Psycho: What about the title made dad think "child friendly"?
We may not recall the first time we laughed or cried at a movie, but who doesn’t remember the first time they got well and truly scared in a theatre? Here are a trio of jolt-inducing moments that will forever give me the willies.
They were the seven most beautiful words my dad Larry ever strung together: “Babe, I’m taking Scooter to the movies.” It was hot, we were without air conditioning, and the arctic confines of the 3000-seat Granada Theatre beckoned. What’s this? An ambulance parked on the sidewalk with a nurse by its side? Unless it was Disney related, a five-year-old in 1960 didn’t know from ballyhoo. Nor did the irony of having someone skilled in caring for the dying in attendance, just in case one were to perish from fright while watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, ever once cross my mind. Heck, I didn’t even know what a psycho was, but my old man must have. What possessed him to take a child to see a film with that title? I remember thinking how pretty the blonde lady in the black sugar-cone brasserie was. But before the third slash of Bernard Herrman’s screeching violin bow, Larry slung my screaming self in a fireman’s carry and hotfooted it up the aisle. The puzzled look that crossed Babe’s face as we marched through the door inquired, “Back so early?” “The kid didn’t like it,” was all Dad could muster before making a beeline for the window fan.
Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
That afternoon, the Cubs game went into overtime, pre-empting The 3 Stooges and forcing me to look elsewhere on the dial for a comedy team to divert my then-four-year-old brain. It was a time when the number of channels to choose from was limited to five, making my decision that much easier. The moon was high when I switched over to the 3:30 movie, just in time to catch Larry Talbot’s (Lon Chaney) transformation from glabrous-cheeked to hirsute hair suit. What I found was an image so shocking, so immediate, that I swore it was being telecast in color. The sight of Wolfy’s brown mane rising from behind the orange wingback inculcated terror; I raced from living room to kitchen and the safety of Babe’s apron strings in record time. “Why didn’t you turn it off, honey?” mom asked, the effortless comfort free-flowing through her voice. I didn’t want to touch the TV for fear of being bitten. The shock was apparently hard to shake. Other than a 16mm screening of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, I was forever soured on Abbott & Costello. It took 60 years, but that’s about to change. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to bring Joe Dante to town to spend a couple of days speaking at MoPA. We butted heads over the Stooges and A&C, but one thing he said stuck: “Even if you don’t care for their movies, you should at least give The Abbott & Costello Show a try.” He couldn’t stop singing the praises of their TV work. Right before the pandemic hit, I lucked upon both the complete series on DVD and the complete Universal Pictures Collection on blu-ray. When Joe Dante’s right, he’s right!
It was Christmastime in Chicago’s Loop, the crowds plentiful and the air frigid. The line snaked from the Loop Theatre’s box office around the block and into the alley. Babe and I stood towards the front of the pack, allowing me ample time to study the lobby cards, black-and-white glossies, and all the other poster art designed to entice. Before the show, mom popped for a green felt cap, similar to the one the puppet-boy sported. For a slight surcharge, the nice lady in the Pinocchio costume was kind enough to stitch my name across the brim. Even as a child, the attention to detail was staggering. Note the various clocks that adorn Geppetto’s walls and marvel over seldom seeing the same ticker twice. It’s long been my belief that at their best, Walt Disney cartoons function as children’s primers on adult neurosis. Pleasure Island was anything but, a thrill-ridden theme park that out-alarmed anything found at Disneyland. But it was Lampwick’s transition from cigar-puffing tomfool teen to jackass that well and truly found me pulling my pre-show purchase over my eyes. Finding refuge in the crook of Babe’s arm helped get me through the terror-inducing time spent inside Monstro’s belly. Standing on the El platform after the movie, mom fired up a Pall Mall before underscoring the perils that await little boys who smoke.