The 1970s seem, in retrospect, like a sort of Golden Age for San Francisco film buffs. There were second-run movie houses and rep theaters all over town showing an incredible and constantly changing array of foreign, art and classic movies – like the wonderful UC Theater in Berkeley and Castro Theatre in San Francisco, as well as smaller places like the Fine Arts, Roxie, Red Vic, Lumiere and Cento Cedar Cinema, or the theaters along Mission St. like the Grand and Cine Latino that showed Spanish-language, kung fu and blaxploitation films. And the two non-network TV stations, Channel 2 and Channel 44, showed old movies regularly, as an important part of their line-up, during the week and almost to the exclusion of anything else on the weekends.
So as a pre-teen and teenager I got to see The Harder They Come, Ealing Studio comedies and Murmur of the Heart at local theaters – the latter, as you might imagine, having a pretty seismic effect on my adolescent psyche. I saw an Errol Flynn double-bill of The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood at the Cento Cedar that was, I am sure, a major factor in my developing a lifelong passion for the movies – not to mention for that Robin Hood in particular. (I also went to the first screening of Star Wars, first show, first day, at the enormous Coronet – we cut school. But that’s another story.)
I had my first encounter with Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang at the Lumiere when it was still under construction. The screen was simply a large sheet of material attached to the brick wall at one end of the medium-sized commercial space they were renovating. The projector was on scaffolding at the other end. In between, on the rough floor, sat friends and neighborhood kids. I didn’t appreciate at the time how closely that movie-going experience resembled the earliest days of the cinema, the very first movie theaters – primitive affairs, like the Lumiere, in working-class neighborhoods, with basic screens and projectors and in between benches for the audience. A piano off in the corner to accompany the silent films. When I started reading about the early history of film in the United States, it was with a sense of recognition.
The weekends… All those weekends when I would stay at home glued to the TV for much of the day. It was a crappy black-and-white set, but that wasn’t too much of a problem since most of the movies I was watching were black-and-white. (And though I wasn’t aware of this at the time, they were also films shot in a format, with a screen ratio, fairly close to that of the TV set – so I wasn’t missing out on big chunks of the movies, the way you did on a normal TV set with movies shot later.)
Weekends begin on Friday night, of course, and in the Bay Area at the time, Friday nights had one of the great movie shows of all time: Creature Features, hosted by Bob Wilkins. The typical Creature Features program that I recall consisted of two movies and one or more shorts. For a while, the show featured episodes of the Japanese series Ultraman, which I loved – so much cooler than anything on US television at the time. The main attractions covered the full-range of science fiction, fantasy and horror films. It was Creature Features that introduced me to Godzilla and Gamera, Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, The Cat People and Island of Dr. Moreau, and a whole host of monsters and nightmares: the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, giant mutant shrews, the Mummy, Them and the Thing.
Saturdays and Sundays I discovered many of the famous pairings of film: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Bogie and Bacall, Spenser Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Nick and Nora Charles in the “Thin Man” films, Abbott and Costello. And lots and lots of Westerns. So many Westerns.
A bit later, when I was an older movie buff in my late teens and early twenties, going to the cinema with friends who were also into movies, I began to get a sense of how lucky I was to have been able to see all those Westerns, one of the key genres of American Film. Because while rep theaters like the UC might show old musicals and comedies on a regular basis, and famous pairings like Bogie and Bacall were a staple of their schedule along with the great movies of world cinema, Westerns got comparatively little screen time.
Science fiction, fantasy and horror films – my favorite genre as a kid – faired better. I can remember a sci fi festival at the Taravel Theater, long gone, where they showed nothing but old science fiction and monster movies, back to back, for an entire weekend. My best friend and I stuffed our backpacks with supplies, grabbed some extra cushions for the seats, and spent most of that Saturday and Sunday in the dark, in the Taravel, reveling in Frankenstein and the Wolfman, giant mutant bugs and lizards, robots and flying saucers.
But when it came to Westerns, out of that vast back catalog, only the “usual suspects” tended to be shown at the theater. Great films, of course – there are so many great Westerns – John Ford, John Wayne, Stagecoach, High Noon – but I think I loved them more because of the hours and hours of Oaters I watched on TV. I suppose many if not most of those Westerns are available now on DVD, but for a long time it seemed like I had been given a rare privilege that few others would have in seeing all those B-movie Westerns. (These days, I sometimes have a glimmer of the same feeling when the ABC shows old British B-movies, with actors I’ve never seen or heard of, in the midnight time slot.)
Despite the privilege of seeing all those Westerns, they were never my favorite genre. Acceptable and enjoyable – unlike the film noir which as a kid I was not into (a regrettable lapse of judgement but forgivable because of my youth and inexperience). What I loved and lived for, what I had posters of up on my wall and acted out in the parks and playgrounds, were all those fantasy, adventure and science fiction films. After seeing Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, I managed to stab myself in the leg with a kitchen knife while pretend sword-fighting. The irony of the blood was lost on me at the time.
My love of musicals – and of Fred Astaire in particular – was something I kept a bit more quiet. Science fiction was the staple of our diet as adolescent boys, and comedies were, well, fun, but my pleasure in musicals was not as widely or as deeply shared. But of all my friends, the ones who grew up with a strong passion for film – who went on like me to pursue that interest as adults – were the ones who enjoyed musicals. There is a deep and fundamental connection between the musical and film. You can read science fiction novels, or mysteries, or Zane Grey. You can listen to thrillers and comedies on the radio. But the musical… the musical only exists on stage and, in its purest and greatest form, on screen.
The passion I have for film I owe to growing up in such a privileged – for movie-watching, and of course in many other ways – time and place. I owe it to Creature Features and to the programmers at Channels 2 and 44, and to the Cento Cedar Cinema and UC Theater. Likewise my love for particular films – both the great and the guilty pleasures. Indelible impressions: seeing Errol Flynn as Robin Hood for the first time; Bogie and Bacall in The Big Sleep; Peter Sellars in The Mouse That Roared; the love theme from Doctor Zhivago; the heaven sequence in A Matter of Life and Death; a Bruce Lee double-bill on Mission St.; spinach tennis in Murmur of the Heart; Godzilla teaching Baby Godzilla to breathe flame; Danny Kaye’s double role in Wonder Man; Bing Crosby singing “Would You Like to Sing on a Star”; Fred Astaire dancing.
(For more info on some of San Francisco’s old movie theaters, see: San Francisco’s Legacy Movie Houses.)