Friday, March 14, 2014


"...I’m beginning to believe in the immortality of the soul, not on any religious grounds at all, but simply because it seems quite clear as you get older that the soul and the body start drifting apart. And I suddenly had a vision of going to a counter, which might be described as a Hertz-Rent-a-Body counter, and asking the girl, 'Excuse me, do you have anything with a slightly more powerful engine? Ooh, and with a sliding roof, I’d really like that!' and she says, 'No, I’m afraid we’re all out. Either take what we’ve given you or that’s it.' 'Oh, I’ll take it, I’ll take it.' So you’re stuck with a body which you may not necessarily feel entirely in concert with. You live with this body throughout your whole life, accommodating it, and of course adapting to it, and then it begins to creak and you hear noises from the back axle, and towards the end you begin to think, 'My God, I hope I’ll have the strength to bring this body back to the counter with dignity and not have to leave it out in the countryside with a red triangle behind it.' It’s for that reason I say we’re prisoners in our own shells and the main thing is to furnish them properly."

- Peter Ustinov

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hollywood Knights

      For every Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley, there's a John Cleese, David Bowie and Albert Finney. That is: for every actor/celebrity who has accepted a British civil honor (such as Knighthood) for exceptional achievement or service to the nation, there's another who has flat out rejected it. The reason given is typically the same. Like David Bowie's plainly stated public response to his CBE (Commander of the British Empire): "It's not what I spent my life working for" or John Lennon regarding his MBE (Member of the British Empire): "Your Majesty, I am returning this in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts. With Love, John Lennon of Bag."

The Queen actually has very little to do with the whole sticky process, other than presenting the prestigious title herself in a biannual ceremony. Anyone in the UK can nominate a living subject, but it's usually up to selection committees comprised of civil servants working from nominations channeled through the Prime Minister's office who decide. The Queen does get to choose a few though. In the days of olde (specifically the 13th Century), Knights were actually required to do military service. So many people refused the honor that King Henry VIII began to impose a fine upon anyone who declined. I often wonder if "Sir Tony" Hopkins would have been so readily accepting if that were the case today.

I began to wonder: what if there were a similar system for honoring great acting or exceptional contributions to the stage and screen in the U.S. (other than the copious industry award shows held every year)? What would a list of American celebrity Dames or Knights look like? Of course, they must have been awarded the honor while still living, so we'll have to suspend our disbelief a bit more and imagine these performers having been bestowed the title in his or her own lifetime. For time and space constraints, I've chosen 15 imaginary recipients, in no particular order. Please feel free to list any ideas of your own (living or dead) in the comments section. At any rate, on with the bestowed...

Dame Katharine Hepburn
walked a brisk six miles to the gala in full makeup and heels, then had to excuse herself for smelling "gamey"

Sir James Stewart
thanked everyone profusely, then helped clean up after the awards ceremony

Dame Bette Davis
gratefully thanked her fans, her Country and her What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? co-star Joan Crawford for providing motivation for the ultimate psycho-biddy she played to perfection, on and off camera

Sir Spencer Tracy
accepted rather dubiously, grumbling: "I guess now you'll have to make Bogart one too"

Dame Carole Lombard
the great platinum haired beauty, and richest star in Hollywood, sizzled in her elegant formal wear; Orson Welles offered to take her out to an all night buffet after the ceremony but she told him she was having her eyebrows waxed instead

Sir Lon Chaney, Sr.
accepted his honor disguised as an authentic Chinese immigrant with a hump and one leg; never breaking character

Sir Buster Keaton
reluctantly accepted in his twilight years, adding the disclaimer: "the applause is nice, but too late"

Dame Judy Garland
tearfully accepted her award, after arriving at the ceremony two hours late and having a hissy fit in front of the valet parking attendants

Sir Humphrey Bogart
lost his ceremonial ribbon afterwards during happy hour at Musso & Frank; while commiserating with Spencer Tracy

Sir Marlon Brando
was not in attendance so it's unclear whether he actually approved of the honor or not; he sent a telegram only wanting to know if he could play the part as a bagel

Sir John Wayne
insisted that he still just go by "Duke" or "Sir John" using his stage name in lieu of his actual name "Sir Marion"; as it was too close to "Maid Marion", a childhood nickname that still haunted him

Sir Richard Pryor
accepted by thanking: "all the motherfuckers who made this possible"

George C. Scott
refused the Knighthood, as well as the nomination

Groucho Marx
declined; so not to belong to any club that would have him as a member

Sir Paul Newman
accepted only to one-up box office rival Steve McQueen

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Curse of the Stanley

All things must pass.

      The Stanley Theatre in Baltimore, MD had its inaugural screening of the Billie Dove film The Stolen Bride on September 23rd, 1927. For 38 years, the opulent single screen Medieval Romanesque cinema palace existed at 516 North Howard Street, until its last showing of the Lionel Bart stage musical Oliver! on April 17th, 1965.

Built by the Philadelphia based Hoffman-Henon Company on the site of the old Academy of Music, Baltimore's Stanley was once the city's largest theatre. The Stanley Corporation was a major theatre chain that was acquired by Warner Bros. after the success of their first string of talkies, including the enormously popular Al Jolson film The Jazz Singer in 1927.

The front of the theatre featured six white marble columns and arched windows. The lobby was said to look like something from the Hapsburg dynasty with only the finest imported Italian marble (including brass inlays) and a 100 foot ceiling. The mezzanine featured a lounge with all the accoutrements a royal Hapsburg would expect. At one time, The Stanley was ranked 60th largest movie/vaudeville theatre in the United States.

The buff, gray and pale blue auditorium featured maroon tapestries and a massive crystal bejeweled Tiffany chandelier that was serviced yearly. Seating capacity was 3,287. The stage itself was 50 foot wide and 38 foot high. In addition to convenient restrooms, The Stanley also boasted cosmetics rooms for ladies and smoking rooms for gentlemen. Orchestra rehearsal rooms flanked the projection booth and backstage were enough dressing rooms for a dozen acts.

Perhaps the most significant feature was a huge W. W. Kimball organ and piano, one of the largest in the country, only the console of which survives today. The original organ was reportedly restored in time for the local premiere of The Music Man (1962) starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones. The theatre also hosted the world premiere of Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan the Ape Man on March 11, 1932. Weissmuller, along with costars Maureen O'Sullivan and Sir C. Aubrey Smith attended. Judy Garland even brought her traveling stage show in April and May of 1959 (when it was known as the Stanley Opera House).

The theatre was purchased by Morris A. Mechanic (a Baltimore theatre mogul) in 1958 and renamed the Stanton Theatre a year later. Mechanic eventually decided to tear down the Stanley/Stanton and build a brand new theatre in downtown Baltimore City bearing his own name on North Charles Street. A modernist monstrosity (in the once popular architectural style known as brutalism) the theatre opened on January 16, 1967. The now derelict Morris A. Mechanic Theatre topped the 2009 list of the top 10 ugliest buildings in the world.

Mechanic, who allegedly leveled the old Stanley Theatre to eliminate competition with his new one, died before its completion.

The Stanley/Stanton was demolished in July of 1965 and turned into a parking lot. The organ blower remains buried underneath. Finally, this brings me to the "Curse" of the Stanley. Though that moniker may soon seem a little misleading. After all, how can a parking lot be cursed?

Back in 1957, Hammer Film Productions made their first foray into the realm of Gothic fantasy, based on Mary Shelley's seminal work Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus first published anonymously in 1818. The revolutionary genre film, which ushered in a new era of modern horror, was renamed The Curse of Frankenstein so not to incur a lawsuit from Universal Pictures who still owned the rights to the property following their classic 1931 adaptation starring Boris Karloff.

The Curse of Frankenstein, with its mordant realism and distinctive use of color, was heavy stuff for audiences in 1957. The film, featuring the first on screen pairing of horror icons Peter Cushing (as the mad doctor) and Christopher Lee (as the monster) may seem incredibly tame by today's standards (even juvenile), but back then, faintings were not out of the ordinary. Radio features did their best to encourage people to come out and see the blood-curdling terror for themselves, if they dared.

In a bold publicity stunt, the Stanley Theatre in Baltimore challenged a young woman to watch the film alone in their 3,000+ seat auditorium; to test whether she could endure the English fright fest without running in terror for her own safety and to then relay the horrors she endured on a local radio broadcast. Warners, having launched a successful Nationwide exploitation campaign for the film, was not above these types of tawdry showmanship tactics.

It's stories like this one that make sentimental fools like me pine for the glories of yesteryear. I was fortunate enough to catch Hammer's Dracula (1958), their followup to The Curse of Frankenstein, at Baltimore's rundown Senator Theatre (first opened in 1939) just before it closed under original management. It's one thing to enjoy these classics in the comfort of your Star Wars pajama bottoms and bunny slippers at home on Blu-ray, but to see them as they were originally intended is something else altogether.

To learn more about the history of the Stanley and old movie theatres in Baltimore, please check out: Cinema Treasures (especially the comments section); Exit: a History of Movies in Baltimore (1974) by Robert K. Headley; and Kilduffs fantastic website.