There was no better experience in the 1940s than the Saturday matinee. When I was a young boy, movie theaters only cost ten cents for children under twelve. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure that adults were twenty-six cents, but to put into perspective, a candy bar was a nickel and a bag of popcorn, a dime.
Philadelphia had hundreds of local movie theaters. Because a bus, a trolley and a subway were so close to my house, I had a wide variety of choices but the one I went to most often and the one that has given me my fondest memories was the Logan Theater on Broad Street (pictured). Just about every neighborhood in the area had a movie theater and sometimes two or three. Matinees usually started at noon and you could stay until 5 or 6 o’clock, which is about how long it took if you stayed to see it all. In our neighborhood, we had three movie theaters located within one block of each other. Remember, it could all be supported at that time because TV wasn’t yet a factor.
It seems like forever ago, but for the price of admission, we got to see a newsreel, cartoons, a chapter from a continuing cliffhanger serial and a short subject – usually a Three Stooges short or a Joe McDoakes comedy, or maybe a Robert Benchley Miniature… and this was all shown before the feature presentation.
What? You’re asking what’s a newsreel? Believe it or not, before the advent of television, people got their news from movie theaters as much as they did from newspapers and radio. Seeing that big Pathé newsreel opening onto the screen with a crowing rooster atop some old weather vane was chilling. Sure, it sounds corny now, but back then it was good stuff. Really!
The movie house I went to most of the time was owned by Warner Brothers — and who would have guessed — they showed a lot of their own movies, but I didn’t know it then. The matinee was usually an action-filled swashbuckling feature like The Sea Hawk or The Adventures of Robin Hood or a creature feature like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. Sometimes the feature might have been a “reissue” but we didn’t know because to us, it was all new.
When I say “us” or “we,” I’m referring to the gang of kids that accompanied each other, stood in line together, hissed the villain together and discussed the day’s adventure on the walk home together. Communities were different then. Our group always included family and friends who trekked the six city blocks together for our Saturday fix and when we got there, we were joined by other groups just like ours and usually had mutual friends from school, making my memories of those days even sweeter.
Then, believe it or not, if we were willing to sit through a repeat of the newsreel and cartoons, etc, the main feature was shown. The “main feature” was the one being shown after the “kiddie matinee.” It could possibly have been a Danny Kaye movie like A Song is Born or the latest Humphrey Bogart or Bette Davis movie. Warner Brothers theaters showed a lot of those back then. Of course, they distributed other studio’s properties too so we got to see movies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or a Charlie Chan programmer or one of the Thin Man movies. I remember how exciting it was walking home after seeing Gene Kelly in MGM’s The Three Musketeers and how we re-enacted the film’s most perilous scenes as we walked. One movie I saw in 1947 especially stood out in my mind for many years to come, It’s A Wonderful Life, and it’s still among my favorites.
A typical Saturday afternoon matinee went something like this… With Jujyfruits in hand, first up would have been the Pathé crowing rooster leading into footage of President Truman signing something or other, possibly the Marshall Plan, followed by Sam Snead putting to victory, the latest Paris fashions, a visit with Tyrone Power and his wife, Annabella and then the big newsreel closing. Next, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, a Behind the Eight Ball comedy short and then my personal fave, another chapter of Superman starring Kirk Alyn (bio; serial). When Superman said, “Up, up and away,” he turned into a cartoon, but in 1948, who cared? Just before the feature presentation, there might have been an on-screen bid by a major star like Bing Crosby for donations to the Will Rogers Fund. Volunteers passed cans through each aisle and oddly enough, no can was ever stolen… then, finally the movie. Although the feature presentation was the draw, it was all of those treats before the movie that counted.
After a while, there became a real rhythm to the proceedings at the theater. It was probably in the late forties but the gruff theater manager all of a sudden became Mr. Nice Guy, or actually, “Uncle Barney.” The new tempo still included all the goodies from before but new fun things were added. Yo-yo contests sponsored by the Duncan yo-yo company became a staple, where “Uncle Barney” came out on stage and introduced a young Filipino guy who did tricks with a yo-yo we could only dream about doing. Sure, I could “walk the dog,” or “rock the cradle” but no one was ever as good as that little Filipino guy. He was the best!
Another treat that was added to the day’s outing and only if we were lucky did we get to see it, was a “wacky racers” short subject where everyone got a numbered ticket upon entry to the theater and the holders of the winning number got a prize donated by local merchants. The on-screen race was so funny and naturally the one who was winning all along never won; it was always one of kookiest guys in the tail end who came up from behind, crossing the finish line in a bathtub, no less. These races were probably the basis for the Hanna Barbera animated series, Wacky Races, that showed on TV in the 1960s. Sometimes a local merchant, maybe the owner of the hardware store for example, actually came right out on stage standing there next to “Uncle Barney” and gave the treasured prize to the lucky winners. Once I won a little gardening set. The fact that our house had no garden didn’t even enter to it. It was the thrill of victory.
We’ve all heard the expression, “those were the days.” Well, all I can say is that they really were. Imagine all those hours of fun and years of memories — all for one thin dime.
Now, get an idea of all the fun we had with the trailer from The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn:
To read more about Saturday afternoon memories and the Golden Age of Hollywood, visit Matinee at the Bijou.
Jerry Frebowitz, president of Movies Unlimited, started selling movies for home use in 1975. First, as a hobby, then by 1978, through a small direct mail catalog, which eventually grew into the big 800-page version seen today. Jerry is an avid movie fan and collector and particularly enjoys classic films from the 30s, 40s and 50s.