Forgive my drifting back to a collecting life long past, but these glimpses of the inner workings at National Screen Service call up a lot of treasure hunting memories. Imagine yourself standing at the counter shown here in the early sixties. I think I’ll have ten Vertigo one-sheets, four Rebel Without A Cause lobby sets, and about a dozen Forbidden Planet inserts, please. The nice man rings up your purchase --- That’ll be seventeen dollars, sir. The legend at the bottom says Return To National Screen Service, but a lot of theaters kept these posters. I’m sure I would have. Upon making my purchase, that venerable time machine would carry me to the present day where I’d realize around thirty-five grand for my NSS goodies, then back to the sixties I’d go for another load. That counter clerk would be thrice a millionaire if he’d carried home each night what they tossed in those dumpsters each day. As it is, he probably earned fifty dollars a week and was happy to get it. These people worked in King Solomon’s mines without a clue as to riches surrounding them. A lot of National Screen retirees no doubt kick themselves every time Antiques Roadshow features some guy making thousands off a Frankenstein six-sheet he found lining a dresser drawer.
Moon Mullins was a fifty-year collector who lived in the town where I went to college. He used to search through the woods for Native American artifacts. His backyard museum looked like Dances With Wolves. Moon was also into movies. He built a theatre up the stairs from his indian relics. There was 16 and 35mm equipment, plus racks of film, nitrate and safety. I used to visit Moon’s all the time. We’d go on road trips to search out attics and chicken houses for movie stuff. Scored a 35mm print of Laurel and Hardy’s Utopia in a tool shed thirty miles from the nearest stoplight. This is what collecting was like in North Carolina during the early seventies.
Moon had a buddy who worked out of National Screen when they had a terminal in Charlotte. Every week his friend brought Moon a stack of posters and grocery bags filled with trailers. This went on for years. Sometimes I’d stop by Moon’s on a summer day when it was a hundred degrees in the shade and he’d be cleaning nitrate film in a concrete storage bunker with his shirt off. All that alarmist stuff the American Film Institute put out about flammable stock was the bunk as far as Moon was concerned. Guys used to pull up in the yard sometimes and offer him features out of their station wagon. One had a 35mm print of The Searchers he offered to sell for fifty dollars, but Moon gave him the breeze. He figured it was hot, and besides, he didn’t know the guy. Ward Bond stopped in one day during the late fifties. Somebody had told him about Moon’s collection and he wanted to check it out. Moon was never star-struck. When Sunset Carson was down on his luck hosting a yokel UHF kiddie cowboy show, he hung around Moon’s to the point of getting on the man’s nerves.
There was a rival collector who lived not far from Moon. He had a mole at National Screen as well. Actually, Charlotte was full of depot loaders willing to liberate 35mm titles for a modest price. That’s how Homer wound up with a thousand or so features stored above a singularly inhospitable pool room he operated. I gathered up three Warner cartoons and a 35mm Horror Of Dracula one night as Homer dispensed grilled burgers and cue sticks. The cost --- seventy-five dollars. Gone are the days.
The National Screen story is an amazing one and largely unknown today. These folks never got into the film history books, but there were 1200 employees nationwide, and they produced trailers, posters, and most accessories for virtually every movie released in the US. Their warehouses had to service titles going back at least ten years. Movies remained in service long after their initial release. Drive-ins would pick up flat rentals on four or five oldies a week to fill in double and triple programs. Our own Starlite Drive-In finally got Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra in 1964, but who would have dreamed they’d back it up with 1937's Way Out West as a second feature? I remember my sister coming home from the Starlite one night in 1974 after seeing Red River (1948). Two weeks later they ran The Outlaw!
National Screen was called upon to provide paper and ad art for many of these. It’s a miracle they generated so much product in-house. The artists and letterers came up with neat graphics as seen on old prevues, elderly ladies ran film rewinds and were responsible for inspecting trailers when they came back from runs, and note these austere working quarters --- to think some of the most stunning poster art of the twentieth century originated from places like this! Of course, a lot of these were never returned.
One time Moon and I checked out an old theatre in Gaffney, SC where the guy had a roomful of trailers, and was willing to sell. I came across a 35mm original release preview for Curse of the Demon there. When the man said he wanted five dollars for it, Moon snatched the film out of my hand, loudly declaring that no trailer was worth over fifty cents. I’ve never seen it anywhere again to this day. Columbia couldn’t even locate one for their DVD. When the Charlotte branch closed, they hauled every bit of that stuff to a landfill. Policy dictated that none of it be sold or given away. That was at least twenty-five years ago. Someone with a transfer truck and a stout back could have put themselves by way of a lifetime annuity that day. Of course, these things wouldn’t be such e-bay magnets now if they'd had greater foresight then.
Be sure to check out John McElwee's current article on Fatty Arbuckle and scroll down to the previous post "A Week Gone Cartoon Mad" for more fascinating insights, this time on vintage cartoons.