But mostly it was cowboy movies at the People’s Cinema – Ken Maynard and the like – and some bizarre characters: Toothless loveable geezer stooge Fuzzy Knight sitting around the campfire, and some cowboy who had a dummy – a cowboy ventriloquist (talk about an oddity, yet there it was), and Gene Autry or Roy Rogers breaking into song. I was a Roy Rogers kid at first but broke ranks. But I became converted to Gene Autry with his Radio Ranch serials, which were a combination of science fiction and the Wild West, like the TV series Wild Wild West or Firefly. The Gene Autry serials concerned the goings on in the underground city of Murania, and Gene and his radio cast would ride across the range after Muranians who wore helmets that looked like paint pails. A giant trapdoor opened in the side of a mountain and in ran the riders, and Gene figured out how to get in there and then bravely descended in an elevator thousands of feet to the underground city. It was there that Gene had many adventures confronting the Queen of Murania, and other people who wore leftover costumes from Biblical epics. How wild it was, what a strange and weird time I had at the movies, and how much I loved it – and still do. Best of all was the episode when Gene was brought back from the dead only to be speaking in reverse, a side effect that cured itself in time. A small price to pay for being reborn.
My mother would take me to the giant cinema palaces in midtown Manhattan. There were a couple of cinema palaces in downtown Brooklyn too and it was a short subway ride to the Brooklyn Paramount, a humongous theater by my current recollection. I’ve noticed that the landscape of my childhood has shrunken with the passage of time, but I’m pretty sure that the Brooklyn Paramount was had endless balconies climbing to the stratosphere, with a ceiling that had moving clouds and stars. Sometimes they even played light shows with a color organ. Can I be making this up?
I suspect that many of my childhood memories are implanted. For example, the street I lived on was just a block away from the Hebrew Home for the Aged, and one of my friends, a boy called Sossy had access to the Hebrew Home for the Aged because his father was a manager, or maybe the manager, of the Brooklyn Hebrew Home for the Aged, to give it its full name. We would walk a block, cross the street, and enter through a side door. Sossy was known to the inmates and staff, so we were not questioned and avoided the humiliating: where do you belong kid? Once he took me down to the morgue where the dead lived. It was completely spooky but not terrifying. A couple of 10-year-old kids wandering around in the morgue of the Hebrew Home for the Aged.
Something else has come back to me now: In those days, my family and friends didn’t seem to entering the theater after the film had begun. Maybe because this was the age of the double feature, people walked in at any time and sat through the film up until the part where they came in. That must have led to the expression “This is where I came in,” because that’s exactly what people said. When the part you saw came up again you left.
In Manhattan Mom took me to the Roxy and the Paramount, and also Radio City Music Hall. These were cavernous theaters, and with the conclusion of the film they would put on stage shows. The stage shows were a holdover from vaudeville and these theaters had been vaudeville house. We saw performers like Phil Spitalny and His All Girl Orchestra featuring Evelyn and her Magic Violin. I guess my mind is easily boggled, but as I look back at my memories, they seem amazing to me: A dancing bear on the stage of Radio City Music Hall? and of course the Rockettes. I remember wandering around in the upper balconies and enjoying the adventure as if having traveled to a foreign land. I liked looking at the screen to see how it had shrunken in size. I think that, with the exception of Radio City Music Hall, they’re gone. What could they have turned them into — hotels or office buildings? And it was there in downtown Manhattan that my mom took me to see my first 3-D movie, Bwana Devil.
When I was 12 years old television was coming on strong; but when I wanted to see television we went to somebody else’s home. It was a big deal, a social event. We saw Uncle Miltie in the Texaco Star Theater, and wrestling too. We were sharing a new kind of electronic culture. Low brow is high brow compared to Milton Berle and the Masked Marauder. My family got a TV by the time I was 112 or 13, and the public’s adoption of television was rapid and it was remarkable that such a thing could be made to work — more or less radio with moving pictures. It’s remarkable how crappy the image quality was by today’s standards. In fact, television has been developed into digital cinema which is an oddly shaped outcome – not quite what the studio moguls expected who fear the competition. One of the ironies of technology advancement is that television became the movies.
But in the days when I was a young boy and my mom took me to see 3-D movies, and Cinerama at the Criterion Theatre (or maybe Warners) in Manhattan, the motion picture business was threatened and needed to innovate. And innovate it did, with 3-D movies and with Cinerama, and then with CinemaScope – all of this in the early 1950s. I shouldn’t forget stereophonic sound, which was a gas especially when the cowboys on horses went one way and the sound went the other.
I was amazed by the 3-D Bwana Devil, House of Wax, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, all of which we were able to see in Manhattan, and possibly in the neighborhood theaters of Brooklyn. Soon after this I was old enough to travel on the subway by myself to go to the downtown theaters. For only a nickel my friends and I could go anywhere. We tended to go to 42nd Street, which was a jumble of freak shows, flea circuses, endless second run movie theaters, and hamburgers joints – non-kosher hamburgers – that were delicious, unlike the hamburgers my served by Jewish mothers who ate BLT sandwiches at the luncheonette but kept kosher at home.
My father and I loved the Laugh Cinema on 42nd Street. There we saw an endless stream of films – beyond the triple feature. They kept bringing in the reels from the exchange. We saw cartoons, Three Stooges movies, the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers and a bunch of other comedies. The Laugh Cinema had a big mask on the marquee – the traditional stylized mask of somebody laughing – the precursor of the smiley face.
My father loved the Marx Brothers and so did I. They were better than the Ritz Brothers. But so what? It was all about endurance at the Laugh. There were Bing Crosby and Bob Hope road movies. Those were good too. And any movie with a gorilla was a good movie. There were comedy horror movies and the kind I loved had the hero reclaiming his inheritance, which was a haunted mansion on some island. The hero had a valet, “Birmingham Brown,” and Birmingham was fated to be accosted by zombies. He’d say, “Boss, there’s zombies! Zombies, boss!” By the time the boss, who was a greasy-haired leading man, would step into the hallway the zombies were gone, but Birmingham was right. Birmingham had an affinity for zombies that was reciprocated.