Friday, December 17, 2010

Ken's Tuesday Night Film Club

I saw my friend Ken for dinner and a movie at his office and screening room in Burbank recently.  The first thing you notice when you walk in the door is the pungent, bittersweet odor of old film prints; a projectionist friend of mine once described it as being a bit like oil & vinegar salad dressing.  

 For several decades Ken was one of the most active 35 mm. film print and trailer dealers in the country. His private collection is still one of the finest in Los Angeles and includes treasures like an original 4-track mag Tech print of Porgy & Bess, probably the best in existence ... a superb collection of Technicolor Disney features from the 1940's, 50's and 60's ... color home-movie footage of Marilyn Monroe & Joe DiMaggio during filming of The River Of No Return ... out-takes from George Pal's War Of The Worlds and When Worlds Collide ... the list goes on.  But like many of his one-time rivals for rare film prints, Ken’s now considering selling his entire collection of 35 mm. and 16 mm. prints.  He says with a shrug, “I can’t really imagine the day when I won’t have film prints to show.”  But the fact is that the film print market is rapidly changing:  the hardcore collectors from the 1970’s and 1980’s -- guys like Ken, Jeff Joseph, Joe Dante who really defined obsessive print collecting, and who saved many treasures from disappearing all together -- are now getting older … and there are few younger collectors who share their passion and urgency to collect these movies, not with the ready availability of films on DVD and the internet.
Ken swears he hasn’t bought any prints in 5 years – and then proceeds to tell us about his latest find:  he spotted an ad in the Recycler (“it’s 8 pages now, barely there,” he wisecracks) that advertised “Deep Throat poster, loose film reels - $400.”  Ken wound up paying $800, but got posters for Deep Throat and The Devil In Miss Jones, a 35 mm. print of Throat with 50 – 60% color left, an excellent Fuji color print of Miss Jones … “But that’s not even the good stuff,” he grins.  “The guy had an original 35 mm. black and white print of A Hard Day’s Night … and even better, a complete British Technicolor print of Let It Be.  The Academy doesn’t even have one, theirs is incomplete.”  He claims someone’s already offered him $3,000 - $5,000 for the Devil In Miss Jones print, but he’s not selling (for now.) 

Like all obsessive collectors, he only remembers the ones that got away:  “Years ago I went through one of those phases where I swore to my then-wife that I wouldn’t buy anything more.  A guy called me up that month and said ‘I’ve got the Lion costume from Wizard Of Oz, do you want to buy it for $800?’  I asked him if it included the mask … that’s a joke, there was no mask for the Lion outfit.  I turned him down … the thing sold a couple years ago for over $400,000.”  So many years, so many treasures slipping in and out of his fingers:  “I had one of the first movie poster stores anywhere … I think of all the posters I wish I’d held on to, but nobody wanted the stuff back then.  I hired a guy to paint the sign outside the store, and instead of cash I told him he could pick out any poster he wanted.  He picked an original one-sheet for Gone With The Wind, the one with the flower border.  The thing sold for 50 or 75 bucks back then …”

He went on:  “I almost had the original Star Trek Enterprise model – the 15 foot one that’s in the Smithsonian now.  I bought this alien reptile costume for 75 bucks from Paramount that was used in one of the Star Trek shows.  I kept the head on my dining room table for a while, it bugged the hell out of my wife.  A buddy of mine kept pestering me to buy it – I wasn’t even a big Star Trek fan – so I finally sold it to him for 400 bucks.  I pack it up and ship it out … then I get a phone call.   The voice blurts out, “Ken Kramer, you thief!” and hangs up.  I go, what?  Five minutes later he calls back … I say, “Listen, I don’t know who you are but don’t hang up on me again.”  Turns out the guy is a producer at Paramount, he apologizes for the first call.  He was in pre-production on a project that was written around the alien reptile costume I’d bought.  The guy said he’d give me anything I wanted if he could borrow the costume back for a week of shooting:  “I’ll give you the original star ship Enterprise model they used in the show.”  I said okay – of course I didn’t tell him I didn’t have the damn costume any more.  I call my buddy up I’d sold it to, I said listen, I need to borrow it back.  He says sure, you’ve done me some favors in the past, I’ll just send it back to you.  So I call the producer back to tell him the good news – and he says sorry, we don’t need it anymore, we found a second costume on the lot and we don’t need yours!”  The list of lost treasures is endless.  “I had the original Ming the Merciless costume from the Flash Gordon serial, the one with the big collar.  Gave it to Debbie Reynolds when she was opening her costume museum in Vegas … don’t know where it is now.  Poor Debbie.  So many people stole from her over the years.”

There’s a photo in the corner of one that didn’t get away, at least for a while:  “You see that Frankenstein dummy?  I spotted an ad in the paper and called the guy up.  He said, I’ve got this big Frankenstein dummy, I think they used it outside a store or movie theater.  He wanted 75 bucks for it.  We made plans for me to look at it the next day.  So the next day I call him – and he says, oh I’m sorry – some other guy’s coming to look at it right now, if he doesn’t buy it, it’s yours.  I ask him where he lives, he says King’s Road – well I used to live on King’s Road, so I race over there right away.  I get there and I’m just starting to look at this thing when another car pulls up, the guy says “oh that’s the other buyer.”  I hand him 75 bucks and grab the dummy and throw it in my car.”

“I’m looking at it later and I can’t quite figure out what it is.  The face is really badly painted, so I send it to a friend of mine to re-paint.  He calls me up and says, ‘Ken – do you know what you have?  I stripped off the paint and underneath is a life mask of Karloff’s face, beautifully painted in green.’  I say, what??  He does some more research and calls me back:  ‘Look at the final scenes of Bride Of Frankenstein … There’s the Frankenstein figure surrounded by flames.  But if you look closely you’ll see he’s not moving – it’s a model of him, they probably didn’t want to risk hurting Karloff.  Your dummy has the exact same clothes, they’re torn in the same place.  You’ve got an original prop from Bride Of Frankenstein …”

I ask him if he still has it.  “No,” he sighs – “A friend was doing a memorabilia auction in London and convinced me to put it in.  It was on the cover of the catalogue.  But it was the same weekend they did a huge auction in New York where they sold the piano from Casablanca.  My Frankenstein dummy sold for $37,000 … imagine what it’d go for now.”  To cheer him up I said, sure – but at the time that was a lot of money.  And after all, a movie poster’s just a sheet of paper with some ink on it that we assign an artificial value to.  You can’t eat it, you can’t take it for a walk by the lake.  You sell this stuff and you use the money for something more important like buying a car or pursuing a pretty girl, real memories.  Ken and his buddies nodded half-heartedly but I could tell they didn’t really believe me, they’d rather still have the Frankenstein dummy or the Gone With The Wind one-sheet.  I’m not totally sure I believe myself.  That’s the illness of collecting.

On Tuesday nights Ken gets together with a bunch of buddies for dinner at the family Thai restaurant next to his office, followed by a screening.  This Tuesday there was a about half-a-dozen film buffs – all men, of course.  As we walked into the restaurant Ken gestured to one friend:  “He’s got diabetes like me but he doesn’t pay any attention to what he eats … he always falls asleep halfway through the movie.  He’ll gobble down half a bowl of candy and then pass out from the sugar.”  Of course Ken’s little theater is always well-stocked with red Twizzlers, bite-sized Hershey’s, popcorn, soda – very generous but maybe he should hide them when his diabetic buddies are around.  To say the Tuesday Night Film Club isn’t the healthiest bunch around is an understatement:  they’re all mild-mannered and highly excitable and look like those cave creatures that grow genetically adapted to life in darkness.  (I’m one to talk:  at Susan’s friend Stephanie’s pool party the other day Stephanie squawked out, “My God, you’ve got the palest chest I’ve ever seen.”) Compared with popping a DVD in the machine it takes a lot of energy and bother to project a film print, there’s a whole ritual involved – so it’s heartening to know that Ken is still doing his regular film club for the faithful.

I wish I could adequately capture Ken’s sense of humor:  like a lot of old-time movie buffs, Ken is rarely serious, he’s always looking to make a bad pun or to turn a line into a punchline.  His sense of comic timing comes straight out of old Jack Benny radio shows and Hope & Crosby flicks  … at the end of every sentence there’s a pause waiting for a “ka-ching” drum shot, and if you don’t oblige they’ll provide one themselves (Mike Schlesinger is notorious for this, he’s like Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon and the Tonight Show Band rolled into one.)  Tonight’s crowd includes a slender guy in a baseball cap who works at Larry Edmunds Cinema Bookstore on Hollywood Blvd. and recognizes me from there (“I’ve worked at Larry Edmunds for 27 years – before that I worked at Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, they laid me off and the next day I got hired at Larry Edmunds …the internet had already practically killed us and now the recession, I don’t know how we’re hanging on but we are”), plus a guy named Stan Taffel who’s one of the co-organizers of the annual Cinecon movie buff convention with Bob Burchard. 

During dinner Stan mentions that he’d recently been at a convention where he got one over on a friend of his:  “I bought a film collection from a guy who’d died out in Palm Springs and among it was a print of this incredibly rare Monogram picture from the mid-30’s with Edgar Kennedy called Money Means Nothing.  I spotted my buddy who’s written a book on Kennedy, and said I bet I’ve got an Edgar Kennedy movie you’ve never seen.  He said no way, I’ve seen everything there is to see … So I bet him, I say, if I’m right you have to come to Cinecon and sell your book.  I show him the print, and after he turns to his wife and says, ‘I guess we’re going to Cinecon this year.’”  These are the small sweet victories for the hardcore faithful.  I asked what else was in the film collection he bought and Stan’s eyes lit up:  “I never met the guy but he was a gay Nazi.  I’m not kidding:  a gay Nazi.  He had a bunch of movies all about WWII and the Nazis.  One of his prints was the Julie Andrews film Thoroughly Modern Millie – with it was a little metal can marked ‘Jew outtakes.’  Remember in the movie there’s a scene where Julie dances at a Jewish wedding?  He’d gone in and cut the whole scene out, put it in this little can.” 

After dinner, and after much debate, Ken settled on showing a 16 mm. Tech scope print of a middling Robert Ryan/Virginia Mayo/Jeffrey Hunter western called The Proud Ones, which plays like Hawks’ Rio Bravo only with its balls cut off.  Beforehand were Chapters 7 and 8 of a way-obscure 1926 silent serial called Officer 444 directed by John Ford’s much less successful brother, Francis, and co-starring his nephew Phil Ford.  The good thing about silent serials is you can ask questions while they’re playing and no one gets upset – Ken’s diabetic buddy in the rear explained that Francis Ford had been a contract director at Universal a few years before this, “but I think he had a drinking problem because he wound up doing these cheapie states’ rights movies that were sold off territory by territory.”  The crowd ventured to guess that Officer 444 was shot in and around Los Angeles – someone observed the rolling hills in one car chase looked like Chatsworth, or maybe Glendale pre-development – and in fact the outdoor locations, the views of a still relatively-unspoiled L.A., give it more interest than it probably deserves.  The most excitement it generated was when a getaway car zoomed past a remote roadside diner with a sign reading “El Camino Inn,” and Ken’s buddies debated where the hell that was, but in the end nobody could say for sure. 

Lost Film Theater in L.A.'s Chinatown

For years rumors have bounced around L.A.'s film scene about a long-shuttered movie theater in Chinatown with a forgotten trove of hundreds of Asian martial arts movies stashed away in it ... I was never quite sure if this was just wishful thinking on the part of hardcore movie buffs, until a few months ago when I got a chance to peek inside one of L.A.'s truly forgotten and forlorn movie houses.  

I can confirm that yes, the theater is there in the industrial heart of Chinatown -- and yes, it's amazingly and inexplicably filled with literally hundreds and hundreds of Hong Kong film prints, stacked haphazardly in the dusty lobby, running up the steps to the stage and overflowing both in front of and behind the screen ...

Apparently the theater was one of the last stops on a once-bustling Asian-language theater circuit across the U.S. ... I have fond memories of going to see John Woo movies at the now-demolished Sun Sing Theatre in New York's Chinatown in the mid 1980's.  The Sun Sing was located underneath the spans of the Manhattan Bridge (the place would literally rattle when subway trains went by overhead) ... People would eat their lunches inside the theater, and two giant luminous clocks flanked the screen on each side like the perpetual eyes overlooking the ash heaps in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby ... Now all gone.

I'm guessing that this theater in L.A.'s Chinatown was the last port of call on the Asian film circuit, and the prints just piled up there with nowhere else to go ... Apparently Quentin Tarantino had leased the theater out for a while and used it as a private screening room, lured by the tantalizing supply of H.K. film treasures just strewn about the place.

Huge thanks to my friend Paul Rayton, head projectionist at the Egyptian Theatre for supplying these photos of our secret visit to one of L.A.'s abandoned movie spots ...

Future of Film Projection in Jeopardy?

For all those concerned about the future of film projection -- here's some alarming news courtesy of Douglas Maclaren at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago:

"LaVezzi Precision Inc, the manufacturer for 95% of projector sprockets in use worldwide, has decided to cease production on all motion picture parts. Sprockets, gears, shafts, and most importantly, the cams & stars for projector intermittent movement have all ceased being manufactured effective immediately. 

That means the precision parts critical for running film on Ballantyne, Century, Christie, and Simplex projectors (including also RCA soundheads) are now limited to what is left on the shelf. Clearly, this has a major impact on the future of film projection and exhibition.

If you are involved in an institution with any of these makes of film projectors, I highly suggest contacting your service tech to determine what spare parts either you or your tech need to stock up on if you are to continue running film into the future, especially as it becomes more difficult to locate adequate replacement parts. As time goes on, some projector models will be easier to locate parts for than others, such as the Simplex XL, as it is incredibly common. Others, not so much (our theatre runs 35/70mm Century JJs, and my god it was already hard to source parts before this!).

If you'd like, pour some wine, put on some sad music and take a tour through LaVezzi's catalog:


And this quick response from my friend Paul Rayton, head projectionist for the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian and Aero Theatres:

"Yep, 'tis a sorry state of affairs.  One could still have parts individually manufactured, of one sort and another, but I imagine the price will gradually move toward being prohibitively high.  However, FWIW, there will be enough discards for museums to scarf up used devices and keep some semblance of "film" showable for centuries.  That's at least some encouragement, albeit not enough to herald a renaissance of film projection equipment-making!

Also, there are other manufacturers of projector parts, and they may take over some of the designs and/or n/c programs for such parts, so I don't think it's necessarily the end of the world.  Cinemeccanica in Italy manufactures their devices in-house, and (I assume) controls all their designs and the manufacture of same.  Kinoton (Germany) can still do some, though they're progressing toward all electronic devices, which will be even more dicey to keep in service.   And other countries, including India, China, and Japan.  But, of course, all will be facing declining users and increasing costs, so the shakeout will continue, as the years roll along.

Wait till Kodak decides they need the money and they sell off the "film manufacturing" division to ... either a rival manfuacturer, or, worse yet, one of the dreaded leveraged buyout specialists, such as the speculators who have ruined "Harry and David" Co.!   Then, they'll seek to "improve revenues" by dropping lines of stock, until only 3 or 4 camera neg stocks are made, and 2 or 3 print stocks.  That'll be when it's really time to wax nostalgic on the tragic state of things!


Paul R."