Time to Stretch and Fetch

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To my knowledge this pile of film and paper is all that’s left to the drive in of my youth.   Just before it was bulldozed into history I stopped in to find a collapsing vandalized building with its contents strewn all over.  Running out of the bathroom were  crinkled strips of film which I had a hunch but dreaded to find in such condition, the snack bar footage.  It was.  Tangled, busted, weather worn, you name and behold it, the first treasure  of the leprechauns rainbow.

By the mid 1980’s intermission footage had passed into history. Without the internet, reproduction sources or any  fan network, the rejected abused  and forgotten group of cells was  the only connection to something  readily apparent never to happen again.

Treasure two is a hand typed flyer  by the author Terrance Wharton, discovered  13 years ago when crossing  paths with Derrick of Drive In Film. It was a good read and the memories of what he wrote were still very fresh then.  I nodded, smiled and took that flyer  home to keep with the old crinkly footage.  When reading it again the other day, I realized what sort of feelings these old promotions once elicited, and how different this footage is viewed now.

Like many things today,  intermission shorts have never had it so good.  Heck even Filmack is re-releasing some  of their own classics, and the great company of Screen Attractions is creating a new stable of shorts and restoring to perfection old offerings.   CDs from  sources such as Drive In Film or Something Weird has hours of clips that you can play on your own TV or makeshift home drive in.

YouTube is an endless source of quick and hazy  snack bar video, that even now I can go and find something that  I’ve never seen before.

In fact so prevalent and varied are the offerings today,   some drive in fans may have forgotten just what made those films so special to begin with. Taken for granted they could  be  again put  on a shelf  no higher than those once saved  from the wet cement  floor.

With all credit given to Terrance is his essay on what those masterful and independent creations meant to us, a post generation of drive in patrons.  Printed many years ago, the black and white photos and text appear as they did in the flyer for authenticity.

 

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Show Starts In Ten Minutes

By Terrance Jennings Wharton

There was a time when an evening spent at the local drive-in theatre always guaranteed the viewing of at least one unique and entertaining film:  the “Come Visit Our Modern Concession Stand…” production that both accompanied and defined the intermission between features.

Some years ago a drive-in owner was recounting (for the author’s benefit) the all-time highest grossing motion pictures at his three theatres (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and THE GODFATHER were the top two).  When I asked if that included the snackbar countdown his face broke into a broad smile.  “Over the years that’d have to rank up there with any of them!  I’ve never thought about it like that –  all those kids!  That’s also how we were able to get away with admitting the whole carload on a flat admission…”

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In 1952 Armour & Co. introduced the initial live-action refreshment stand advertisement, or “trailer”.  While animated segments of the “Come On Out To The Lobby…” ilk had existed for years, audiences had never been confronted with “actual” images of patrons enjoying handy snackbar treats.  Presented free of charge to nearly 600 drive-ins, this one-minute short (featuring a jingle by Bing Crosby’s Starlighters) heralded that it was time for intermission – and with it – a refreshing drink, box of popcorn, and delicious Armour frank: “…if drinks are what you want – we got’em –hot or cold, just holler; all drinks taste good with Armour franks – you bet your bottom dollar; if your taste for popcorn’s set – we have it hot and waiting; for an extra treat just buy a bag – it’s fun to eat when dating…

From drive-ins everywhere reports of dramatically inflated concession sales began pulling up at Armour’s Chicago offices.  A Missouri ozoner experienced a 25% increase in hotdog sales the very first night the trailer was shown, and total snackbar receipts for the season were 30% higher than those from the previous year.  When the new clip debuted at the Big Sandy Drive-In, in Portland, OR, four-times the normal amount of wieners were sold, and an Armour representative (attending the theatre with his family) hurriedly placed an ‘emergency” order for an additional 72 lb. of the franks.

Several hundred similar responses prompted Armour to release eight new trailers for the 1953 season.  While the true suggestive/metaphoric potential of the screen-size frankfurter was yet to be fully realized (e.g., the animated “Circus Of Performing Treats” production, from Filmack Studios, wherein the domineering bun coerces the subservient hotdog to turn a series of obedient flip-flops before being “rewarded” by its suddenly permissive partner), Armour had conclusively struck a responsive chord and served to open the flood-gates for “live-action” snack-bar footage of varying depth, duration and quality (in the trade vernacular, all footage, aside from animation, was generally described as live action): from limpid, lackluster stills of inedible, would-be food, on up to a far more ambitious ( even moderately obsessive and overblown considering their limited scope) product layouts utilizing excessive stop-motion razzle-dazzle and post production optical-printing, culminating in pop-up/overlapping/kaleidoscopic imagery quite unlike anything else.  (The Alexander Film Co. dreamed-up various curiously inspired examples of the latter variety).

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Most (however, not all) intermission reels were structured around a “clock-shell”: comprised of a 20-30 second introduction, or “header”; 10 second inserts counting down each minute; and a 10 second closing, or “tag”; this basic framework amounted to approximately 2 minutes of actual screen time.  The remaining 5-10 minutes (many “10 Minute” shows were striking exercises in temporal compression/expansion) were nothing less than a blank canvas to the local drive-in projectionist (that inadvertent/invariable master of cinema-montage) whose abrupt, sledgehammer method of jump-cutting and juxtaposing footage (from myriad of sources) unfailingly produced an amazingly collage-like body of work – worthy of repeated viewing (as in every visit to the drive-in).

Indeed, in an era prior to mass MTV retinal overload there were no other cinematic shorts available for widespread public viewing that were as crazily mixed-up as the local snackbar assemblage: a crude-yet-complex conglomeration enriched by virtue of startling shifts in content; equally head-shaking jumps from color to b&w and back; rhythmically jarring (and frequently “frame” altering) secondary cement and/or tape splices (earmarking varying degrees of missing footage); brutal emulsion scratches, grimy accumulations; shredded sprocket holes; moisture damage (read: mildew) physically stretched stock; and a signature washed-out carbon-arc luminosity bordering on the ethereal… all told, a gradual evolution nurtured by countless rushes through a blinding, many-toothed gauntlet at 90 feet-per-minute.

The following was only a partial inventory of the drive-in projectionist’s considerable bag-of-tricks: persistent clock shells, produced primarily by Filmack, Alexander, and National Screen; narrated live-action food clips, often with disembodied human hands performing sundry task; goofy animated Leprechauns, Martians, Professors, and Sentries (from National Screen Service); near hypnotic/escapist animated interludes unwinding to approximately sedate musical scores; toe-tapping barbecue pitches from Castleberry’s, Smithfield, (most often tinted green); Drizzle Gard Rain Visor ads; Butter Cup Popcorn sing-a-longs; simple minded color slides of kittens, puppies, birds, and flowers set to vapid easy-listening arrangements (originally included in a self-contained countdown clock, and often recut by projectionists); single sentence, narrated stills (e.g., “Sizzling Hotdogs Bursting With Juicy Goodness…”) that led sharp punctuation to the proceedings when hitting the screen; Neil Armstrong up on the Moon; detailed Bernz-O-Matic in-car heater instructions; local merchant spots; catchy soft drink commercials for national and regional bottlers; United States Armed Forces recruiting promotions; dreary public service announcements; vast vistas of farm crops, with machinery harvesting and patriotic strains swelling from the in –car metal speakers; and, of course, the “… Please Return The Speaker Before You Leave The Theatre… AND DON’T EVER LET US CATCH YOU STEALING ONE…” reminder/admonishment.

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Beyond the above-mentioned arbitrary editing and subsequent resplicing of said footage, the very image itself was often drastically distorted via projection through an anamorphic lens, a common practice when both features on the bill were in widescreen format (it was understandably convenient to leave the relatively cumbersome optics in place, rather than switch to the “flat” lens for a mere 10 minutes).  Static, screen-filling views of sandwiches, popcorn boxes, and drink cups (assuredly minimalistic and absurd-looking when enlarged to such monolithic proportions) became even more strangely stylized and surreal when they were amazingly stretched-way-out horizontally (like a magnified vision from some futuristic industrial designer’s mental sketchpad), with form warping content to plasticized perfection.

Some years back, a personal viewing of the rapid-fire, found footage short films of Bruce Conner (A MOVIE, AMERICA IS WAITING) brought to mind the mishmash nature of the drive-in snackbar film, where contextual fusing of obliquely incongruous subject matter could sometimes engender newfound meaning.  A memorable intermission countdown from the Skyview Cruise-In Lancaster, OH (that played intact through the 1989 season), included a cutaway from the animated “Ten Little Indians” clock-shell (produced by the Alexander Film Co.) to a title card proclaiming, “This Is YOUR Land, AMERICA!  Demonstrate Your FAITH In It In Your EVERY Action…” then abruptly cut back to the cartoon Indians (at once an unintentional subversion of content and prime example of “1 Minute” in “intermission time” compacted to barely 20 seconds).

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Eventually taken for granted by the majority of patrons (existing as little more than ambient cinematic wallpaper), these odd mini-wonders provided for more discriminating movie-goers that perfectly twisted transition between screenings of such eccentric fare as THE CORPSE GRINDERS and THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS.  (Author’s note:  at a memorable 10th anniversary booking of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, at the E. Main Drive-In, in Columbus, OH, a smattering of cheers and groans alike could be heard from several cars when the local Temp-Taste Barbeque commercial [starring Ohio Steak & Barbecue’s own Dan Enderle] appeared on the screen).

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Now that the entire economic nature of film production/distribution has changed irrevocably and no more offbeat, independent “drive-in” features are being released theatrically, the last of the surviving intermission countdown reels are exceedingly rare and especially welcome movie going experience (too often flanked by comparatively unimaginative and insignificant corporate Hollywood reoccurrences…).  To presently watch one of these cultural time capsules count off the minutes is to experience time quite frozen.

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(The author extends heartfelt thanks to all of the drive-in owners, managers, and projectionists.  The Armour sales information is contained in the article “Franks Mean Sales” which originally appeared in the 1955-56 Theatre Catalog.)

The following is a partial list of film service companies who distributed and/or produced motion picture trailers of one manner, or another.

Alexander Film Co……………………………………. Colorado Springs, CO

Alpha Film Labs……………………………………….. Baltimore, MD

Ambuter Motion Picture Co.  …………………  Boston, MA

Clyde Anderson Film Co. ……………………….  Salt lake City, UT

Argo Film Production …………………………….. St. Louis, MO

Associated Film Exchange ……………………… Salt lake City, UT

A.H. Barber, Sr. ………………………………………. St Louis, MO

Barnett Film Services …………………………….. New Orleans, LA

Cine-Graphic Film Labs Inc. …………………… St Louis, MO

Cinema Concepts Theatre Service ……….. Atlanta, GA

Clark Service Inc. …………………………………. Buffalo, NY

Lewy Studios ………………………………………..  Baltimore, MD

Lippincott Pictures Inc. ………………………….. Philadelphia, PA

Master Motion Picture Co. …………………….. Boston, MA

Moondial Manufacturing Corp. ………………. Los Angeles, CA

Monarch Theatre Supply ………………………… Memphis, TN

Monmental Films Inc. …………………………….. Baltimore, MD

Motion Picture Advertising Service …………  New York, NY

Motion Picture Service Company ……………. San Francisco, CA

National Film Service ………………………………. New Orleans, LA

National Screen Service …………………………. New York, NY

National Theatre Supply Co. ………………….. Indianapolis, IN

Nationwide Pictures ……………………………. Dallas, TX

Oran Productions ……………………………….. St Louis, MO

Pacific Title & Art Studios …………………… Los Angeles, CA

Parrot Film Services ……………………………. De Moines, IA

Pictosound Productions …………………….. St Louis, MO

Premier Film & recording Corp. …………. St Louis, MO

Quality Film Labs ……………………………….. Baltimore, MD

M.B. Russell ……………………………………….. Salt Lake City, UT

Stansbury Photo Films ………………………. Baltimore, MD

Stark Films ………………………………………….  Baltimore, MD

Strickland Film Co. ……………..……………….. Atlanta, GA

Shelby Stork & Co. ……………..……………….. St Louis, MO

Simon Film Service ……………………….……… Detroit, MI

Sly Fox Films ………………………………………… Minneapolis, MN

Standard Screen Service ……………………… Los Angeles, CA

Technisonic Studios Inc. ………………………  St Louis, MO

Theatre Screen Advertising …………………. Denver, CO

Tri-State Theatre Service …………………….. Memphis, TN

Universal Images Ltd. ………………………….. Kansas City, MO

UTA Inc. …………………………………………………. Los Angeles, CA

Welgot Trailer Service …………………………… New York, NY

Wilding Picture Productions …………………. St Louis, MO

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