Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
4th row center: King Kong
By the time I was old enough to take the elevated train to Chicago's Loop, The Clark Theatre had all but died. Under the leadership of legendary Chicago movie theatre impresario, Bruce Trinz, the Clark was the forerunner of what eventually became Landmark Theatres' revival policy of changing classic double-bills daily. The Clark also played home to former critic David Elliott's first job as a theatre usher.
The Clark would close briefly during early morning hours, usually between 3am and 6am, but for the rest of the day it was wall-to-wall movies. My father never liked to venture too far from our apartment in Rogers Park, especially for something as insignificant as a picture show. "We have ten theatres in the neighborhood to choose from," he argued. "What do you want to shlep all the way Downtown for?"
Because none of our neighborhood houses were playing a revival of King Kong, a film that I had seen and loved, but only on Channel 7's 3:30 movie with 27 minutes lopped off to fit the 90 minute time slot. A quick check of Leonard Maltin's TV Movies confirmed the film's 100 minute running time. That's what for!
Dad consented to escort me to the Halloween double-feature of Kong and Frankenstein only if I agreed to staying for one movie. Frankenstein played television regularly and in it's entirety -- give or take a drowned kid -- so I was content to leave after Kong. Besides, I knew that once we got to the theatre he'd fold and submit to two films, which for him meant catching some shuteye during Frankenstein.
We dined on Wimpy's Hamburgers prior to showtime and found the theatre hopping when we arrived. Dad loved sitting in the first row of the balcony, a habit, as the title of this piece indicates, that seldom agreed with me. (The only time this rule was broken was during my tenure as manager of the Parkway Theatre, but that's for another column.)
Everything was going smoothly until right after Kong was transported to New York. As the chained gargantuan stood towering over Fay Wray, a drunk in the crowd hollered, "Piss on her, Kong." Dad had to set an example by pretending it wasn't funny, but in my heart, I knew that he was laughing as loudly on the inside as I was in the theatre.
Just as the planes were buzzing our hero, a minor commotion broke out on the main floor that caused me to take my eyes off the screen. An elderly woman with a Cathedral radio in her lap was yelling at a masher seated on the aisle to her right. She stood up, walked towards him, and with radio raised high in the air, quickly brought it crashing down on his head. The wooden box splintered as the man fell bleeding in the aisle, surrounded by the guts of the radio.
An usher ran over, quickly assessed the situation, and, instead of coming to the aid of either patron, began picking the glass tubes up off the floor and placing them back in the banged-up radio. The word "piss" wasn't to be laughed at, yet this minor flurry of public violence brought tears to my old man's eyes. It's not like I'd ever forget my first screening of King Kong. Leave it to dad to make it all the more memorable.