There was no way I could write this without having Garry in the mix. He is, after all, Mr. Movie Mavin. So here we are again, with a lot of new material.
Both Garry and I grew up in New York during the 1950s. Television was still pretty new and many people didn’t own a TV yet. Hard to believe there was a time when everyone didn’t have a TV in each room, isn’t it? On the other hand, everyone had a radio and we gathered around to listen to the shows, many of which became television shows in later years.
This was long before cable or even UHF. All television was black and white. They hadn’t invented color television — or, at least, hadn’t invented a version that was ready for prime time. We had nine channels: 2 (CBS), 4 (NBC), and 7 (ABC), the network flagship stations while 5 (Dumont) was a “second tier” station that changed ownership a bunch of times. I think it’s Fox now.
In the bottom tier, we had channels 9 (WOR RKO-General), the premium rerun and old monster movie channel vying with 11 (WPIX) and 13 (before it became public broadcasting). No one remembers who owned it. Channel 13 was broadcast from New Jersey, so if you wanted to watch it, getting a signal was difficult and sometimes, impossible.
Channel 9 won my heart because they ran a lot of old westerns. Johnny Mack and all those horseback heroes wore white hats so we knew they were the good guys. The bad ones wore black hats. This does not include Hopalong Cassidy who wore all black all the time, but he was totally a good guy and carrying his lunch box was a big deal. He rode a snow white horse, so maybe that made up for the absence of the appropriate hat.
Most of all, channel 9 had Million Dollar Movie. It turns out that it was a franchise and ran on many, if not all, RKO television stations.
Ah, the memories. You could say the Million Dollar Movie was an educational channel, if you consider movies educational. Which I do. Old movies, all in black and white because television was all black and white. I was, later in life, surprised to discover how many of these movies were made in color. Who knew?
My mother did not let my brother and I watch TV on school nights. Nor were we allowed to watch television during the day, even on weekends. She believed in fresh air, sports, and reading. What it really meant was I had to go to a friend’s house to catch the Saturday morning cartoons and great shows like “My Friend Flicka.”
Eventually, TV won and we all watched whenever and whatever we liked, but that was years in the future. Even early on, there were exceptions to the rules. The main exception was if we were home sick from school, we got to watch television all day. Upstairs in my parent’s bedroom and out of my mother’s hair.
That was when Million Dollar Movie came into its own. They showed one movie a week, but they showed it all day until midnight. For seven days in a row. The music theme for Million Dollar Movie was the Tara’s Theme from Gone With the Wind. The first time I really saw Gone With the Wind, I leapt from my seat shouting “Hey, that’s the Million Dollar Movie theme!”
I got tonsillitis with boring regularity. With it, came with a full week at home. Antibiotics and whatever was showing on (you guessed it) Million Dollar Movie. Which is how come I saw Yankee Doodle Dandy several hundred times. My bouts of tonsillitis coincided with their showings of Jimmy Cagney’s finest performance.
I didn’t know he made any other movies until I was an adult. That was when I discovered he had played gangsters. I was surprised. I thought all he did was dance and sing.
Why am I writing about this? Because we are watching Yankee Doodle Dandy. Again. Even though both of us can still sing all the songs and know every piece of dialogue. I think they made a “fake color” version of Yankee Doodle maybe 20 years ago. It was AWFUL. If you see it on one of your movie channels, do not watch it!
Does anyone know why this movie was made in black and white? It screams for color. It’s was not an el cheapo movie, either. They put a lot of money into the production. Someone really wanted it in black and white. I’d like to know why. Just saying.
AND NOW, A FEW WORDS FROM GARRY ARMSTRONG
Like Marilyn, I grew up watching “Million Dollar Movie” on New York’s Channel 9 which was owned by RKO-General. They ran nothing but movies from the RKO film library. I think the most frequently-watched films were the original “King Kong,” “Gunga Din,” and “Bringing Up Baby.” Little did I know that years later I would spend decades working for RKO-owned television stations.
At one of those stations, Channel 18 in Hartford, Connecticut, I was a jack of all trades. News co-anchor, photographer, writer, Public Affairs show moderator, and host of “When Stars Were Stars,” my own nightly version of “Million Dollar Movie.” I sat in the studio, surrounded by life-sized mannequins of Cagney, Raft, Bogie, Garfield (the actor, not the cat), Muni, Eddie G, Claire Trevor, Pat O’Brien, and company.
I would hold conversations with the celeb dummies as I talked about the featured movie. Cagney and Raft mannequins would square off in heated debate about who was the toughest mobster. I rattled off my personal impressions of these legends in what surely looked like “The three faces of Garry” to any outsider watching the proceedings. Sometimes I became so embroiled with these tough guys I’d work up a sweat as I introduced the film.
I could see the studio crew doubled over in laughter at my antics. Guess what? Channel 18s miniscule audience loved my wacko antics with the celebrity dummies. Some thought it was all real — that the legendary actors were in the studio with me. Yep!
Word of my film hosting with dummies filtered back to Ch 9, the RKO Mother Station and home of “Million Dollar Movie.” I was invited to be a guest on Channel 9s “The Joe Franklin Show.”
If you’re a native New Yorker, you’ll understand this was a big deal. Joe Franklin was a Ch 9, local TV icon who would have more than a 50-year run with that show before he passed and went to the Big TV Network in the Sky.
The night I guested on Joe Franklin’s show, he had actor Joe Silver (Phil Silvers’ brother) sitting on the guest couch. Franklin gave me an Ed McMahon-type intro, emphasizing that he was my mentor and had guided me to stardom.
Joe Franklin was something of a Damon Runyon character. He had orange hair and spoke in machine gun Runyonese style with a broad New York accent. As I nodded to the invisible audience and sat next to Joe Silver, Franklin kept talking me up as maybe the next Irving Thalberg. When I tried to reply to quirky questions, he’d interrupt with “Sher, sher, kid. Ya know that reminds me, I also made Barbra Streisand a star. before ‘Funny Girl’. Streisand? Geez, kid, she never used deodorant. But I took care of her, kid. Sher, sher kid. You’re gonna be big, really big, ya can bet the house on it, kid.” I repressed giggles. We were “hot”, taping and I didn’t want to mess up my “big chance.”
As I sat there, it became surreal. I was on a popular show, getting attention and I was desperately trying to not laugh at my revered host. My mind had segued to “Million Dollar Movie,” a Joe Franklin pet vehicle — and all my memories of watching classic movies as I grew up. I was lost in a memory of “King Kong” — watched a zillion times — when I realized Joe Franklin had asked me another question. I glanced at Franklin and Joe Silver and blurted out, “Fay Wray had a consensual affair with Kong.” Awkward laughter and Joe Franklin went to a commercial.
“Million Dollar Movie” would never be the same.
I met Fay Wray when they released the mid 70s remake of “King Kong” with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange in the Wray role. Wray had a cameo appearance, I believe, in the remake. During the press gathering, I repeated the Joe Franklin/”Kong comment” I made. Ms. Wray, still quite lovely, burst into laughter, almost spilling her champagne. Truly, A “Million Dollar Movie” moment.