In 1971 at age 12, my love of movies triggered an obsession with the 1933 film “King Kong.” Suddenly I could think of little else. I went to my local library and read everything I could find about it. I even joined the Movie Book Club so I could order books about it. Eventually, I knew every scene, most of the dialogue and how the filmmakers created all the special effects. Since this was long before the advent of home video, however, I never had an opportunity to actually see the darn movie.
Seven years earlier, my mother took me to a nearby town to see “The Sound of Music,” my first movie in a real theater. I was five years old, and while I loved the film-going experience, I didn’t care for the movie. I disliked musicals.
I was a brutal junior critic.
It’s not that I didn’t know at such a young age what movies were supposed to be. I loved most movies. On Saturday afternoons my sister and I watched a TV show on channel 6 called “Color Showcase.” Despite its name, “Color Showcase” showed black and white grade B melodramas — low-brow stuff, seen today in the dollar bin if even seen at all.
Sometimes we tired of “Color Showcase” and turned to “Shock Theater” on channel 12 — the only other channel we could pick up. “Shock Theater” did not show horror classics — they were inferior knock-offs and imitations of the greats; more Peter Cushing and John Carradine than Boris Karloff, designed to provoke startles, make a few bucks for the studios then eventually be sentenced (if they were lucky) to rerun status on television. They were late-night horror movies for those not old enough or so inclined to stay up late.
I loved to be horrified by those cheesy cinematic quickies. I closed my eyes as the Wolf Man rolled boulders off a ledge, shattering them among the peasants below. I cringed and buried my face in the sofa pillow as I tried to watch Lon Chaney Jr. as the Frankenstein monster shuffle through the fields and villages. He was lumbering and slow, yet I never wondered why the villagers didn’t just apprehend him somehow and throw him in prison.
My sister said she was most scared of the Wolf Man because he was quick; I, on the other hand, was most terrified of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, because he could catch me and drag me underwater with him.
I was 12 years old the last time I closed my eyes in fear during a scary movie, which was “The Screaming Woman,” starring Bette Davis. When I started looking for Kong almost a year later I knew it had some scary moments, but I vowed that when I watched it I would not close my eyes.
It was time to grow up.
I had a plan.
Up into my teenage years, every Sunday after church we went to my grandparents’ house. After a delicious carby and high-fat lunch, I sat back in my Grandmother’s chair in the den while the adults dozed in the living room. I eagerly spread out the Sunday newspaper and pored over the television logs for the week, hoping to find a showing of the elusive Kong somewhere, at any hour on any channel. Movie addicts like me were at the mercy of the television programmers, who obviously picked films not for their classic appeal but their commercial value. After all, they had to sell them to sponsors.
In 1972 — after about a year of scanning the TV logs — my patience was rewarded: I found that the next Saturday night, at 11:00 p.m. EST, WTTG channel 5 out of Washington DC was broadcasting the original “King Kong.” Finally!
But there was a problem …
A year after “The Sound of Music,” in 1965, my mom took me and my sister to see a special theatrical re-release of “Gone with the Wind” at the same theater. She said it was a classic and everyone needed to see it, even six-year-olds.
I recall only a few dim impressions of my first viewing of this classic movie. I remember it was dreadfully long, and split by an intermission. Second, for a movie chock full of memorable scenes and dialogue I clearly remembered only one shot: a close-up of a dying horse pulling the wagon past the burning city of Atlanta. The sight of that horse for only a second, with the foam hanging from its mouth, burned into my first-grade brain like a branding iron. I couldn’t focus on anything after that — I was too mortified by that dying horse.
There was one more momentous event in the showing of that movie that day, only it wasn’t one intended by director Victor Fleming or anyone else. At the very end, the theater projectionist muted the sound when Clark Gable uttered the notorious “damn.” Rhett Butler’s immortal, history-making line came out as “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a.” I guess this town still embraced Hayes office censorship in 1965. Or at least the projectionist did. I remember adults coming out of the theater talking about the end, wondering why it wasn’t how they remembered it. Mom said they “cut a bad word” out of it. It made no difference to me — I was obsessing over that dying horse.
The problem with watching Kong was that our house in a small town in western Virginia barely picked up WTTG with a roof aerial. All week I paced, wondering how I could enhance the almost non-existent signal into some kind of shape so I could watch my much-anticipated Kong. I considered many methods, though I stopped short of climbing a ladder to the roof to try to beef up the antenna somehow.
I tried the rotor at every location on the dial. The rotor was a device on top of the TV that swiveled the antenna on the roof to improve reception. It had a compass face on the dial, and if I spun the dial in any direction, it click-click-click-ed the antenna into that position. Sometimes the picture got better, then worse again, so I had to backtrack to where it was better. It was trial and error, but it was top-drawer western Virginia technology in 1971, before basic cable crept in years later.
Some other films I watched between 1965 and 1968 at that same theater included a Dick van Dyke film called “Never a Dull Moment” and “The Love Bug” (which in defiance of theater regulations my friends and I sat and watched twice). I dimly remember watching a Lucille Ball film called “Yours, Mine and Ours.”
Hurricane Camille roared through Virginia the week the “Love Bug” played, flooding all of that downtown except the theater. It did not miss one show.
A lot changed during the sixties, including small-town theater film projection sensibilities. I told my Mom in late 1968 that I wanted to go see this movie coming out that was supposed to be really good, called “Planet of the Apes.” Her predicted response was “Why do you want to see that awful thing?” But she relented and let me and my friend Billy go see it as long as my older sister and her friend Kim stayed with us. It was so cool, and I felt so grown-up (as grown-up as a 9-year-old could feel) because the word “damn” was uttered several times, and the projectionist did not mute any of them.
While waiting for Kong, I discovered one single hash mark on our rotor face that made WTTG reception slightly better than static. I tried tying a wire hanger to the antenna lead on the back of the TV, and I wrapped a long piece of electric fence wire to the hanger and out the window, unrolled twenty feet across the yard.
It succeeded in having some psychological value, so I left it there.
There was another theater in that town. The Cavalier Theater was down the street but it was torn down before I got a chance to watch any movies there. My dad saw many movies there in the 1930s. I have pictures of him taken there with actor Billy Barty and the Sons of the Pioneers. There was also a drive-in theater only about a mile west of our house, called the Skyline Drive-In. At night I could see the flickering distant screen from our front yard.
Our family went to the drive-in only once, to see a Disney comedy called “That Darn Cat.” I don’t remember much about the film but I sure remember the previews — one was for an “adult-style” film whose title I can’t recall. It was a terrible film, according to the preview seen by this brutal eight-year-old critic. First of all, everyone’s clothes kept stupidly falling off. There was no nudity in the preview, only the suggestion of it.
The other preview was for some long-forgotten anti-drug movie called “Wild in the Streets.” I only remember a woman (Shelley Winters), supposedly zonked on LSD, climbing a barbed wire fence while screeching the national anthem. Like wow, man. As she was pulled down by someone the camera zoomed in on her bloody hand, another foaming horse-mouth moment that shocked me into forgetting everything about the actual movie.
Apparently, in swinging 1968 drive-in culture, it was standard practice at this theater to preview adult-style trailers at family films. My parents were so upset my Dad marched off to the projection house to complain to anybody who may be in charge. I’m sure some clueless teenage assistant manager got a finger-wagging and the empty threat of a letter. That was the one and only time we went to the drive-in theater only one mile from our house.
The Skyline Theater has long been torn down.
My feverish activity to improve WTTG channel 5 reception lasted all week. My schoolwork suffered, I was so obsessed with my preparations for Kong. I drove my friends and family crazy talking non-stop about it. I became gaunt, grouchy and irritable. Forget Herbert Hoover appearing on TV in 1927; forget FDR opening the World’s Fair in 1939; forget Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, or the moon landing or any other event touted by historians as “television history.” Saturday night was going to be the most momentous television event in history and there was a chance it would not happen for me.
One time in early 1967 I had to go with some people from our church on a perfectly good Sunday afternoon to watch a movie at a newly-opened mall theater. I was wary of church-recommended films, worried that they would be amateurish and preachy. I was not only a brutal junior critic but a comedy-action and monster addict, not a fan of Christian parable films. This Sunday afternoon matinee attendance was odd and out-of-sync with my normally compulsive Sunday activities, which ironically included poring over and underlining movie listings in the newspaper.
No, no, my mom insisted as we drove to the theater, me squirming still in my church clothes. It was not amateurish and preachy, but a quality film, starring Billy Graham, and that it was recommended by our pastor. The film, “For Pete’s Sake,” was about a family dealing with their new-found Christianity. I honestly don’t recall anything about it, other than sitting through it cost me 90 minutes of scanning movie listings.
On Kong’s big day I watched the local 6 p.m. news on channel 6. The reception on channel 5 all day had been lousy, and I was worried Kong was going to be unwatchable. The weatherman said a line of thunderstorms was moving from D.C. south through the Shenandoah Valley area later that evening. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was great news — sometimes storms cleared the air, improving TV signals. At around 8 p.m., as the weather raged outside, I haltingly tested my channel 5 reception. It was surprisingly better; I could make out individual figures in the static. The storm was piggy-backing a stronger signal with it from D.C.
This was enormous progress.
There were very few movie-watching opportunities in the 1960s. If someone really wanted to see a certain film that they missed in the theaters, they had to monitor the TV guides to see if and when it may come on. Sometimes they had to wait a long time. Sometimes it never came on at all. Many movies in those days became lost mysteries — once they left the theaters and never came on TV, what happened to them?
On the other hand, certain movies became annual television events. How many baby-boomers today remember watching “The Wizard of Oz” once — and only once — per year? It was special because it was a rarity, like the “Peanuts Christmas Special,” whose one-time-only annual appearance (along with Perry Como and the Sears Wish Book) indicated the Christmas season had arrived.
There was one exception to the waiting — some movies could be purchased from a company called Blackhawk films. There were drawbacks: they were 16mm, the selections were very limited, there were no new releases, and the viewer had to own the appropriate projector to watch them. They were also expensive — I for one could not afford the $50 — $135 retail prices.
I did, however, in 1975 order from Blackhawk an 8mm version of the Louis Bunuel silent surreal classic “Un Chien Andalou” and a very clean print of Georges Melies’ 1902 masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon.” I still proudly own both. They cost a total of about $50.
Around 10:30 the weather cleared. At 10:45 I popped my popcorn, filled my glass with Dr. Pepper and anxiously switched to Channel 5. I held my breath as I turned the rotor to the hashmark I had thoughtfully indicated with a magic marker dash, and as it click-click-clicked into place I was astonished to discover that the storm had cleared the air so well I could actually see a picture — it was a television miracle. And at 11:00 p.m. sharp, as the now-familiar rotating RKO Radio logo appeared, with the clumsy animated lightning bolts beeping from the miniature tower top, my moment arrived, God had smiled, the planets had aligned; I was going to actually watch my much-anticipated Kong.
I devoured it. I refused to move from the murky black & white screen, even for commercials, afraid I would lose the picture if I walked or even looked away. Eventually, I did lose the picture, and most of the Empire State Building sequence was buried in static. I only heard it. But that was okay.
I know now that the version I watched that night was a badly chopped copy of a copy, dark and dingy and edited for time by some nameless hack programming engineer who had no clue how to artfully edit a timeless classic; but no matter — I joined the ranks of those who could proudly say “Why yes, I have seen the original ‘King Kong,’ and here are my thoughts on it …”
That year-long search for Kong highlighted a love of classic movies that I have carried my whole life. After Kong I spent countless Sunday afternoons in the 1970s with both local newspapers and the Washington Post, scoping, underlining and highlighting tiny-type movie logs a week in advance to see what was playing when and on which channel so I could plan my week.
Every Saturday from 12 noon to 1:30 p.m. I watched a show called “John Wayne Theater” that ran terrible early-1930s Lone Star Production westerns with titles like “Lawless Frontier” and “The Lucky Texan,” starring the then-unknown John Wayne and other early western stalwarts like Gabby Hayes and Yakima Canutt.
I rejoiced at a 6:00 p.m. Saturday chance showing of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” on a public access channel. I spent numerous Saturday nights in the 1970s dateless so I could catch midnight channel 12 screenings of “The Mummy,” “4-D Man,” “Black Scorpion” or “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.” I recall a spectacular double feature one Friday night consisting of “Willard” at 9:00 p.m., then “Frogs” two hours later. I checked my calendar and snuck downstairs to stay up till 2:00 a.m. on a school night to watch “A Night to Remember,” the first movie about the Titanic.
The first time my family ever stayed in a motel was in Norfolk, Virginia in 1973, and my sister and I stayed up past midnight watching the 1959 “The Hound of the Baskervilles” on WTAR thanks to my locating it in the Virginia Pilot newspaper. The summer before I became a high school senior, I called my cousin 30 miles away to ask if I could come there on a Tuesday to watch a 10:00 a.m. showing of the Beatles film “Help” on a cable channel they could pick up but I could not. She agreed, and left the basement door unlocked for me, since no one was home.
I did whatever I had to do to watch the films I craved, and I remember almost every one of them from those years.
Today, I periodically watch the Criterion disc of my beloved Kong, and I still grow nostalgic with each viewing — for the movie, and for the months I spent over forty years ago hunting it down.
Unlike those days, simple technology today makes almost any movie available within seconds to anyone. Satellite and streaming services bring almost any movie into a household on any night. For traditionalists, entire Blockbuster video stores are now compressed into Coke machine-size boxes in front of Wal-Mart, where recent releases can be viewed for as little as a buck a night — conveniences light years beyond 11-year-old 1970s film buff comprehension.
I feel a little sorry that children today are not familiar with the magic of patiently searching out, eagerly awaiting then finally being rewarded by that special movie. That magic is gone, transformed into an inexpensive, almost mundane everyday activity, where, if they choose, they can rent, buy, stream or download any movie and watch it anytime, including 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday.
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