Kiddie Matinee Memories – Part 2
I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Summer Fun Movies series every summer for around eight years. This took me from the midst of their heyday to at least the midpoint of their decline before I finally abandoned ship to avoid the rapidly building disappointment. During the golden years of the series, I saw more pop culture classics on the big screen than any young Fanboy had a right to expect and at least a few movies I probably shouldn’t have been seeing at that age! It was a glorious time of political incorrectness when a movie theater tried to keep their costs low and profits marginal by offering a three-hour baby sitting service disguised as a movie once a week.
It seems overwhelming and sometimes almost impossible to believe the incredible selection of feature films I was able to see in a theater courtesy of these kiddie matinees. Included among them were Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs. the Bionic Monster, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, The Magic of Sinbad, War of the Gargantuas, Mad Monster Party, Yog – Monster from Space, Dr. Who and the Daleks, Frankenstein Conquers the World, and The Time Machine. We were also often treated to one of the bizarre imported fairy tales that Florida producer K. Gordon Murray made famous or some feature length cartoon conglomeration. During one summer, it seems that almost all they showed were black and white Bowery Boys films including many of the Stanley Clements installments I have never seen since.
Amidst this psychotronic paradise of titles were a few that, in hindsight, probably shouldn’t have been shown to preteen patrons. Chief among these was Frankenstein Created Woman starring Peter Cushing. This Hammer sex change thriller contains scenes of murder, rape and suicide that more than justified its PG rating! Another PG rated Cushing picture, Island of the Burning Doomed, entertained the impressionable audience with hideous creatures that turned their victim’s bones to jelly. Die, Monster, Die was a Boris Karloff vehicle from American International Pictures (based loosely on an H.P. Lovecraft story) filled with all manner of mutants and mayhem. At the film’s climax, an irradiated Karloff changed into a silver skinned monster and attacked hero Nick Adams with an axe. This was almost as exciting as the kids in the theater who were flying over the backs of seats at every scare! I also had a rare opportunity to see the precursor of Evil Dead, 1970’sEquinox, at one of these matinees in all its demon-worshiping, Necronomicon-fueled, glory!
Of all the awesome films I saw at the Summer Fun Movies, there is one that will always stand out in my mind in more ways than one. In the early 1970’s, I had no idea who Bill Rebane was and would not have appreciated it if I did. I couldn’t have known that further down the road of life I would proudly call this Czar of cult movies my friend. When the film Invasion from Inner Earth (it may have been shown under a different title) popped up on the screen one Wednesday morning, I thought I was in for an action flick with the armies of the world defending the top soil against some subterranean menace. What we got instead was 90 minutes of sheer tedium and almost no effects, special or otherwise. As the tale of humans disappearing during what might be some type of alien upheaval (represented onscreen by strange lights and smoke bombs) came to a merciful close, the supposed final man and woman on Earth are suddenly transformed from wandering in a remote frozen area into loin cloth clad children walking through a sunny meadow – roll credits! More mature audiences might have interpreted this ending as something more meaningful but the group I was with was far from amused. In a split second, all manner of popcorn tubs, candy boxes, and half empty soda cups were hurled at the screen as the crowd went wild. Thankfully the seats were bolted down fairly well but the armrests were notoriously flimsy and several of those became makeshift projectiles of discontent. Many years later, I had the pleasure of relaying this incident to Mr. Rebane and telling him how this is still the closest I have ever come to being involved in a full scale riot! I make a point of watching his film at least twice a year and I still have flashbacks!
A great deal of the mischief caused during the movies could be directly attributed to how well the films held our interest but we were often significantly motivated by the quality of the candy as well. My friends and I were always suckers for the “Prize Boxes”, like just about every other kid in the theater. Even if you couldn’t afford anything else, you always bought at least one of these boxes each week. One year we were victimized by a never ending supply of some cheap red licorice candy, not even up to the Twizzler standards, in almost every box we purchased. To express our displeasure, we would chew up the foul, plastic like confection and then spit the contents onto the floor. The resulting shellac of gelatinous ground goo was particularly difficult to clean and stuck to everything it came in contact with. Once, when I attended an evening Disney film that followed a kiddie matinee earlier that day, I walked out of the theater with my brand new tennis shoes completely coated red on the bottoms! For reasons I could never explain, Tiny Tarts also fell into the despised sweets category (I liked them and always ate mine). While they couldn’t be regurgitated like the licorice, they could be hurled by the handful through the air of the darkened theater. Any unsuspecting kid returning to his seat from the bathroom might think they had just been strafed in the face with buckshot!
As awesome as all these films were, the best element of these matinees was getting to hang out with your friends with limited adult supervision. I had several neighbor friends who regularly attended the shows with me and even a few from school would turn up since it gave us a chance to interact occasionally over the summer. None of them compared to my friend Sean though who truly “got” the Summertime Fun shows even better than I did. Much of the fun of these shows was audience participation that anticipated the Rocky Horror Picture Show by several years. Any time someone left the theater during the movie by means of a side exit, proper etiquette dictated that “shut the door” be shouted by every remaining member of the audience. Sean found this so fascinating that he felt the need to actually supply everyone with a few opportunities to participate in the ritual. He always emphatically insisted that we sit at the end of a row near the exits at every show. Periodically, at least two to three times during the movie, Sean would bolt to the exit door and kick it open at full force, allowing the maximum amount of light into the theater. Returning to his seat with equally impressive speed, he would immediately shout “shut the god damn door” at the top of his lungs! This usually elicited a whole chorus of similar shouting and earned him the nickname of “Mr. Shut-the-God-Damn-Door” for years to come. He was a neighborhood legend!
Sean was also the first one to see the writing on the wall when the demise of the Summer Time Fun Shows inevitably began. Over the years, what had once been a lineup of titles to rival any Creature Feature gradually gave way to more traditional family programming. Even at the height of its popularity, these kiddie matinees occasionally turned out a stinker but over the years these became increasingly more frequent. We could put up with Heidi every once in a while if we knew Godzilla on Monster Island was just around the corner. Sadly, over what must have surely been parental complaints, Godzilla was given his walking papers and Brighty of the Grand Canyon took his place. I like to think it was shock that caused me to hold out as long as I did or maybe just the blind hope that it couldn’t stay this bad forever. It was clear the theater owners knew what was up because after a while they had to quit printing the names of the films in the newspaper in an attempt to minimize attendance slumps. The ads just read “special feature presentation”. After several discouraging weeks in the late ’70’s, Sean finally announced that he had had enough and was hanging up his running shoes. I sat through one last nearly insufferable film called Bear Claw (nowhere near as exciting as it sounds folks) and I called it quits too.
Even though the Summertime Fun Shows continued for a few more years without me, they couldn’t hold out for very long. After a few summers hiatus, the Springs and other local theaters would periodically try to bring them back but without a great deal of success. In the mid 80’s, while I was in college, the Wometco theater in Ocala gave it another try and included a Warner Brothers cartoon festival in their lineup. I managed to talk two of my friends from class into shelling out the, now, $1.00 admission price to see one last kiddie matinee. The theater couldn’t have had more than twenty people in it total, including us, and this was for unedited Bugs Bunny cartoons on the big screen. It was the end of an era and we couldn’t go home again but we still had a few laughs thanks to Bugs and his pals and they even showed a chapter of some old serial at the very end of the program, after everyone but us had cleared out. To the theaters that sponsored these shows, the people who selected the films in the early years, and kids who made every Wednesday morning fun during summer vacation, I tip my Fanboy hat to you!