Monday, January 14, 2013

Tune in Next Week....

One of the joys of my childhood was the hours spent in front of the silver screen at the Colonial Theater under the el on Broadway in Brooklyn. I have written about how, for fourteen cents, we would get to spend maybe six hours in the dark eating our sandwiches brought from home and watching two feature films, 21 color cartoons, and maybe my favorite of all, the weekly installment of whatever adventure serial they were running that week. Serials were like soap operas for kids; each episode lasted maybe 15-20 minutes and didn't advance the story a whole lot, but it was packed with thrills and of course, a cliffhanger ending that would always bring you back for more.

The budgets on these serials were small and the production values shabby, but they knew how to hook the young boys who were addicted to them. Cowboys were in vogue then, so any serial featuring a cowboy was an automatic hit. The idea of UFOs and space travel was also catching on and was the fodder for a few rocket ship adventure stories. Crime fighters was another popular theme, especially those featuring G-men fighting foreign spies. Most of the actors in these serials were B-list, but some are very recognizable. Clayton Moore, who is best known for playing the Lone Ranger, also starred in Ghost of Zorro, Jesse James Rides Again, Jungle Drums of Africa and many more. Other "names" include Bela Lugosi, Buster Crabbe, Milburne Stone (who later played Doc in Gunsmoke) Jock Mahoney, Victor Jory and George Reeves who starred as Superman on TV.

My favorite cowboy serial was The Phantom Empire starring Gene Autry as a singing cowboy who runs Radio Ranch, a dude ranch from which he makes a daily live radio broadcast. Gene has two young sidekicks, Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross. Betsy, Frankie and Gene are kidnapped by the Thunder Riders from the secret underground empire of Murania. Ruled by the icy, evil blonde Queen Tika, Murania was 25,000 feet underground, complete with towering skyscrapers, robots, ray-guns, and elevators tubes that extend miles from the surface. Meanwhile the crooked Professor Beetson plans to invade this underground kingdom and seize its radium wealth. One of the appeals of this adventure was that Gene rode with two kids, a boy and a girl, automatically sucking every kid in the audience into the drama.

The outer space genre included Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Captain Video, the latter being one of the few movie serials originated on television. Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe was my favorite. A rocket hovering over the planet Earth is dropping purple dust into the atmosphere, causing instant death! Blasting off to save humanity are Flash Gordon ("Buster" Crabbe), Dale Arden (Carol Hughes) and Dr. Hans Zarkov (Frank Shannon), three inter-planetary adventurers who head back to Mongo, the source of the plague. Upon landing, Flash discovers that none other than their arch enemy, Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton), is the madman behind the attack. Eluding imminent capture, Flash and his comrades head north, closely pursued by Ming's soldiers who have been ordered to stop the heroic Earthman, no matter what the cost.

Finally there were the cops and bad guys serials including Dick Tracy, Gangbusters, and Junior G-Men staring the Dead-End Kids (Later known as the Bowery Boys). I think I liked Junior G-Men best, again because it featured kids having adventures we could only imagine. We never even stopped to question the idea of a gang of city street kids working closely with the FBI. Their aim was to rescue their leader's father, a scientist who has been kidnapped by "The Flaming Torches," a group of saboteurs in league with a sinister foreign power. Leo Gorcey, the wisecracking leader of the Junior G-Men, was probably in his mid-thirties toward the end of this serial's run!

I think being weaned on radio in the dark days before television gave me a vivid imagination and a thirst for adventure that these weekly movie serials helped satisfy. You knew the wagon with the heroine wasn't going off the cliff, but there you sat the following week munching on your pepper and egg hero while pretending to be a real hero riding hard behind Gene.

Movie descriptions courtesy of Thomas Film CLassics,



Children's Craniofacial Association


Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Absolutely great blog! Thanks for the wonderful memories!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Thanks Joe, fewer and fewer of us remember this stuff.

Tony Rankin said...

I grew up at 516 Chauncy right across the street from the Building's rt side and Back