Thursday, March 13, 2008

Literary Depictions Of The Movie Matinee Experience

This week’s post by blogmaster Rich Mendoza combines a great depiction of depression-era moviegoing, a salute to a wonderful American humorist, and a “for real” Bijou Blog contest. Read on....

None of us at The Bijou Blog are old enough to have experienced the movie matinees of the 1930s and 40s, the phenomenon that we reconstructed, in part, with Matinee At The Bijou. Some of us Boomers did catch the tail end of the era in the 1950s when cartoons, cliffhangers and double-features were still part of the Saturday afternoon fare. Bijou associate producer Lance Pugh wrote vividly about these years in his memoir Sweet Saturdays. Though I saw the occasional Gerald McBoingBoing or Pink Panther cartoon before the main feature, the rest of the parade had passed me by.

So, when writing the theme song “At The Bijou” for the original series I set about researching the subject, but turned up very little. My two best sources for general information about life in these United States during the 1930s were "Since Yesterday" by Frederick L. Allen and the Time-Life series "Our American Century". Together they gave me a great sense of daily life during the depression and World War II, but neither had more than a few words about the movie-going experience. What words they had tended to be a collection of facts; the price of tickets, which actors and actresses were the biggest box-office draws for each year, etc. Then I recalled a story “Leopold Doppler and the Great Orpheum Gravy Boat Riot” I had read in Jean Shepherd’s collection "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash."

I had been an avid Shepherd fan during my teenage years. I was one of the faithful who, after pretending to go to bed, tuned in to WOR and turned the radio down low so my mom wouldn’t know I was up past 10. Shepherd was a great story teller and a very funny guy. Now and then comedians are accused of playing to the band, keeping their references too inside for the room in general. Shep made his listeners feel like we were the band. When “In God We Trust...” came out in 1966 I read it eagerly. (More about the Shepherd story anon....)

Fast forward 42 years, and I’m taking over editorship of The Bijou Blog. I’ve become the blogmaster. That may not sound all that exalted to you, gentle reader. Frankly, it doesn’t sound all that exalted to me either, but it was my first title with “master” in it. I’m kind of jazzed to be the master of anything and can’t pass up the opportunity to throw the title around a little. BLOGMASTER...okay, I’m ready to move on now.

In thinking about articles I’d like to see in the blog I planned a piece that would give an overview of, well, literary depictions of the movie matinee experience (see above). By the way, the point was never as much exploring moviegoing in literature, as it was answering the question “What was going the movies like during the 30s and 40s?” Reference books and history books don’t paint a very vivid picture for those of us too young to have been there. Matinee At The Bijou provided some of the answer, of course. I assumed that a little digging would turn up plenty of pertinent prose, memoir and fiction to flesh out the picture.

Not so. A Google search turned up nothing useful. At my local library, where the librarians are very helpful, knowledgeable and thrilled to be asked a question about books, (instead of “Why can’t I get on the website? ) my librarian came to the same impasse. She remembered the Jean Shepherd story right away, but could think of no other examples. She called over the other librarians but we got no further. Oh, there was plenty of “I think there might have been something in an Art Buchwald column I should try Art Buchwald” but nothing concrete. Call me lazy, but I’m loath to read 30 years of Art Buchwald columns in hopes that he might have written something on the subject.

This is where you, the Bijou Blog faithful come in. We’ve had a few facetious contests in the blog, but this one’s sincere. We’ll send a press kit and poster from the original run of Matinee At The Bijou to the reader who gives us the best lead on this. Citing chapter and verse would be helpful, rather than just naming a book or author. We’ll announce the results in a month.

And now, back to our Feature Attraction, the wonderful story “Leopold Doppler and the Great Orpheum Gravy Boat Riot”. At the Orpheum of the story each night of the week had a different theme: Monday night-Screeno, Tuesday-Bank Night, Wednesday-Amateur Night, Thursday-Sing Along Night. Friday night was Dish Night...

FREE! FREE! Beginning next Friday, one piece of this magnificent set of Artistic DeLuxe Pearleen Tableware, the Dinner Service of the Stars, will be presented FREE to each adult woman in attendance...

The amber spot played sinuously and enticingly over cascading ledge upon ledge of pearlescent, sparkling, grape and floral encrusted tureens and platters, saucers and gravy boats, celery holders and soup bowls. It was a display potent enough to bring moisture to the eye of a Middle Eastern caliph.

The movies, and the Orpheum in particular, had never known such total and complete popularity. It was more than popularity; it was verging on True Love...The incandescent Pearleen beauty of Mr. Doppler’s dinnerware had a grip on the aesthetic fancy of the population that was unbreakable. A whole new dimension had been added to Art Appreciation in Northern Indiana...

Shepherd, with his characteristic verbal felicity, brings to life a piece of popular culture that might otherwise be lost with the passing of the WWII generation. We’ll finish up the post with another excerpt from the story, on a subject that’s dear to all of us at Matinee At The Bijou, the Saturday matinee...

More than one kid, caught up in the inchoate intricacies of a Republic picture Cowboy plot, found himself torn between answering an urgent call of Nature or missing the final defeat of the treacherous sheep ranchers, and had to make a bitter and crucial decision... Clamped in his seat from 10A.M. to well past 7 P.M., or just before the Greasy Love Stuff came on, a kid swirled in a maelstrom of excitement and convulsive passion that has left a lasting mark on all who sat in attendance. There are countless men today, and not a few women, who have what they euphemistically call “bad knees”, resulting from a malady just recently diagnosed as Triple Feature Paralysis...

Back out in the real world at last, splinter bands of bloated, sticky, Tootsie Roll-filled kids drifted homeward, recounting in absolute detail every labyrinthine twist and turn of each feature, reliving each fistfight and walkdown, each ambush and thunderous escape in the embattled stagecoach as the idealogical arguments began. The Ken Maynard faction snorting derisively at the lesser Bob Steele contingent. An occasional Roy Rogers nut would sing nostalgically, nasally “On The Streets of Laredo.” A few holdouts for Tim Holt, outnumbered but game, all united finally in UNIVERSAL disdain for the effete Dick Foran and Gene Autry.

Thanks, Shep.

1 comment:

Marianne Richardson said...

In Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (1996), Rebecca Wells describes a Saturday afternoon bijou experience from 1934. Chapter 7 opens with four children (later known as the Ya-Yas) entering a Shirley Temple look-alike contest. Wells’ narrative does not focus on the specific movies played that afternoon (although the young Vivi notes, “When you mention Planet Mongo around here, people shut up and listen.”),
but describes the outcome of a Shirley Temple look-alike contest sponsored by the theater in Thornton, Louisiana.

Live stage entertainment as part of a Saturday afternoon show was something I never considered, and I wondered if Shirley Temple look-alike contests were common in the 1930s. Google searches only turned up two online references (strangely enough, both of them overseas – one in the Netherlands [] and the other in Australia [ ]), but I think scans of newspaper archives would probably yield better results (alas, I do not have a subscription for that service and many southern papers’ online archives don’t seem to go that far back).

Nevertheless, I do know of at least two actresses who got their “big breaks” from Shirley Temple look-alike contests sponsored by theaters: Joyce Van Patten and Marjie Millar. Such contests must have been common enough that Ms. Wells could either draw on the memories of someone she knew or access newspaper archives from a library’s reference department. Strange, how finding information (let alone literary references) about Saturday afternoons at the movies should be so difficult. Sounds like something to interview my father about!