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18 July, 2012

Matinee Monsters and Summer Memories



When I was a child, growing up in northeast Florida, summers were a time for the three things that were instrumental in making the Unimonster into the man he is today.  One was the days spent at the nearby Jacksonville Beach, swimming, playing, and soaking up the sun.  These days were the hallmark of my summers—until one July when I watched the movie that would forever end my joy in going into the ocean, JAWS.

The second was summer nights spent at the Drive-In, smuggled in hidden in the trunk of a car, then unceremoniously turned loose by an older sister who was perfectly content to corrupt the fragile young minds of myself, my younger brother, and our cousin—as long as we left her alone for the four or five hours the features ran.  She would take us to see whatever movie we requested, regardless of rating or age-appropriateness.  It was under her charge that we first saw movies as diverse—and inappropriate—as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, BLOOD FEAST, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE … and BARBED WIRE DOLLS.  It was in those long-ago nights that my love of, and appreciation for, that peculiar form of cinema known as the Drive-In movie was born … a love that still remains strong to this day.

The third formative experience of my childhood summers was the “Kiddie Show.”  A combination of movie-going experience and day camp, mothers desperate for a brief respite from bored, full-of-energy children would load us up by the car-full, hauling us to the Regency Square Twin Theater.  Every Wednesday, cars would line-up to disgorge hordes of screaming, running children, as anxious for something to do as their harried mothers were for them to do it.  It resembled the landings on the Normandy beaches, only not so well organized.  It didn’t matter to us what the feature film would be that day.  The feature changed every week, but the ritual leading up to it never did.

It began with the arrival of Monday morning’s paper.  We’d rush to grab the section containing the movie ads, for it contained the all-important coupon needed to get in for half price—25¢.  Paying 50¢ for a day’s worth of entertainment might sound like a real bargain for moviegoers inured to $10 tickets for one movie.  But in 1974, a quarter was real money—I could buy a comic book for less than that—and parents, especially mine, were more frugal and less indulgent than today’s variety.  There would be a second chance at the coupon in Tuesday’s paper—miss that one, and it meant a ten-minute lecture from my dad on how hard he’d had to work to get two quarters when he was my age.  There was usually a smart-alecky comment on the tip of my tongue during these lectures—my personal favorite involved the lack of horses to be shod in our neighborhood—but I had too much sense to do more than look contrite and nod my head.

Coupon or not, Wednesday morning would find us (usually my brother Mark, our cousin Andy, and myself) lined up with a couple hundred of our compatriots, waiting to be let in to the theater.  As soon as we hit the lobby, we’d get a box of popcorn and a coke, included with the admission.  We would be quickly herded into the auditorium, the sound of hundreds of kids talking, laughing, and shouting rising to a deafening pitch.  The noise would continue unabated until the lights went down and the show began.

First would come the cartoons—often Woody Woodpecker; sometimes Tom & Jerry or Droopy Dog.  Seldom would we get the first-class Warner Brothers cartoons, even though Bugs Bunny was featured on the newspaper coupons.  Two or three cartoons would easily kill a half-hour, and all were enjoyable.

Next would come something that you had to be a part of to remember.  It was an audience participation short subject, a series produced in the early 1930s by Andrew L. Stone entitled “Race Night.”  Each episode featured a number of racers comically competing in a variety of races—boats, airplanes, bicycles—and each member of the audience would have a numbered ticket that corresponded to one of the numbered racers … sort of like the Keystone Kops meets Wacky Races.  These were much more fun than they sound, and there was always the chance that your racer would win.  One fine day mine actually did, and those of us lucky enough to be holding his number walked away with a transistor radio—AM only.  I remember it worked almost to the end of that night, doubtless a record for the brand.

The preliminaries out of the way, we’d get down to the feature presentation.  Though earlier I said that what the feature film might be on any given Wednesday was unimportant, that’s not completely true.  We would’ve shown up regardless of what was on the marquee, that’s true enough.  But there was definitely a wide gulf between what we considered a “good” movie and what wasn’t.

The lowest point on the totem pole (at least in the Unimonster’s opinion), below even the worst that K. Gordon Murray could import, was the series of Pippi Longstocking movies.  Four films had been pieced together from the 1969 Swedish television series based on the Astrid Lindgren books, dubbed into English, and imported for the American market.  While I can’t speak for every kid who attended those shows, among my friends and I, the Pippi Longstocking movies were universally detested.  First, and yes, I know that now it would be considered politically incorrect and sexist to feel this way, but young boys in the early 1970s simply were not going to accept a girl heroine able to lift a horse over her head.  Second, even were we ready to accept such a character, the plain truth of the matter was that these movies were bad—I mean Coleman Francis-bad.  And third, we knew what we wanted in a movie—and it wasn’t Pippi!

A (very) small step up were the various films imported by producer K. Gordon Murray [for more on this fascinating filmmaker, please read Santa Claus vs. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: the Legacy of K. Gordon Murray, 21 December 2011, by Senior Correspondent Bobbie Culbertson].  Murray would find his stock in trade in Mexican and European distributors’ catalogs, buy a print, dub it into English, and strike off a couple dozen copies—usually licensed, but such legalities weren’t too strictly observed in the 1960s and ‘70s, especially by showmen who learned the craft at the feet of the legendary Kroger Babb.  Most of Murray’s films weren’t horrible—just too juvenile for those in my age group to enjoy … even in the ‘70s, his syrupy-sweet take on fairy tales was unbearable to anyone who had successfully completed potty-training.

Almost passable were the various Disney Live-Action movies to which we would occasionally be treated.  Movies such as THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON or THE LOVE BUG were far more entertaining than the average movie that was served up to us.  Even better were the various sword-and-sandal pictures—Hercules, Samson, Colossus, and my personal favorite, Sinbad.  These movies were great fun, even if in retrospect they were a little ridiculous.  We didn’t care if they were considered campy, even then—we loved them.

But the best we could get, the movies we hoped to see named in the coupons each week, were Toho (as well as Daiei and Nikkatsu) Studios’ Kaijû films.  Of course, we had never heard the term Kaijû, nor did we care who made them.  They were “Godzilla” movies, whether the big G was the star or not.  Gamera, Gappa, Godzilla—they were one and the same to us.  They all meant giant monsters stomping the hell out of Japanese cities—and that equaled great entertainment.  Each of us had our favorite—mine, as I’ve written previously, was Rodan—but all were worth watching.  If I gained nothing else from those summer days spent at the local theater, then the enduring love I have for Kaijû Eiga (Monster Films) would make them hours well spent.

The end of the Kiddie Shows came not long after I aged out of them.  Studios and distributors began requiring theaters to run the same films at night that they ran during daytime, matinee hours—thus putting an end to the weird, wonderful, wacky films that were the staple of such programs.  It’s a shame.  In this time when kids are under constant pressure to grow up before their time, it’s easy for those of us who can remember simpler times to look back with warm nostalgia … and feel a little sorry for our children.








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