Wow John, the thrill of those big budget, high profile Hollywood extravaganza roadshows - Yeah! Remember how those surplus WWII anti-aircraft searchlights found new careers parked in front of first-run movie theaters panning the night sky to draw the curious to the theater ticket window?
Let’s indulge in another mid-century, rear view mirror popular event with plenty of ‘must see' cultural heft built into them. But first, that darned old Legion of Decency listing pinned to the bulletin board in the vestibule of parish churches guided parents with viewing ‘do & don'ts', and with four daughters - mine especially. Heck, even when “Rebel Without a Cause” was finally broadcast on our black & white television in the early ‘60s my folks permitted only an older sister to watch it. My younger sister Mary and I were directed to remain in the back of the house with all the hallway and bedroom doors shut. Curiosity wetted, I searched the Anza Branch Library for film references to discover ‘what the deal’ was about that film. The publicity photos of San Francisco native Natalie Wood launched my early crush.
Another curb on seeing most first run films was the tight family budget that dictated waiting for films to make it into 2nd or 3rd tier run, neighborhood movie theaters.
Back to First Run Roadshow major features in venues with plush seats and thick aisle carpets. My first big film was “Around the World in 80 Days” at the Coronet Theater on Geary Boulevard.
Uncle Bud treated Mary and I to see the 1956 “Around the World in 80 Days”. We raptly watch David Niven and Cantinflas on their world spanning travel adventure. I recall the utter majesty of the place and the excitement of viewing the movie. The film began with a brief documentary on the history of aviation and the promise of the coming Space Age. Clips of early silent movies such as A Trip to the Moon, made in 1902 by Georges Méliès. That film injected humor to the imagined first landing on the moon with the spacecraft putting out the eye of the Man in the Moon!
Decades later at the Coronet I saw "2001: A Space Odyssey” which I thought was a snoozer. However, Star Wars with its premiere in May 1977 was utterly remarkable and we all know the legacy that film created. The last time I set foot in the Coronet was to view Francis Ford Coppola’s directors cut, “Apocalypse Now Redux” in the summer of 2001 which was more scrambled and needlessly longer than the film’s original debut in 1979 that I’d seen at the extinct North Point Theater.
In 1959 Auntie Rosie brought Mary and I downtown on a streetcar to the grand old Fox Theater, a spectacle of movie theater in and of itself.
At the Fox we experienced Disney’s, “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” in which the Banshee scenes scared the holy crap outta me. I used the excuse of needing to use the lavatory to go chill out and sit on that grand staircase. See what you think:
Ben Hur was off-limits due to its violence though I sussed out that in the chariot race Messala is dragged beneath a chariot’s horses and fatally trampled ( I hope this doesn’t ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen the 1959 film!). The film was so popular that kids on the block were turning sticks and pieces of cardboard into short swords and shields and banging on one another. Again, my sister Barbara filled me in about what I wasn’t allowed to view myself. Older siblings were always reliable for providing peeks into the larger social landscape that one’s young age or lack of funds limited.
My usual Richmond District movie haunts were the Balboa, the 4 Star, and the Coronet. I’d attend those movie houses usually with pals or alone or sometimes with my Dad whose choice of films were sea stories “Run Silent, Run Deep”, Hemingway’s, “Old Man and the Sea”, etc.. I recall seeing the British war film, “In Which We Serve” at a weekend showing at the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park. Later while attending CCSF the Bridge and across the Park the Surf provided a foundational survey of foreign films that opened new vistas.
The Alexandria was where I saw El Cid which hooked me for life on Sophia Loren, and the “Longest Day” which I criticized for not being long enough! A few years later I caught ’Sneak Previews’, which in those days had a mystique of their own. In Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” the gag of “Spring Time for Hitler” went over my literal minded teenage head and I walked out. Satire is developed taste I’d yet to refine. However the sneak of “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming” was a riot and remains a favorite to this day. I’m certain I’ll think of some of the other film experiences, enough for now.