This article first appeared in We Belong Dead magazine, issue 18, available now. I'll be writing Son of Seriously Silly Monsters for issue 19, and another, and another. There are so many silly monsters, you know, to be serious about...
What actually constitutes a silly monster in movies can be fairly puzzling when you think about it. Sure, you have the seriously silly ones like the walking tree stump, Tabanga, in From Hell It Came, but then there are the intentionally silly creatures like the giant voracious tomatoes in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! So should we consider the serious sillies or the intentional sillies when it comes to compiling a list?
Tough decision to make. Both can be a lot of fun to ridicule or chuckle at as we fondly recall them or argue over them. Complicating it all, what do you do with movies like The Amazing Colossal Man, where the atomically mutated soldier, who grows bigger than a redwood tree, is not nearly as silly as that giant hypodermic needle plunged into his ankle (a silly prop), or the two men staggering as they hold it (a silly scene), or the poor guy impaled by it when the colossal man gets ticked off by getting jabbed with a giant needle in his giant ankle (a really silly scene)? All very silly when you think about it, true, but we must come to some decision here, otherwise our list will be bigger than him.
I know, let us go with the monsters some knucklehead convinced the clearer-thinking members of a production crew to go ahead and film, the so-obviously-rubbery-fakeries to anyone who hasn’t downed a pint or two, all those malevolent aliens, terrifying mutations, and bug-eyed monsters (both large and small), whose intended victims would be more likely to die from laughing at seeing them rather than being harmed. Maybe it was due to a low budget, or maybe it was the lack of proper oversight in art direction (or too much from the wrong person), or maybe, just maybe, it was the culmination of a harebrained scheme born out of desperation; whatever the reason, I think we can all agree to love these what-were-they-thinking? monstrosities with a cozy sense of bewilderment and satisfaction.
We all have pet choices, but here is the start of my list of the all-time seriously silliest monsters in no particular order.
Giant Spider in Mesa of Lost Women: What can you say about a giant spider with eight legs that do not move, yet can kill people without any effort? It does makes for a great photo op with Tandra Quinn, and at least, much humor ensues with one fellow jumping toward the comatose giant spider when he sees it. Usually, victims run the other way but not here. This one gets my seriously silly stamp of approval.
Tabanga in From Hell It Came: High on anyone’s list of seriously silly monsters should be Tabanga. I admit I am a bit torn over this one: I like the storyline and the concept; it is the execution that falls short. Tabanga falls into the slow as molasses category of walking terrors (like in the later Mummy series, but I like the Mummy movies so you won’t see Kharis on this list, no way), and cannot help but bring chuckles as he ploddingly kills people with his, mostly, immobile limbs. For a “half-human animal-stump that grows from a dead native” (according to one pressbook for the movie), he’s a bit too wooden for any real frights. Apparently none of the production crew noticed. The pressbook goes on to list Tabanga’s height at a lumbering 14 feet and misprints his name as Taranga (an actual Maori demi-god). I do not believe anyone noticed the height difference or the name change or cared to.
Jellyfish Man in Sting of Death: There are so many aquatic silly monsters, where does one begin? Why, with Jelly Fish Man of course! How can you not rate a wetsuited jellyfish-headed man at the top of any list? Once again a mad scientist creates a mutant on a budget, saving a penny or two by using clothes. Remember the Metaluna Mutant? Wearing pants from the waist down we could not tell if he had nards, but more importantly, it saved a lot of money on creating more creature costume. Like an alien in an Irwin Allen television production, or a H.R. Pufnstuff reject, Jellyfish Man is colorful in concept but flat in appearance. The purple plastic bag for a head does its best to sell the jellyfish monster aspect like no other prop can. Sadly, it does not work. More horrifying are the beach scenes with their jiggling bikini bums in a panic as the smaller jellyfish (smaller sized plastic bags) attack.
Kooky Monster in Creature from the Haunted Sea: I am not one to nitpick a master like Roger Corman or his movies, but I wonder what he and the production crew were smoking (or drinking) at the time Kooky Monster hit the storyboards. If you took Oscar the Grouch, bashed him numerous times with a frayed mop that had Brillo pads stuck in it, then stuck two tennis balls into his eye-sockets, you would pretty much wind up with Kooky Monster. In some scenes you can see glimpses of human under the costume when skin shows between the costume’s too-short sleeves and pipe-cleaner tipped gloves.
Here is a knowledge nugget from Mark Thomas McGee’s Roger Corman: The Best of the Cheap Acts. “Roger [Corman] was in Havana with Bernard and Larry Woolner, hoping to make a movie for Cuban Color Films, when Fidel Castro took over the town. The sound of machine gun fire in the middle of the night and the report the next morning that people had been gunned down in the streets sent Roger and the Woolners back to New Orleans where things were a little safer. This horrendous event was the inspiration for Creature from the Haunted Sea…”
With this movie considered to be one of Corman’s comedies, you could argue this silly monster falls into the intentionally silly category, so it would be excluded from this list. But it is so outrageously poor in appearance, and given that this movie vacillates in its tone and mood between comedy and seriousness toward confusion as to its actual intent, I bent the rule a tad here.
Beulah (aka Tee-Pee Terror, Cucumber Critter, Carrot Monster, Denny Dimwit) in It Conquered the World: 1950s science fiction movies had so many silly monsters to make fun of for sure, but there’s something so engagingly bewildering about Roger Corman’s decision to let this Venusian alien run amok (more like roll slowly, actually) before a camera. Were merchandising a consideration at the time, I will say it does make for quite a cool toy to threaten your Major Matt Masons or Space 1999 action figures with, especially with those mind-controlling little bat-like floppy fliers (launched from a place on its conical body that will remain unmentioned here), and its long, but rigid, arms.
Both Paul Blaisdell, who built Beulah, and Corman, who came up with the design, share in the awkward result. As related in Roger Corman: TBOTCA, “Actually, the original idea for that design was mine and I was playing too much back to my early physics classes. Again, this was a long time ago and I don’t remember exactly but to the best of my knowledge, it was supposed to have come from a very big planet. Therefore, obviously, it would have a very heavy gravity; any creature on such a planet would be built very low to the ground. There’s something to the concept of fear in looking up to something bigger or taller.”
Blaisdell added the vegetable slant. Using plywood and foam rubber, then taking a hammer to the too smooth surface to give the ‘skin’ some texture, he created his Venusian concept of “a hyper-intelligent mushroom.”
Flash! This press release just in...
New York, NY, March 16, 2016 – The Old School Kung Fu Fest, a three-day barrage of the rarest, wildest, and most incredible classic martial arts and action movies is back for its 6th annual edition.
This year, we’re focusing on Golden Harvest, the studio that became Hong Kong’s leading purveyor of truly insane action cinema in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.
Established in 1970 by Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho, Golden Harvest fast became a rival to Shaw Brothers with a string of blockbusters in the 1970s, and went on to became a dominant force in the Hong Kong film industry throughout the 80’s and 90’s, producing, financing, and distributing over 600 films across many genres. The studio has nurtured the talents of Bruce Lee, John Woo, Michael Hui, Stanley Kwan, Jimmy Wang Yu, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Angela Mao, and many others.
at The Metrograph
Ludlow Street (between Hester St. and Canal St. NYC)
Friday, April 8
5:40pm - BIG BULLET (92min)
7:50pm - PEDICAB DRIVER (93min)
10:15pm - THE BLADE (104min)
Saturday, April 9
1:00pm - RUMBLE IN THE BRONX (103min)
3:15pm - ENTER THE DRAGON (110 min)
5:40pm - THE MAN FROM HONG KONG (103min)
8:45pm - A TERRA-COTTA WARRIOR (97min)
11:00pm - PEDICAB DRIVER (93min)
Sunday, April 10
1:00pm - THE BLADE (104min)
3:15pm - THE MAN FROM HONG KONG (103min)
5:30pm - RUMBLE IN THE BRONX (103min)
7:45pm - THE PRODIGAL SON (100min)
10:00pm - BIG BULLET (92min)
To celebrate Golden Harvest’s legacy, we have put together a program of some of the studio’s greatest martial arts and action films: we’ve got Bruce Lee’s funkadelic masterpiece Enter The Dragon (1973); the original One-Armed Swordsman (Jimmy Wang Yu) and the one-off James Bond (George Lazenby) going mano-a-mano in the car crashtastic The Man From Hong Kong (1975); Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao in martial arts action paradise with The Prodigal Son (1981); Sammo Hung directing and starring in Pedicab Driver (1989), the greatest achievement of his early career; Jackie Chan fighting a big yellow hovercraft in Rumble in the Bronx (1995); Tsui Hark’s feral swordplay movie The Blade (1996); and the last truly great Hong Kong cop film of the 90s, Big Bullet (1996). All the titles (except Prodigal Son) will be super-rare 35mm screenings!*
In other exciting news for fans of Hong Kong cinema, Warner Archive has begun to make Golden Harvest titles available as part of their manufacture on demand service. 16x9 widescreen DVDs in their original language with English captions can be ordered for the discerning film fan’s collection. Titles include A Terra-Cotta Warrior (1989), He's a Woman, She's a Man (1994), The Blade (1995), Pedicab Driver (1989), Blade of Fury (1993), Big Bullet (1996) and Downtown Torpedoes(1997) - and these few are just the beginning!
For information on how to order visit www.warnerarchive.com
The 6th Old School Kung Fu Fest is presented with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office New York, in association with Warner Archive.
We’re deeply grateful for the support of the Kenneth A. Cowin Foundation.
*The Prodigal Son will be screened on DCP.
Yes, August is here. And with it the summer doldrums intensify along with the heat, the warm ennui increasing as it wafts on the occasional breeze, the laconic malaise growing twixt the brightness of Spring and the promise of the festive Fall (Halloween, baby!) But whenever you're feeling down, just remember these poor bastards, who toiled away in the heat and humidity just for you to complete that jungle picture, dressed in thick, furry, (and probably very itchy) gorilla costumes. Pictures we love to love--or make fun of (alright, I admit it, I love them anyway). I bet you're feeling cooler already.
The Clarence Swensen Gorilla Group with Johnny Weissmuller (http://www.erbzine.com/mag41/4169.html)
Zombos' Closet...a vast trove of endearingly cheap thrills, including movie and book reviews, and scans of his collections of cinema pressbooks, goofy paper-cutout Halloween decorations, and his amazing collection of Mexican lobby cards from B-grade films. If you have time to descend into a serious rabbit-hole of marvelous trash-culture nostalgia, visit that site just as soon as you possibly can. (DangerousMinds.net)
Link checking last night (I know, I need to get out more) I came across this interview with David Colton I did for Blogcritics, back in 2007 (when the Fifth Annual Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards was in full swing). Amazingly, I hadn't copied the interview to my own blog since it first appeared, so here it is for you newbies to the Rondos. And to think we're at the 13th annual Rondos! My how time flies like a bat out of hell, doesn't it?
What time is it, Monsterkids? It's Rondos time!
Once again, classic horror is celebrated with the likeness of that ugly, but lovable, bald guy — with the huge, misshapen, head and massive hands. Rondo "The Creeper" Hatton thrilled me as he tried to twist Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes into a pretzel in Pearl of Death, and chilled me as he murdered off a bunch of annoying critics in House of Horrors. His unmistakable visage graces the Classic Horror Awards, affectionately known as the Rondos, which are given in recognition of notable achievements in the classic horror genre. Chief instigator of the Rondos is David Colton. I locked him in Zombos' closet until he agreed to talk about the award that everyone in classic horror craves.
What are the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards, and how did they come about?
DC: The Rondos are a fan-based awards program designed to honor the fans and pros who work hard year after year, through writing, through research, through illustration, or through any form of creativity to keep the classic monsters of the last century alive and well.
The Rondos are not about favorite monster, or even favorite horror movie, but about picking the best book about classic monsters, the smartest piece of research that reveals something new, or the strongest or most fun works that capture the spirit of being a monster kid.
By "monster kid," I mean the generation of baby boomers who discovered the classic films of Universal, AIP, Hammer and Japanese giants in the '50s and '60s through Shock Theater on TV, Famous Monsters of Filmland at the newsstand, and Christopher Lee and Vincent Price at the movies. Monster kids can be of any age, but the distinction with modern horror fans is that we embrace Frankenstein, Dracula and Godzilla over the more gory films of today. This is not to say we don't enjoy Jason or Saw, but our hearts lie in Transylvania.
As for the awards themselves, like many lapsed monster fans, I rediscovered the genre in the mid-'80s with the birth of home video. A new breed of monster magazines such as Filmfax and Cinefantastique had emerged. In addition, writers such as David J. Skal, Greg Mank, Tom Weaver, Gary Don Rhodes, Don Glut, Bill Warren, Paul Jensen, and many more were revealing new truths about the monsters in books, in magazine articles, and in videos and, later, DVD commentaries.
There was little recognition anywhere for their work, however, which was as strong as any mainstream research or scholarship except it existed in the genre ghetto of vampires and B-movies. Enter the Rondos.
I remembered that in the '90s, the folks at Midnight Marquee had presented a series of awards at their Fanex Convention called the Laemmles, named after the family that ran Universal in the '20s and '30s. The awards only lasted a few years. But a community of fans at the Classic Horror Film Board (a discussion group once at AOL), decided to inaugurate our own awards. We started in 2002, and the awards have grown and prospered ever since.
DC: We discussed a variety of names — the Clives, the Ygors, the Whales — but someone, I forget who (it might have been me but I'm not sure), suggested Rondo Hatton. The Rondos SOUNDED perfect.
Still, it was all just fanboy talk until Kerry Gammill, a brilliant artist who once drew Superman, and is one of the genre's top illustrators, sent me a sketch of what a Rondo statuette could actually look like, based on the giant bust of Hatton used in Universal's House of Horrors in 1946. Once I saw the sketch, I said yes, of course.
Kerry sculpted the bust to perfection, and then Tim Lindsey, a top model-maker and designer, offered to make the casts for the individual busts.
I still remember the gasps and applause when we gave out the first awards at the Old Dark Clubhouse hotel room at the 2003 Monster Bash in Pittsburgh. "Our first winner is Bob Burns," I said, "and THIS is a Rondo." Everyone fell in love with the little guy immediately.
Even though they are painstaking to make — each one is cast and painted individually — we've now given out almost 50 busts over the past four years. Everyone who gets one loves it. Haven't seen one on eBay yet, they are so precious to the winners.
Looking over the ballot for this year, I'm excited to see Smallville (one of my favorite TV shows), Dr. Who (ditto), and Battlestar Galactica listed (ditto again). How are nominees selected?
DC: We try to go a bit beyond just classic monsters, so current films and TV are included. "Classic" is a state of mind more than a time period, and it's easy to see why Smallville or Battlestar Galactica or Dr. Who, as modernized as they are, still retain that "classic" feel. Lost and Heroes, too.
Nominees are solicited all year at the Classic Horror Film Board or through emails. At the end of the year, I start going over everything, and about 20 CHFB members email one another, argue things out, make suggestions and deletions. In the end, though, I make the final call on what makes it and what doesn't. Send those complaints to me!
The ballot is very long — some say too long — but we want the Rondos to not only be about the year's best work, but to show everyone how much really cool work is being done out there. A book or DVD commentary might not win, but those who see it on the ballot may be intrigued enough to buy it and check it out. If that happens, Rondo has done its job, no matter who ends up winning.
Who does the voting?
DC: Voting is by email to email@example.com. We have discussed using voting software that allows clicking on categories, but the personal nature of having to copy the ballot into an email, or type out your selections, helps ensure the voting is by fans and not some mass voting drive. It's for sure okay to ask for votes or urge friends to vote, but we draw the line at duplicate votes already filled in, which in past years got sent around. That happily hasn't happened yet this year.
The first year we were thrilled to have 198 people vote! The next year we topped 600, then 1,600 (!), and last year 1,200. The voting so far this year is at a pace to top 1,000 again and that's fine with me since I have to hand count every vote. Friends come over and say, "Where's David?" and my wife says, "He's downstairs counting votes.'' They laugh.
Finally, what's your impression of the current crop of horror films?
DC: The world of modern horror, sci fi, and fantasy is very schizophrenic. On the one hand you have the CGI world of Star Wars and Peter Jackson, wonderful visions of fantasy that, overblown or not, recreate '30s New York for King Kong, energize Star Wars and make anything possible on-screen. And these films have good hearts, just as afternoon kid-friendly in many ways as the Harryhausens and George Pals of the '60s.
But then there's the gruesome new trend of torture films — Saw, Hostel, Turista and the like — which have no real monsters except human cruelty. These films make millions, and obviously are a form of release perhaps in this 9/11 mindset, but still leave me repelled and quite cold. An ax through the head in Friday the 13th somehow was okay, and you could tell it was fake; these new ones are too real, the blood too dark, the screams too affecting. I'll take Karloff anytime.
Do you think Zombos' Closet of Horror will ever have a chance at getting a Rondo?
DC: No comment.
I want to thank David Colton for stepping into the closet to tell us about the Rondos. Zombos insisted I keep him locked in until he gave us a Rondo, but someday we'll win one of those little noggins on our own
Or just steal one if we have to.
I opened the door to Zombos' Closet 10 years ago, first to Blogspot in 2005, then a switch over to Typepad in 2006. I had two simple goals in mind: keep it commercial free (no blaring banners, no pop-up ads, no videos hawking crap), and keep it fun for you and me as I share my appreciation of the fantastique in film, literature, and popular culture. And, of course, show off my collection of cool stuff, too, while doing so. For posterity.
For me it keeps my inner monsterkid alive and kicking. For you I hope it does the same or will help you find your monsterkid, the one buried deep within all of us, often afraid to show itself. Or that imagi-movies kid in you. Or that Halloween-tripping kid in you. Or that pop-culture is cool as hell kid in you, devouring the geeky, the sublime, and the surreal, as a defense (and offensive blow) against the doldrums foisted on us by reality, constantly testing our resolve.
That resolve is to never forget that our imaginations keep reality in check. And today, reality needs to be put in check more often. When you apply your imagination to reality, you can bend that reality to your will for the betterment of yourself and everyone else, and that's truly fantastic. It's like body-blocking the hateful, the insipid, the mentally blind, and the determinedly evil folk among us who haven't a clue to share, let alone a sense of wonder for the beauty of the world we live in and our place in it. You know, the stuff that dreams are made of. We know all about that wonderful stuff because we're monsterkids, and sci-fi kids, and the why not? kids, always pushing back on greedy, selfish reality when others push it on us trying to beat our resolve down.
So embrace that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, that creepy sensation on the back of your neck, or shudder away as you dread, in the dead of night, just what that sound is, or why your closet door is slightly, ever so slightly, open when you thought you had closed it. It's only the fantastique calling, daring you to dream of gods and demons, and everything else in-between, to bolster your fight against reality. To watch the stars and constantly say why not?
So another year, another opportunity to fight the good fight. And win.
Happy New Year!
In the early 1970s, John Moulder-Brown made his mark in horror films with starring roles in Vampire Circus and The House That Screamed, in which he chopped up some school girls and pieced them back together. In the critically acclaimed Deep End, he was Mike, a sexually disturbed teenager who murders the girl of his dreams in a half-filled swimming pool. In King, Queen, Nave he had a memorable encounter with Gina Lollobrigida, who also wound up dead, and in Ludwig he portrayed the mad brother of the crazed titular king. He’s played the handsome prince in Rumpelstiltskin and the concerned, and for once guiltless, husband in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder.
I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Brown and here it is.
First things first, what led you to acting?
JMB: My parents split up when I was four. My mother wanted me to go to boarding school, my father wanted me to stay with him. He sent me to a private school, which was literally just around the corner from where we lived. They had a strong concentration on drama and, as a result of that, I fell into acting. My father had an army background. He was a major, but I had always wanted to be an actor. Through the school I worked as a child actor.
By Jim Knüsch (Professor Kinema)
In the early 1990s I had researched background information for an article on the film Burn, Witch, Burn, which was to appear in FilmFax magazine. During my research I borrowed a 16mm print of the movie from film historian William K Everson. Everson and I got to talking about the specifics of the film and he suggested I get in touch with one of its screenwriters, George Baxt, who was, at the time, living in New York. His number was listed in the phone book. I called him and made an appointment to interview him. During two visits and a few follow-up phone calls we talked not only about Burn, Witch, Burn, but also touched upon the other genre films he was involved with. The article I eventually wrote regarding Burn, Witch, Burn ended up in Scarlet Street magazine instead of FilmFax.
My interview with this Edgar Award winning author turned into more of a general rap session where he shared his interesting insights and recollections for Circus of Horrors, Burn, Witch, Burn, Vampire Circus, The City of the Dead, and Shadow of the Cat. Within this article I’ve arranged Baxt’s insights and recollections according to each relevant movie discussed.
They said it couldn't be done! Then they said it shouldn't be done! Then they said DON'T DO IT! But I did it anyway. I never listen.
My book, Horror Movies to Savor and Detest, compiling the best (and worst of my reviews for all that shimmers, or doesn't, in horror cinema is alive on Amazon for your Kindle delight.
And it's free to borrow if you're an Amazon Prime member, too (it's okay, I can skip a meal here and there just to make you happy).
With the kind permission of Brian Bukantis (Arena Publishing) and the author Dr. Vollin (Freddie Poe), I'm happy to be able to reprint Dr. V's article, They Tore Down Paradise...And Put Up a Parking Lot, which originally appeared in the May issue of Movie Collector's World, No. 683, 2005. Here's Part 5.
I asked John “Who was the most impressive movie star you ever met?”
He told me he was never in awe of the actors or actresses he met. He always conducted himself as a professional and kept his cool around Hollywood bigwigs.
“Freddie, I always knew my place around these people. I was Johnny Dee, manager of the Poli Palace in downtown Worcester and they were Hollywood movie stars. I just always kept that perspective in mind. I catered to them and entertained them, but I didn’t throw myself at them. Get the picture?”
I asked John if he could remember a specific story he could tell me. He told me a lot of stories, but the one that stuck out in my mind was the day he spent entertaining Anthony Quinn who was doing a promotional tour in New Haven Connecticut.
“Loew’s contacted me and told me I would be taking Anthony Quinn around town. They told me to show Quinn some sites and see if there was anything special he wanted to do. So I asked Mr. Quinn if there was any place special he would like to go. Quinn asked if there were any art museums in the area? I brought him to the Yale Art Museum. He looked at all the artwork and then we left. On the way back, while crossing through the city’s commons, Quinn said, "Hey John, do you mind if I lie down under this tree for awhile?" I said, "No, of course not." "Quinn sat down on the grass under an elm tree, I sat down beside him and we just shot the breeze for awhile. Not that it was a big deal, but it’s a nice memory.”
“John, who was your favorite actor of all time?” I asked.
Next came the big question. “John did you save anything from the old Poli Palace, like the posters or stills, or anything like that?”
“No, I never did. I should have but I never did. One kid used to come to the Poli all the time and ask me for the movie posters. He wanted all the horror ones (Dr. V note: I know who that was). I used to give him stacks of the stuff. I mean, what did I care. I had piles of them all over the place and giving them away just meant that I would have smaller piles. Why? Are they worth anything?”
“Oh, yeah," I told him, "they bring a pretty penny on today’s market. Some collectors pay thousands for certain posters and sometimes hundreds of thousands.”
“John, one more thing: I was sick when they destroyed the Palace to make the Showcase. I can imagine how you felt.”
“You were sick, I was heartbroken. After all, that had been like home to me for almost 40 years. I had a lot of great memories there.” said John with a tear welling up in his eye.
The next morning I was sitting in Honey Dew waiting for John to show up. When he arrived he was carrying an old file folder. I greeted John as he entered. John put the folder down on the counter top.
“Freddie, I found these old photos I thought might interest you.”
I reached into the folder and pulled out a pile of black and white 8x10 photographs. John wasn’t kidding when he said he had met a plethora of stars. Here he was, Johnny Dee, rubbing elbows with Jayne Mansfield, Tina Louise, Ann Blythe, Denise Darcell, Rosemary LaPlanche, Lauren Bacall and others. Not to mention an autographed still of Cary Grant, personally inscribed: To Johnny Dee, Cary Grant.
I was in awe, especially with the photo of John with Jayne Mansfield; that blew my movie loving mind. That photo was too cool. How many of us can even say that we saw Mansfield in person, nevermind having your picture taken with her! These were some serious photos John told me I could take home and copy for my article. However, the photos were not in the best of condition. Many were cracked and splitting with age. Without asking John (and I should have), I repaired the photos the best I could with archival tape, placed them in plastic sleeves and put them in a black three-ring binder. On the cover I inscribed, using a silver paint pen, Johnny Dee - Poli Palace.
AFTERWORDS: Meeting with my new old friend Johnny Dee every morning is a great pleasure. John is certainly a Worcester icon and an important part of its historic past. Many mornings, over coffee, I have observed just how popular he really is. John is constantly acknowledging or saying “hi” to people. Many of them are old friends from his days at the Palace and some are new friends, who have no idea of his colorful, interesting past. People just see Johnny Dee as a “sweet little old Italian guy”.
His showbiz-style personality still shines through, making everyone he greets feel like an old friend. I always believed people meet for a reason and not by chance. The reason for me finding Johnny Dee after all these years was not just to do this article, although it has connected us in a special way. I believe the fate of our meeting lies in the future. I not only found the former manager of the Poli Palace, but a new friend, and a very special human being.
With the completion of this piece I found myself longing for the old days. I suppose living in the past is not a healthy life to live. But like a Twilight Zone episode, I can’t help but wanting to go back, if not forever, at least for a day, an hour, or perhaps for a few minutes. I guess it’s just time slipping through my fingers. But I can still visit those old theaters in my mind, where no wrecking ball can ever reach them, where I sit peacefully watching movies for all of eternity.
I want to thank THE WORCESTER TELEGRAM for their old theater photos, and photos of the ELM, POLI, CAPITOL, PLYMOUTH, PHILLIPS, WARNER and FINE ARTS, are property of the WORCESTER TELEGRAM photo archives and may not be reprinted without permission of the WORCESTER TELEGRAM editor. I also would like to thank the staff at the WORCESTER PUBLIC LIBRARY for their help and putting up with my many visits. And, of course, a very special thank you to Johnny Dee for sharing his memories and making me feel young again, sitting in the dark, watching the movies of my dreams.
“I’ll be seeing you in all those old familiar places”
– Freddie Poe aka Dr Vollin MD
With the kind permission of Brian Bukantis (Arena Publishing) and the author Dr. Vollin (Freddie Poe), I'm happy to be able to reprint Dr. V's article, They Tore Down Paradise...And Put Up a Parking Lot, which originally appeared in the May issue of Movie Collector's World, No. 683, 2005. Here's Part 4.
Did you know that in 1957 90 million patrons a week attended the movies.
In 1967 that number dwindled to 2 million.
OTHER WORCESTER THEATERS
In 1942 there were more than 16 theaters operating in Worcester: these included the Poli Palace; the Plymouth; the Strand; the Capitol; the Worcester Theater on Exchange St; the Pleasant; the Crystal on Trumbell Street; the Elm Street; the Regent on Elm Street; the Family; the Rialto; the Bijou on Millbury Street; the Court on Lincoln Square; the Vernon; the Columbia; the Royal, and the Gem. By 1966, only the Loew’s- Poli, the Warner, the Fine Arts, and the Phillips were still in operation. The rest had closed for good or for renovation. In 1977, only three remained open in the downtown area: the Showcase (Poli); the Paris (Capitol); and the Fine Arts (Pleasant Street Theater),with the latter showing foreign art films. Today, only the two “art” houses are in operation and possibly not for long.
Long gone are the days when you walked to the local theater to look at the posters to see what movie was coming next. A movie in those days was changed about every two weeks or so, unless it was a blockbuster and was held over, in which case a movie might stay indefinitely, or until everyone had seen it at least twice. Gone are the days when for one admission you could stay all day and see the movie as many times as you like. Gone,too, are the long lines extending around the block, causing empty neighborhoods on weekends because everyone was downtown at the movies. And gone were the double features, the spook shows, cartoons, and the newsreels, along with the ushers, the giveaways, and the cheap popcorn. Long gone is the classic movie, too.
ORDINARY TALES OF THEATER MADNESS
When I was about 5 years old and not old enough to wander Front Street by myself, my father would have one of his dishwashers, George, take me to the movies. George was known around Worcester as a hustler and a con man of sorts, but not violent in any way; just a fast talking guy with a lot of stories. If George asked you to borrow a $100 bill, in about 5 minutes you’d be gladly handing it over to him, and 10 minutes later you’d be asking yourself why you just did that. If my father gave him $2 to take me to Woolworth to buy me a monster model, George would say to me “nevermind those monsters, how about some nice Matchbox cars?” because Matchbox cars were much easier to put in your pocket. George would then get to keep the $2, which bought about 6 beers back then. Well, no dastardly deed goes without some kind of retribution and George got his on more than one occasion. Which brings us to the tales I am about to tell you.
Pollyanna at the Warner
My dad gave George some money and told him to take me to the movies. If my memory serves me well, it was to see Pollyanna at the Warner Theater, so I would estimate my age at about 5 or 6 years old. On the way to the Warner George must have seen someone he was trying to avoid, so we crossed Front Street. As we passed an alleyway, out popped a man.
“Georgie boy, hey I’ve been looking for ya.”
“I can’t talk now pal, I gotta take Freddie’s son to the movies,” said George.
“This will only take a second. Come down here,” said the man, indicating the alley. This is in broad daylight mind you.
“You wait here little buddy, I’ll be right back,” George instructed.
I watched as the man led George down the alleyway, and after a few choice words started beating George about the face and head. I stood frozen with fear, watching this for as long as it took. It must have only been a few seconds but it seemed like a long time. George emerged from the alleyway holding his handkerchief (remember those? yeechh) to his bloodied face. I looked up at George and said “George? Why did that man hit you?” He looked down at me, bloodied and beaten. “Don’t worry little buddy, he was just kidding around. That’s a good friend of mine.”
We headed down Front Street to the Warner, George holding the handkerchief to his bloody face and me checking on him every step of the way, horrified.
Pinocchio at the Poli
Pinocchio is my all time favorite Disney movie, maybe because he was an Italian. It was playing the Poli Palace and I asked my Dad if he would take me to see it. My father really never took me anywhere after he bought his restaurant in 1960; rather, I had male "nannies” and George was the main one. George, while being totally devious, was also one hell of an educator and always pointed me in the right direction, despite his own shortcomings. Anyway, we headed off to the grand old Poli Palace to see Pinocchio. We got there a little early, which gave me plenty of time to ogle the posters, get some snacks, and find the best seat in the house. I always liked to sit close to the screen, not in the first row but certainly in the first 10. George always let me pick out the seats. We sat, awaiting the cartoons, when a heavy set woman wearing a Carmen Miranda-type hat sat down in front of me. I don’t think it was a fruit bowl but it was certainly a flower basket. “George. I can’t see,” I said “Don’t worry pal, she’s gonna take her hat off when the movie starts.”
The movie started but the hat never came off.
“George. I still can’t see.”
“I’ll take care of this right now little buddy.” George leaned forward in his seat. “Madame. Could you kindly remove your hat, please, my little buddy can’t see the movie.”
The woman shrugged hers shoulder and made some kind of inaudible sound. “George. I still can’t see.” George tapped the woman on the shoulder a second time. “Madame. Kindly remove your hat. My pal can’t see the screen. I’m sure the movie means more to him than it does to you.”
She shrugged forward again, uttering the same groan. Steadfastly refusing to remove her hat.
“George, I can’t see. Can we move?” By now I was willing to sit elsewhere.
“We are not moving little buddy, we were here first. You only get three strikes in baseball and then you’re out of the old ball game. I’ve asked twice like a gentleman and now I have to take drastic action.” George leaned forward again. "Madame! I’ve asked you twice like a gentlemen to kindly remove your hat. My friend cannot see the screen! Three strikes and your out of the old ball game!”
Still the woman ignored George’s demand. He jumped out of his seat, ripped the hat off the lady’s head, and threw it like a frisbee across the Palace floor. It landed somewhere in the orchestra pit. The lady sprung from the chair, screaming bloody murder at the top of her lungs. Everyone in the theater was now staring at us. Within seconds the manager (Johnny Dee) came to see what the commotion was. Naturally, George knew the manager and we got moved to a different section instead of thrown out. I swear this is a true story, as I wouldn't want my nose growing any longer than it is. Thanks for everything George. Rest in peace, pal.
JOHN DIBENEDETTO - MANAGER - POLI PALACE - 1942 TO 1979
John DiBenedetto was born in New Haven Connecticut on September 28th , 1921. In the mid 1930s, as a teenager, John was working at the Armstrong Tile Company in West Haven. He soon came to realize that factory work was not only hard labor, it was also dirty, but the country was recovering from the depression and decent paying jobs were hard to get. John started to think about what else he could do for work.
It was around this time he began his career in the movie theater industry, greatly influenced by his brother’s friend who was a theater manager in the Loew-Poli chain. When John would go to the movies, he would see this young man, neatly dressed in suit and tie, cordially greeting the patrons in the lobby, which, in those days, was an integral part of the job. This scenario impressed young John and he applied for a job as an usher.
In 1939, after serving his apprenticeship, John received a promotion to assistant manager and was placed at a Bridgeport Loew-Poli theater. He had found his niche. In 1940 he was offered a chance to advance to a managerial position in the Loew-Poli chain, but he would have to pack his bags and relocate to Columbus Ohio. John did one year in Columbus as manager, but he missed his family and longed to be back in New England. In 1942, the Loew-Poli chain then offered John a new position managing the Loew-Poli Palace in Worcester, a position he would hold for the next 37 years of his life.
John would stay on as manager of the Palace until 1979, even though the theater was sold to Redstone National Amusements in 1966. Affectionately known to many Worcesterites over the past four decades as Johnny Dee, his reputation and popularity are evident through searching old newspaper files and library archives. I was surprised to see how many times John’s picture was in the newspaper and how much weight John’s word carried around the Worcester movie scene. Johnny Dee was often pictured rubbing elbows with the stars and other Worcester notables.
Here is an excerpt from the Worcester Telegram And Gazette quoting Thomas Meehan (later went on to be a big time politician in Providence, Rhode Island), who was a theater manager in Worcester from 1912 to 1932:
Johnny Dee has a great reputation in showbiz. John is the type of guy who would have made it big in the old theater days (pertaining to the Vaudeville era); he can take responsibility, he shows good judgement and great showmanship, and he knows the people in his community. John has a great reputation across the country, he’s a good man.
This was just one of the many nice things said about Johnny Dee. Naturally, after meeting him, I was eager to hear stories about the good old days, the people he had met, did he save any memorabilia from the Poli?, and especially, what he thought of today's movies. John is still as gracious and sharp as he’s ever been as he told me the things I was anxious to know.
First, I was eager to know what Johnny Dee thought about today's movies. He admitted to me that he had not been to the movies in years. The last time was to take his grandchildren, and that was some years back. He said he would rather watch the old classics on Turner. I couldn’t have agreed with him more. I seldom go to the movies myself.
Next, I wanted to hear about any movie stars that John might have met over the years. I was in for quite a surprise. John had met Esther Williams, Glenn Miller, William Holden, Anthony Quinn, Aldo Ray, Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Robert Wagner, Jayne Mansfi eld, Rosemary LaPlanche (the Devil Bats Daughter herself), Macdonald Carey, Tina Louise, Al Pacino, Debbie Reynolds, Denise Darcell, Elaine Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Ann Blythe, Bob Hope, and many others.
I asked John “Who was the most impressive movie star you ever met?”
With the kind permission of Brian Bukantis (Arena Publishing) and the author Dr. Vollin (Freddie Poe), I'm happy to be able to reprint Dr. V's article, They Tore Down Paradise...And Put Up a Parking Lot, which originally appeared in the May issue of Movie Collector's World, No. 683, 2005. Here's Part 3.
THE PARK - Corner of Park Ave and Webster Square - Seating Capacity 750
Not to be confused with the Park Theater located on Front Street, this theater sat at the end of Main Street, on the outskirts of downtown. After a 22 year run as the Park, it was the first theater in this area to be bought by the Redstone Company. It was closed in 1961 and slated for renovation. The name was changed to Cinema One and it was the first modern movie theater in the area (circa 1963).
In the late 1990s Redstone closed all of its interests in the Worcester area and combined them in a giant 18 film megaplex theater called Showcase North located on the outskirts of Worcester. The theaters being closed were the Showcase Cinemas, Cinema One, and the White City. The original Park Theater building is now a vacant lot.
THE PLYMOUTH - 261 Main Street - Seating Capacity 2,700
The second largest movie house in Worcester was the Plymouth Theater. The Plymouth, a grand old theater heavily detailed in Egyptian architecture, made its debut in 1928. It had a huge stage and a proscenium to match. It played to both film and live acts. You could hurt your neck looking up at the ceiling. The projectionist booth sat 60 feet above stage level and boasted a 46 x 95 foot screen. In the late 1950s Boston millionaire Elias Loew purchased the Plymouth and it became known as Loew’s Plymouth Theater.
The last movie I saw at the Plymouth before it closed for renovation in 1965 was Monsters Crash The Pajama Party featuring a live spook show. When they were ripping down the old Plymouth marquee in 1966, a ghostly voice from Hollywood’s past spoke out from beneath it, reading “ Worcesters Newest And Most Modern Playhouse- Talking Pictures And Sound Films-Vitaphone”. Kind of eerie, eh? I wish I was wise enough at the time to have asked for that sign as it was just discarded.
While awaiting the completion of the renovation, the Plymouth moved its staff to the vacant Philip's Theater on Front Street. The Plymouth re-opened with its new doors in 1967, sans the old Plymouth sign. It now read E.M. Loew’s in yellow and red neon.
In 1973, E.M. Loew's closed once again due to the more modern cinemas opening up on the outskirts of Worcester. The Loew’s reopened again in 1975 featuring Earthquake in Sensurround, only to close a short time after. Earthquake was the last big rumble the Plymouth ever made as a movie theater.
The Loew's went through another renovation once more, ripping out the movie screen and changing the format to a rock club venue. This was pretty cool at the time, since I personally was in to the rock scene in the 1970s. I got to see artists and acts that I probably never would have gotten a chance to see elsewhere.
At Loew’s I got to hear Eric Burdon, Alvin Lee, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Kay & Steppenwolf, The Outlaws, The B-52s, and I got the catering contract (via my father’s Italian restaurant) for Frank Zappa’s gig. Zappa wanted one tray of veal cutlets, one tray of veal parmigiana and one tray of pasta.
No longer owned by the Loew family, the building that housed the Plymouth Theater still stands on its original site and is now a night club called The Palladium. Thrilling.
THE FAMILY - 156 Front Street- Seating Capacity - 1,000
Originally called the Majestic, then later the Family, the once famous Front Street theater closed in the late 1950s and reopened in 1964 as the Philip's, also part of the E.M. Loew chain. The Philip's was located just across the street from my father’s restaurant and bar. When the Philip's reopened for business, the seating capacity had been reduced from 1,000 to 450. This was due to removing the first 12 rows of seats and the complete balcony. I saw Fireball 500 and Hot Rods To Hell there in the mid-1960s.
Rather than have me hanging around the bar all day listening to drunks or sitting in the booth building Aurora monster models, getting glue and paint on his tabletops, my father would give me a dollar and send me off to the movies. This is how I became a movie fanatic. Being just a stone’s throw from five or six movie theaters, I spent the better part of the 1960’s in these “old dark houses”.
In the late 1960s, the Phillips Theater, like my father’s restaurant, became the hideous victim of a massive redevelopment. The city decided to tear down Front Street and erect a Galleria that would supposedly boost the city’s wealth and prosperity. It broke my heart to see Front Street torn down. I was always against it. Of course, who was I? I was only about 12 at the time and my opinion didn't carry much weight.
This was the beginning of the end for downtown Worcester and the movie theater palaces as I knew them. Today, in 2005, thirty years later, the city has finally come to the realization that the Galleria, now called the Worcester Common Fashion Outlets, was a mistake of giant proportion and are now ripping it down and restoring Front Street back to its original state.
I wonder, do you think the neighborhood movie theater will ever come back?
THE ELM - Corner of Elm and Main Streets - Seating Capacity 2,200
This is another historic theater that served as the inspiration for this article. The Elm was one of the classiest movie houses of its day, showing films like Gone With The Wind to sellout audiences in 1939. Archive photos show patrons lined up on Elm Street, extending around the corner all the way down Main Street, waiting to enter. Bob Hope once played the Elm as an unknown vaudevillian.
The Elm opened in 1912 with Silvester Poli in attendance, and continued entertaining movie goers until 1959, when it closed forever. The Elm, along with the Poli Palace and the Plaza, was originally owned by Sylvester Poli of New Haven Connecticut. In the late 1920s Poli sold his theater chain to Fox, and then Fox sold it to Loew’s of New York, an MGM subsidiary, who changed the name to Loew's - Poli. While he was no longer an owner, Poli's name was retained on the marquee by terms of the sales agreement.
Poli received 30 million dollars for his theaters, not a bad amount of money in the depression era. At one time, Poli owned 18 theaters in Massachusetts and Connecticut, three of which were in Worcester, making him the top theater man in New England. His Plaza theater, located across from City Hall, closed in 1941 to become the site of F.W. Woolworth's 5&10.
In 1961, the city planned to level the old Elm St. Theater to make way for a new motor hotel. Motor hotel was a fancy 1950s name for a parking garage. Why would you destroy a historical landmark to construct a parking lot? A real hotel maybe, but a motor hotel? The demolition crew got underway and quickly tore down the Elm. Silvester Poli, who died in 1937, would have been rolling in his grave if he had seen what Worcester did to his famed Elm St. Theater. After the demolition, the actual garage structure never materialized and the site is now a parking lot, holding a mere 15 cars at best.
I have lived in Worcester for almost 50 years. I never could stomach Worcester logic. It’s nauseating. Shame on me for never leaving this barren, god-forsaken place. They tore down a movie theater paradise to put up a parking lot.THE POLI PALACE - Franklin Square/Federal Square - Seating Capacity 3,200
My personal all-time favorite theater in Worcester was the Poli Palace, also known as Loew’s- Poli Palace.
Originally the home of the Franklin Square Theater and later the Grand, Poli purchased the building in the early 1920s with the intent of creating another one of his movie palaces. An Italian immigrant, he came to America in 1881 at the age of 23 and got his start in the business working at the Eden Muse theater in New York. Poli became famous for his grandiose-styled theaters. Richly decorated in Italian and old world architecture, the Palace featured bronze-framed doors, plush carpets, cut glass mirrors, crystal chandeliers, marble pillars and staircases, giant velvet drapery, and a massive and highly ornate domed ceiling. Poli's intent was to make the Palace the biggest and best movie house Worcester had ever seen. And that he did.
On November 15th 1926, the Poli Palace had its grand opening, playing to a standing room only crowd of 3,500. The opening night attractions featured George Coo’s Petite Revue which was a five act Vaudeville bill, followed by Adolphe Menjou starring in The Ace Of Cads accompanied by Cecil Bailey on the Palace’s monster-sized organ, and a 10 piece orchestra led by Fred Valva.
Opening night was a great success and the rest is history. All the big stars graced the Palace, both on the stage and on the screen. Milton Berle played there as did George Burns and Gracie Allen. Palace regulars included Trixie Friganza, Doc Rockwell and George Price, the Fred Waring Orchestra, Ina Ray Hutton and her all girl band, Pegleg Bates, Pat Rooney, Eva Tanguay, Hildegarde, Dorothy Lamour, Gilda Gray, and Belle Baker.
By 1939 Loew’s had bought the Poli theater chain and the Poli Palace shared its name with the Loew Company (not to be confused with Elias Loew of Boston, who later owned the Plymouth and the Fine Arts theaters). The old Poli Palace sign came down and the new Loew’s - Poli went up. It was still fondly referred to as the Palace until 1967 when the Loew family sold the theater to the Redstone Company (now National Amusements) for renovation. Redstone, which already owned the ahead-of its-time Cinema One at Webster Square (formerly the Park) was buying up Worcester theaters and modernizing them. In 1968, the totally revamped Palace opened as the Showcase Cinemas, now featuring 2 screens on split levels.
The Showcase premiered with a re-release of Gone With The Wind and William Castle’s Rosemary’s Baby playing to a mere 1,700: a far cry from Poli’s grand opening of 3,700 some 42 years earlier.
I remember running down to the Showcase after school one afternoon in 1973 to see the re-release of The House Of Wax In 3-D, the last great horror movie I saw in that theater, and The Exorcist. The “last picture show” for the Showcase Cinemas was held in 1998, when Redstone closed their downtown theaters and moved to the megaplex format.
The Poli Palace was where I fell in love with the movie poster format of advertising. No theater that I can remember boasted more poster art than the Palace. They put everything up: the one sheets, the lobby cards, the inserts, door panels, banners, and stills. They had all kinds of display frames in the outdoor lobby. Any time I left my father's restaurant, I was supposed to stay on Front Street, but I would often sneak across the Worcester Common and head down Main Street to the Palace, to stare in awe at the lobby posters, which are now a long lost art form.
Long live the Poli Palace!