A budding cinephile in 1960s New York City.

by John Greco

I first became aware of movies as a young kid watching “B” westerns on TV with my father on Saturday afternoons; Johnny Mack Brown westerns always come to mind when I think of this. There were plenty of other cowboy films in the 1950s; showing westerns was popular back then with TV stations to fill up the airtime. I can remember my father reminiscing about his own cowboy hero, silent film star William S. Hart, who apparently at the end of the film would ride off with his horse into the sunset, leaving the girl behind. Whether he actually did this or not, I don’t know, but that’s the story my father handed down.

Like today, Disney was a big attraction with kids and my folks took me to my share of Disney films, though I barely remember seeing any except for Pinocchio (1940), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956). I ‘m sure there were others … maybe. My earliest remembrance of an adult film was seeing The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) at the Loew’s Delancy. I remember being in awe of the bridge being blown up! I was about seven years old, give or take, and watching that bridge blow with the train on it was, to my young eyes, impressive, to say the least.

Other early films I remember seeing in theaters included The King and I (1956), Tammy and the Bachelor, Jailhouse Rock, The Joker is Wild (all 1957), and Al Capone (1959), my very first gangster film. The local theater near where we lived and saw most of these films was the Loew’s Commodore, which later in the 1960s would become better known as the Fillmore East.

One early experience that sticks in my mind was seeing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 1956 Anthony Quinn version, on TV. I pleaded with my folks to stay up late and finish watching it even though it was way past my bedtime. They reluctantly agreed and I got to watch the entire film. I paid dearly for that request later in the night. You see, after I went to bed, my overactive imagination kicked in, and I began to envision Anthony Quinn’s Quasimodo climbing up the side of the apartment building we lived in, sort of like King Kong climbing up the Empire State Building. He was heading directly to my bedroom window, his deformed face staring in, ready to strike at any moment. Let me just say here that pulling the bed sheets over my head, a protective measure I always felt secure with in the past, did not help at all this time. I did manage to barely escape from the terror by running out of the bedroom and into the protective arms of my parents.

It was not until we moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, just days shy of my eleventh birthday, when I truly fell in love with movies. I was, and yes, I still am, an only child, a bit shy in those days, finding it hard to make new friends. There were actually plenty of kids around my own age in the apartment building we moved to; still, it was not a smooth transition. Movies became my outlet, and fortunately there were three theaters close by. The Loew’s Oriental was my favorite, a large majestic theater only about six blocks away, an easy walking distance. I was there on most Saturday afternoons, at first alone quite a bit, and later sometimes with friends. But it didn’t matter who I was with or not with–it was the movie that was important, even then. In fact, I preferred going alone. When I did go with friends or a cousin, we usually managed to get thrown out of the theater by one of the matrons for fooling around.

Back in those days, many theaters had a children’s section. Now, I’m not sure if I got the age correct here or not, but if you were thirteen or under, you had to sit in the children’s section, even if you paid adult prices (which you did at thirteen–that in itself I thought was unfair). The children’s section was toward the back and on the left–in other words, out of the way. As you can imagine, when you reach the age of twelve or thirteen, you do not want to sit with seven and eight year olds. So when the lights went down, and the matron wasn’t looking, like a plan right out of The Great Escape (1963), we crept away in the dark to another part of the theater … generally only to be caught a short time later because the guys I was with could not stop throwing popcorn and Good & Plenty at each other, causing a noisy disturbance. We were marched back to the kids’ section, and there we sat for a while before making another attempt to escape to adult land. We would try again and again, only to be caught and marched back each and every time. Finally, after numerous failed attempts, we were thrown out of the theater by the old Nazi commandant–ah, I mean the old biddy matron. While I probably did partake in some of the popcorn bombings, I never initiated it since, like I said, for me, it was always about the movie.

A word about matrons: they were a special lot. They wore uniforms; generally it was a white uniform of sorts, similar to a nurse. More importantly, to be a matron you had to look menacing and always, always carry a very bright flashlight that easily could be aimed directly into the faces of the little brats. A close physical resemblance to Hope Emerson in Caged (1950) was also mandatory: a big, mean-looking woman, with her hair in a bun and a scowl on her face that would make you burst into flames if she stared at you long enough. Cross her, and brain matter–your brain matter–would splatter all over the theater.

It was at the Loew’s Oriental in 1960 when I first came across Jack Lemmon. The film was The Wackiest Ship in the Army, an innocuous little comedy that at the time I found enjoyable. Soon after, I coincidentally saw a few of Lemmon’s early films on TV: Phffft, It Should Happen to You (both 1954), and My Sister Eileen (1955). Then along came the movie that made Jack Lemmon my favorite movie star, The Notorious Landlady (1962). I also happened to have my first crush on a female movie star at that same time, one Kim Novak, Lemmon’s co-star in the film. I caught every film with Lemmon as they came out: Days of Wines and Roses (1962), Under the Yum Yum Tree,  Irma La Douce (both 1963), Good Neighbor Sam (1964), How to Murder Your Wife, The Great Race (both 1965), and The Fortune Cookie (1966). Irma La Douce was the first film I saw in a Broadway theater, The Astor. Two of my cousins (plus a friend of my older cousin’s who was old enough to drive) and I all made our way to Manhattan and Times Square. One thing did change over those next few years: by the time The Fortune Cookie arrived on screen, it was not a Jack Lemmon film so much as it was a Billy Wilder film.

It was between 1962 and 1964 when I recognized a series of films with the name “Blake Edwards” included in the credits. I have long forgotten what made me first pay attention to screen credits but his name kept re-appearing: first as co-writer of the screenplay for The Notorious Landlady, then as director of Days of Wine and Roses, The Pink Panther (1963), and A Shot in the Dark (1964). It was with these last three films that my heavy-handed brain began to think, “Hey, maybe I should start paying attention to who directed and wrote movies.” I seem to like the stuff this guy Blake Edwards was doing. Now, I didn’t know exactly what a director did; in fact, I had no idea what they did, but there seemed to be a correlation with the name of the director on the film and my attraction to that film. As happenstance would have it, I caught a couple of Billy Wilder films on TV around the same time, The Lost Weekend (1945) and Double Indemnity (1944), cementing my attraction to the names behind the scenes. I began watching films in a new light, always checking the credits; directors became my focus with the names Edwards, Wilder, Hitchcock, Frankenheimer, Preminger, Polanski, Kazan, and Penn my new stars. I started combing through the local library for books on film. Unfortunately, unlike today, there was not very much on the subject. Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art was one of the first film books I read, discovering names like Griffith and DeMille.

Within a couple of years–I was probably around sixteen years old now–I began traveling by subway into the City (Manhattan), a Mecca for film lovers, discovering films and filmmakers whose works would most likely not make it over the East River into Brooklyn, especially foreign films like La Guerre est Finie, Cul-de-sac, Mademoiselle, King of Hearts, and Hunger (all 1966). Manhattan was a whole new world for a budding film freak: Times Square was loaded with movie theaters, the Upper East Side had the newest and trendiest theaters, and in the Village you had the more adventurous theaters showing experimental, independent, and foreign as well as repertory. New York City was a gold mine filled with celluloid dreams.

And then there were the bookstores! In Manhattan, many of the bookstores actually had a section dedicated to books on film which I began to devour! A few years later in the late 1960s I found the mother lode of bookstores: it was called Cinemabilia, located on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village (years later they relocated to 13th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues near the Quad Cinema). Here was a small, cramped store dedicated to movie memorabilia, movie stills, lobby cards, posters, and books, and not your average movie star biographies, either. They had books on directors, the history of movies, the art of filmmaking, film analysis, even books imported from England. There were magazines like Films and Filming, Sight and Sound, and Films in Review, among others short-lived and long-forgotten publications.

I have to backtrack a bit here. I need to mention a bit more about the part New York City television played in my film development. During those early years, long before home video, New York TV was a treasure trove, a repertory theater filled with old films, only with commercials. There was “The Early Show,” “The Late Show,” “The Big Preview,” “The 4 O’clock Movie,” “The 4:30 Movie,” “The Late Movie,” “Five Star Movie,” “Chiller Theater,” and the best of all, “Million Dollar Movie.” “Million Dollar Movie” presented a lot of RKO General films and was on every day, twice daily during the week and three times on weekends (when baseball was not in season). Its theme song was “Tara’s Theme” from Gone With the Wind (1939). Each week they showed the same movie about sixteen times. I drove my mother crazy watching King Kong (1933) one week and Mighty Joe Young (1949) the next.

For a film lover, New York was a grand place to grow up: there was always a film to see and discover somewhere. I look back on those days with fondness. I still see myself–a wide-eyed, innocent, younger version–and the thrill I got discovering something new and exciting, like watching West Side Story (1961) at the Rivoli Theater on its gigantic screen or seeing Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) or Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) or Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) for the very first time. The directors I admired since those early days have changed a bit, some names dropping down on the list, others moving up, new ones added, and a few originals still hanging in there at the top. What has not changed is my love of movies as an art form and how much more there is still to see and learn.

 

Born and raised in New York City, John Greco has been living in the Tampa Bay area for the past fifteen years. In between was a seven-year stopover in Alpharetta, GA. John worked for MetLife for forty-four years before retiring two years ago. While serving in Vietnam, he developed a passion for photography and now, at sixty-three years of age, pursues a more artistic life with interests in photography, film, and as a writer. He blogs about movies at Twenty Four Frames. Additionally, John has been volunteering for the past four years as the photographer for The Little Cats’ Rescue, a no-kill adoption shelter. John and his wife, Dorothy, will be celebrating their 25th anniversary this month. 

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16 thoughts on “A budding cinephile in 1960s New York City.

  1. John, a wonderful post about your formative film-viewing experiences. Also a great portrait of what it was like to grow up as a budding cinephile in New York City. You were truly fortunate to have access to such great movies, TV, and bookstores. If those of us who grew up in small towns had to struggle to get a cinema education in the days before VHS and DVD, it sounds as though, if anything, you had almost too much to choose from! Even so, you still seem to be finding new things to discover in the film world.

    • R.D.,

      I was fortunate to live in a city that probably had more movie theaters than any other city outside of Paris, and such a wide variety of choices with films. It was a great experience to say the least. Today,with DVD’s and cable everyone has the opportunity to see a much wider variety of films than many of us would have only a few years ago. It may not be in an old single big screen theater but it’s there and available and I am glad for that.

      That’s true, I do continue to discover new things in film. There so much out there I don’t think any of us have to worry about running out of new things to watch.

  2. John, What a really enjoyable reminiscence of your early movie memories and evolution as a “film freak.” I can’t help but envy you for having grown up in New York, with so much at your fingertips. I grew up in a small California town with two theaters and a drive-in, all of which got “new” movies well after their initial release dates. A little later I had experiences similar to yours and will never forget seeing “Blow Up,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Midnight Cowboy” (etc.!) for the first time. I love that you are committed to continuing your voyage of discovery as a cinephile.

    • Thanks Eve, as a kid I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have so much at my fingertips, you take it all for granted. As I got older I came to understand many people live in small towns or rural areas where there is maybe one theater or two at the most. Just a few years ago, my wife and I were on vacation in Maine and we were in this one area, where we spent a couple of nights, which was rather barren. One evening I was talking to the young teenage waitress who was serving us dinner and asked where the nearest theater was and she mentioned a theater that was something like 40 or so miles away. So anytime she and her friends went to a movie it was at least an 80 mile round trip! I was a bit surprised by this but it all comes down to, at least when you’re young, what you grew up accustomed too. Fortunately, with home video today and cable no matter where we live we all have access to so much than years ago.

  3. John sure has a lot of early film watching memories. He was lucky to grow up in and near a place with such access to different types of cinema.

  4. Pingback: First Movie Memories « Twenty Four Frames

  5. Hey, John, Brandie, having lived in New York City for most of my life (going back and forth between Manhattan and the Bronx over the years until we moved to NE PA), your piece about growing up a cinephile in the city brought back lots of happy memories of seeing now-classic films for the first time in fabulous movie houses (even if they were chopped into multiplexes later on), and what a treat it was to have those kind of movies and theaters readily accessible. For instance, during my 10th birthday, my mom took us all to Radio City Music Hall to see FANTASIA — we were wowed! Thanks for the memories, literally!

  6. Thanks Dorian,

    The chopping up of the old theaters started sometime in the 1970’s. I remembber one of the smaller local theaters, The Benson, was split into a twin theater so poorly you could hear the other movie in theater two while watching in theater one.

  7. Pingback: Remembering your introduction to movies « Carole & Co.

  8. John! Loved this essay, largely because of the meeting of the minds but also because of my obsession with ’60s films. One observation though: When I saw “Irma La Douce” during its NY premiere engagement during the summer of 1963, it was at The DeMille. I still have the display ad. Now, I realize that most United Artists films of that era played The Astor (such as two other Lemmons, .”The Apartment” and “The Fortune Cookie”), but “Irma” opened at The DeMille. Of course, it could have moved over to The Astor during its run (or perhaps a revival engagement played there).

    • Joe, thanks for the kind words. As for IRMA LA DOUCE, you are definitely correct about it opening at The DeMille (it also opened at the Baronet on the Upper East Side) and not at The Astor. The mind plays strange games with memories so it most likely was The DeMille where I saw it, though as you mentioned, it could have moved over to THE ASTOR. I know films sometimes were booked for only a certain number of weeks and its possible another film was scheduled to play at The DeMille. If IRMA was doing good at the box office, it could have possibly moved over, it was fairly common back then and IRMA was a big hit. That would explain it, or maybe I am just reliving someone else’s memories ala THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Anyway, thanks for pointing it out.

  9. A fascinating piece, John – sounds as if you and your friends saw many wonderful films, and I enjoyed the descriptions of the cinemas you went to in those days. Must admit my childhood was pretty much the opposite, as I lived in a rural area and probably only went to the cinema about once a year, if that, though I’ve tried to make up for that since (and of course there was always TV!)

  10. Thanks Judy. Brandie has had a great selections of folks telling of their experiences, all so different yet united by our love of film.

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