the sleek Highland Theatre in St. Paul, decidedly a neighborhood house. This 1938 cubist brick streamline moderne cathedral of dreams was operated by entrepreneur Ted Mann, and later by his brother. Mann married movie star Rhonda Fleming and built a far flung exhibition empire including such legendary motion picture palaces as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the famous pagoda structure on Hollywood Boulevard, which he boldly renamed Mann’s Chinese Theatre. After the Radio City Music Hall in New York, it is probably the most famous site of theater-going grandeur on the planet.
My grandmother would sometimes take me instead to the World Theatre in downtown St. Paul, built in 1910 as one of the multitude of Shubert Theatres across America. It retained just enough of the homespun aura of small town movie houses. I saw THE CRAZY WORLD OF LAUREL & HARDY there in 1967, an anthology film now long out of circulation and which due to rights issues may never again be cleared for exhibition anywhere. Too bad. At the time, I loved this film so much I went back to see it once more, this time armed with a battery-powered audio tape recorder. I wanted somehow to preserve the experience. I remember phoning my then-new friend, the film’s credited producer, Hal Roach, to tell him what I had done. He laughed at me like I was out of my mind.
St.Paul’s rejuvenated World Theatre is also internationally known today as the home stage of writer and humorist Garrison Keillor’s popular radio program A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION since its first broadcast in 1974.
In 1988 the Sons of the Desert organization conducted its international convention in St. Paul and Hal Roach gave me a letter of greeting to be read at one of the special events held at the World Theatre. The old place was packed almost to the ceiling that memorable night – not only with devoted Laurel & Hardy fans but plenty of Hal Roach Studios alumni, too.
“I could not believe the outpouring of love I experienced that night,” was the sober comment afterwards by Our Gang’s often hard-bitten Spanky McFarland. Another Roach grad, actor Henry Brandon, announced from the stage with that powerful voice of his, “It’s great to be in a real theatre again!” The crowd went wild.
Fortunately both these movie showplaces – the Highland and World Theatres -- live on today as prized landmarks. (The World has since been re-named as The Fitzgerald in honor of that certain St. Paul literary figure, F. Scott Fitzgerald.) So many other cinemas elsewhere, however, have either been victims of the wrecking ball and vanished without a trace, or as John Margolies has written, they only “cling to life as porno houses.” Now even those seem doomed. Maybe they are gone now.
Attending the Lone Pine Film Festival each year up in the Eastern Sierra Mountains where Roach protégé George Stevens made GUNGA DIN (1938) and cowboy stars Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers road through B-westerns, several of us drive north from Los Angeles, stopping along the way for a bite to eat in small towns like Mojave, in the desert. Once almost every rural community in America and Europe had its own picture-show theatre. Offering the first, only, and last picture show. Like a lot of the passing social scene, most of these structures have now been torn down, or converted to alternate uses. So en route we often pause in places like Mojave to puzzle over the inevitable, sadly repurposed old movie theatres which do survive, though now no longer serving up collective dreams in the dark as originally intended.
In any city, everywhere, these altered edifices are hard to miss. Today they function as churches, clothing stores, furniture outlets, or super markets, but their distinctive architecture (almost invariably with an Art Deco tower and marquee) calls out each one’s origin as a proud neighborhood theatre – not a grand picture palace exactly, but still once a source of inspiration and dreams on Main Streets from coast to coast. Particularly during the pre-TV era.
For many moviegoers, the experience of marching up to those inviting box-office windows, in order to escape inside to a world of make-believe, was absolutely transcendent, and those distinctive, sleepy little theatres were therefore part of the show itself, as well as part of our memories today.
Driving by converted theatres in 2009, there is always the temptation to stop, to go inside, and to conduct a search. Such a search for nominally “the last remaining seats” would in fact be as much a quest for movie treasure!
Maybe inside the foyer there might be a secret panel concealing a stash of folded old and dusty Morgan Litho movie posters, or other highly coveted theatre poster art. Maybe we would find a box of mint condition lobby cards, or inserts, or pressbooks, or still photos, or coming attractions slides.
In recent years some of the rarest and most spectacular one-sheet movie posters have been reclaimed as abandoned items in just this way -- long overlooked, forgotten, and accidentally secreted in random storage within the hidden bowels of these old theatres. Sometimes, incredibly, this once “disposable advertising” was deemed useful only as insulation, where it remained stuffed inside walls and ceilings until a resourceful dealer or collector discovered the hiding place. So it is well worth touring such senior cinemas.
Or, instead of finding valuable movie posters, maybe there is an ignored or hidden closet door nearby the projection booth, or perhaps the mezzanine lounge, which no one has opened in sixty years. But we open it and inside is an old 35mm shipping case marked … is it CATS OFFICE? Is that what it says? Or, no, now wait a minute, does it actually read, what? HATS OFF? Hmmm…don’t we wonder! Who knows, what might be where? And how will we know, if we do not look?
So I was thinking about such surviving neighborhood houses, and the movie-going experience, and all of these related considerations, when I happened to read the short piece which follows, written by Tyler St. Mark. It struck just the right chord, it transported me right back inside some of my own favorite old theatres, and I asked permission to share this fine remembrance with readers here on the website.
Tyler’s reflections were inspired by the accompanying illustration which shows a small neighborhood theatre where the featured attraction was Laurel & Hardy’s FLYING DEUCES (1939). Sure would like to walk right into that scene, down that Main Street, and buy a ticket to that show! Just the way Buster Keaton did it in SHERLOCK, JR. (1924). Wouldn’t you? How about it? Got 25 cents?
And, it also started me thinking, and considering, some of the Hal Roach comedies which portrayed both the movie-making and the film-going experience. After all, this was the studio’s business – filmmaking, creating comedies for theatres to show. The people who worked there at “the lot of fun,” those folks lived these stories they made. Seeing such films about films is the next best thing to having been in Culver City and participated in their original production.
Laurel & Hardy’s wives, for instance, went to the movies in SONS OF THE DESERT (1933). As everyone knows, it was the boys’ undoing! “The movies” was a plot point. The Roach programmer PICK A STAR (1937) was a behind-the-scenes Hollywood story with a lot of charm in which Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy performed two sequences playing themselves.
Other Hal Roach Studios titles involving movie-making and film-going? There was Harold Lloyd starring in LUKE’S MOVIE MUDDLE (1916), as well as HEY THERE! (1918). Billy Gilbert (as “Mr. Schmaltz”) made MOVIE DAZE (1934). Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly co-starred in BEAUTY AND THE BUS (1933), and MAID IN HOLLYWOOD (1934). Our Gang raced through DOGS OF WAR (1923), BETTER MOVIES (1925), and PLAYIN’ HOOKEY(1928).
Then Will Rogers spoofed Hollywood in UNCENSORED MOVIES (1923) and BIG MOMENTS FROM LITTLE PICTURES (1924). Snub Pollard made two fine such comedies: BEFORE THE PUBLIC (1922), and IN THE MOVIES (1922). Charley Chase directed this last one, and starred in WHY MEN WORK (1924), THE FAMILY ENTRANCE (1925), reworked as MOVIE NIGHT (1929), and which was a blueprint for his NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSE (1936).
In a comment about the double-bill menace that was then ruining the market for two-reel comedies and forcing Roach stars to make longer pictures or perish , on the marquee at the cinema where Chase takes his family in NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSE are listed four features and a major studio preview! If one looks closely at the posters displayed outside the theatre, or listens closely while watching the audience inside the theatre, one of these films is Laurel & Hardy’s THE BOHEMIAN GIRL (1936).
Recently the fine antecedent, MOVIE NIGHT, was presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in a special festive showing at its Samuel Goldwyn Theatre with live musical accompaniment by Johnny Crawford and his Orchestra.
We are so lucky to have these wonderful short comedies as our ticket inside that Washington Boulevard gate at the Hal Roach Studios. What fun they obviously had there, and what a treat it is to see these movies about the movies. Sure wish we could jump on the time machine and find the neighborhood theater with those “selected short subjects” listed up in lights on the theater marquee!
Since that is not possible – is it? -- in the alternative I began gathering some relevant studio still photos from films like MOVIE NIGHT, NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSE, etc., also some of the beautiful theatre poster art used to advertise Hal Roach comedies outside cinemas (which surviving posters now sell for a small fortune at auction houses), as well as various vintage exterior shots of authentic neighborhood exhibition houses. All inspired by, and meant to accompany Tyler’s work, and all of which are “now playing,” right here, as in the well-remembered words of the Crane sisters on stage reciting those talking-titles, “for your entertainment and approval.”
-- Richard W. Bann --
SMALL TOWNS AND SILLY SHENANIGANS
By Tyler St.Mark
Most people I know who grew up in small towns could not wait to leave when they came of age, being anxious to shuffle off the constraints of such close proximity. Yet, like me, they would heartily embrace the poignant memories of that same proximity when they were much older and worldly-wise.
I am both fortunate and grateful now to have wonderful memories of growing up in a typical small town that had one park near the center of town, one grocery store, one high school, one toy store, one candy store, one music store, one mortuary, and of course, one motion picture theatre.
Some of my fondest boyhood memories are of sitting in the antiquated balcony of that old cinema house, sometimes for an entire day, watching the latest Hollywood feature or, as was the custom for many weekday matinees, comedy classics of the past.
Sometimes, I would even skip school to catch a rare or obscure celluloid treasure, thanks to my indulgent mother and an elderly but astute projectionist named Pete who shared my love for old films and always kept a watchful eye for the local truant officer.
There, in that vintage, velvet-curtained sanctuary that always smelled of musty popcorn, I readily encountered the outrageous world of Laurel & Hardy, living vicariously in their uproarious adventures whether they were selling Christmas trees in the middle of July or sneaking out on the wives for a bit of bachelor debauchery.
For me, Laurel & Hardy was not really a partnership. It was a team that included me as the silent member, wary but never reluctant to share in their silly shenanigans. Sometimes, when I could hear old Pete laughing from the tiny projection booth above me, it was a comedy committee!
Of course, there were plenty of Stan and Ollies living in our little town. When Mrs. Botts, who taught music lessons, bought a new piano, the delivery guys seemed to come from THE MUSIC BOX. Little Bill and Big Bob, who ran the hardware store in town, could have stepped right out of TIT FOR TAT. And our well-meaning neighbors, a retired handyman and his stepson, often turned simple repairs into a scene from BUSY BODIES.
Upon occasion, even the Hopkins sisters could pass for The Boys, particularly when they argued over where to sit in church or at the theatre. Sometimes, watching them from my private perch in the balcony above them, I whistled the KU KU SONG! Hearing the tune, they would look up, and then give each other that same puzzled look Stan and Ollie always exchanged when things didn’t make sense.
Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy not only entertained me during my wonder years, they comforted me in some of my darker and lonelier times as a teenager as well. Stan and Ollie were there for me when our family dog finally passed on and they made me laugh out loud in spite of the broken heart that resulted from my first high school crush. The Boys were even there for my last day in that old cinema house—before the doors closed for good and the building was sold.
Recently, I acquired an old postcard that perfectly captures the ambiance of the small town I grew up in. Studying the vintage street pictured in black and white instantly brought back memories of the same street in my home town. Although the town as shown is from an era a little earlier than when I grew up, the atmosphere is precisely the same; projecting the close proximity I grew first to resent, then, years later, to remember fondly.
I suppose most small towns aren’t all that different today. No doubt the local coffee shop and grocery store have given way to places like Starbucks and Ralph’s Market by now, and perhaps Stan and Ollie have been replaced at the Sunday matinee by vintage Chevy Chase and Mel Brooks. But for me and countless others I know, Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy were and always will be an essential part of our small town memories. And, for the record, I still whistle the KU KU SONG whenever I see a couple arguing about where to sit at the Cineplex….
Tyler St.Mark grew up in show business and has been a Laurel & Hardy fan since 1964. As a youth he met Stan Laurel, almost by accident, then performed in a Laurel & Hardy tour until the early 1970s, and became the first professional actor to portray Stan Laurel (as himself) in a one-man show in 1975. Over the years, he has acquired some extremely rare and unusual memorabilia including, more recently, the last known film footage of Stan Laurel, in color. In Spring 2010, after thirty-five years, with the blessing of Lois Laurel, he will reprise his one-man show titled, STAN LAUREL BACKSTAGE.