Kiddie Matinee Memories – Part 1
As we enter into the final month of the summer vacation season, I wanted to revisit a related phenomenon from about 30 years ago. The advertisements reproduced in this two part article are all from the archives of the Ocala Star Banner newspaper from 1972 through 1974. I encourage anyone who remembers attending these types of film series to write in and share their memories.
Over the years I have done a lot of research and read a lot of information trying to pin down what makes a Fanboy what he is. There are many recurring factors in most people’s equations such as exposure to a Creature Feature-like local program or magazines like Famous Monsters. One element that played a tremendous part in my early Fanboy development is something that I can find almost no collaborating evidence for, making me wonder just how localized a phenomenon it might have been. I am referring to the Summertime Fun Shows or Kiddie Matinees as everyone I knew always called them. A true Kiddie Matinee is usually considered to be a special Saturday morning screening of an age appropriate film that isn’t part of a theater’s current regular schedule. We had these on occasion but they were few and far between. A Summertime Fun Show was something a little different. The ones that I attended, at least in the early years, could easily be considered a juvenile grindhouse!
Summer vacations in the 1970’s were three blissful months without any educational nuisances but entertainment was often in short supply. These were great days for catching up on repeats of recent television series like Three’s Company or Happy Days and you could even find some older shows on independent stations (anyone remember The Mothers-In-Law with Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard?). This made for great filler along with the occasional horror or sci-fi flick on the Dialing-For-Dollars movie but it wasn’t enough to satiate most budding Fanboys like me looking for a psychotronic fix! That’s where the Summertime Fun Shows came in, a weekly offering of cartoons, shorts and some cheesy movie all for the bargain price of only fifty cents (it was twenty-five cents if you clipped the coupon from your local paper). This weekday wonderland was upwards of three hours of pure Fanboy gold in the pre-home video days. Even now, where would you ever have the opportunity to view Godzilla’s Revenge on the big screen?
For almost as far back as I can remember, this grade school targeted film series (note the “children age 12 and under” designation on the ads) was a weekly staple of those glorious three months between May and September. I was always fortunate enough to have a relative or neighbor who could take me (along with a few neighborhood friends) in my younger days and chauffer us in later years. Many of the films we saw on Wednesday mornings would be hot topics of conversations for the remainder of the week. These shows also served as a social common ground for friends you usually only saw at school or who lived in other parts of town. The theater was always full and often sold out. I still remember getting burned one time when my father was kind enough to take me to see Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. We pulled up to the box office a few minutes late and saw the white, hand written, sign indicating I had just missed my one and, so far, only chance to see this film in a theater.
The Summertime Fun Shows were a unique experience and I am not aware of anything that has come close to duplicating them. When you paid the paltry quarter for your admission (later increased to a whopping thirty cents), you were given a standard generic ticket with a serial number. This was stapled to a larger piece of paper with “Race Number” stenciled at the top and digits from one through ten printed in larger type in the center. These were both crucial items to be guarded with your life for next twenty or so minutes until the show started.
Inside the theater, the concession stand was business as usual with one very interesting exception. A table was set up off to the side and some poor usher, who had surely drawn the short straw, was selling “Prize Boxes” (later replaced with the cheaper “Prize Bags”) for fifty cents. These duotone boxes, adorned with generic clowns professing the great value to be found inside, offered kids the two-fold temptations of candy and some form of cheap plastic toy. There was also the enticement of randomly inserted coupons that indicated you had won a larger prize. One of my friends (Mr. “Shut-The-God-Damn-Door” who we’ll talk more about later) actually won a poorly made stuffed poodle with a radio in its stomach from one of these boxes. He never mentioned it again nor was it ever seen after that day, so my guess is his older sister appropriated it. The “Prize Boxes” were a good deal at first, offering name brand candy like Wacky Wafers or Sweet Tarts to rot your teeth and simplistic magic ticks or novelty items to annoy your parents with. Later the theater would drastically lower the quality of the candy and toys to save a buck but they paid this savings back in spades in the long run in cleaning costs!
After we had stocked up on enough high calorie/low nutrient provisions to keep us sustained for the next three hours, it was time to stake out our seats in the rapidly filling theater. The Springs Theater originally only had one screen but it probably contained around 500 seats. Since these movies often filled to capacity, it was vital to try and get in early if you didn’t want to be stuck in the back seemingly miles away from the screen. It was also great to watch several hundred kids all wired on sugar and caffeine running up and down the aisles and causing all manner of commotion as a prelude to the official entertainment!
When the lights finally dimmed, we were treated to an appetizer of seven or eight cartoons, usually latter-day Walter Lantz fodder like Woody Woodpecker, Chilly Willy, or The Beary Family. Occasionally we scored a Terrytoon or Mister Magoo cartoon if we were lucky but never anything from Warner Brothers. Following the cartoons was a chapter from some 1930’s movie serial that taught us to hate those cheating cliffhangers where they tried so hard to convenience you the hero was really dead. Once our quality standards had been sufficiently lowered, it was time for “The Race”. These were a series of grainy black and white shorts that looked like they couldn’t have been made too long after the great depression. Each week, a group of rejects from a Mack Sennett comedy would compete in a different type of race (i.e. car, bicycle, boat, foot, etc.). Each of the ten participants had a large number plastered on their person and their vehicle that corresponded to the ones we were given when we purchased our admissions. A title card at the front of these slapstick silents encouraged the audience to root for their contestant to win because those lucky ticket holders would receive a fantastic prize. In reality, the kids who did have the winning number could redeem it at the concession stand for a free small (think Styrofoam cup size) soda but after a ten-minute shouting match, everyone in the theater needed a drink!
The next portion of this entertainment cavalcade was the one that required the other ticket you were given upon purchasing your admission. Following “The Race”, as the theater pulsed with the sounds of hundreds of wheezing children breathing hard from so much pointless screaming, the house lights would go up and the manager (who resembled a thinner version of Joe Flynn from McHale’s Navy) would walk to the front of the theater. With a trusty usher at his side holding a box of similarly numbered tickets, our bespectacled barker welcomed everyone to the prize drawing. Eight or ten prizes were quickly dispensed as a lucky few flew like locusts down to the front while the less fortunate howled out boos, guttural noises and the occasional obscenity when they realized they were only one digit off from the winning number. I won a fairly typical prize one year, a $5.00 gift certificate to K-Mart which I quickly parlayed into a clicking ray gun and a blue plastic motorcycle helmet – ah, childhood!
As if the preceding hadn’t been enough fun for one day, the conclusion of the prize drawing heralded the advent of the feature presentation. After the manager admonished us not to act up during the movie (like that EVER worked) and fueled us with promises of the following week’s incredible offering, it was time for the main attraction!
Coming next week in part two of Kiddie Matinee Memories: Questionable Features, Dirty Tricks, and the Decline and Fall of the Summertime Fun Shows!