Wednesday, August 31, 2011

IT'S CURTAINS FOR PAPOO'S HOT DOG SHOW


A Burbank-Toluca Lake legend passed away this past week after 62 years, and it will be missed a lot more than the transient sitcoms and failed pilots of sitcoms shot at the nearby Warner Brothers studios will ever be. I’m talking about the best show in town. After 62 years in business, Papoo’s Hot Dog Show shuttered its doors on Sunday for reasons that have nothing to do with business, which was by all accounts as strong as ever. Owner Leona Gardner says, in an interview with the Burbank Leader, that the city of Burbank was enforcing code violations that would have started a domino effect of remodeling that she could not afford. “The renovations were really the last straw,” Gardner told reporter Mark Kellam, the city specifying that the hood covering the grill was not in compliance with city ordnances for health and safety. Gardner explained, “The letter said that statute in 1964 when the hood was put in was in violation because the [deep fryer] underneath it was a few inches bigger than it should be. Once you rip that out, you have to redo the kitchen. And we need to redo the roof. Really, there’s a lot of renovation that should be done here and I’m not in a position to do it right now.”

The restaurant was a local landmark, to be sure, and one close to a lot of hearts. But it was a pop culture touchstone as well, its proximity to the Warner Bros, Universal and Disney studios making it a easy stop for the movie industry looking for a vibrant, lived-in location. It would make a fascinating investigation indeed to try and spot the many appearances Papoo’s has made in the movies and on TV since it first opened its doors in 1949. One indelible impression of the Show came in 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when the restaurant was primarily an outdoor eatery.


The other comes courtesy of the wonderfully flea-bitten exploitation classic Revenge of the Cheerleaders (1976), in which several of the title characters and their goofy boyfriends take time out from partying and the various other hostile and sociopathic exploits which take up the movies 88-minute running time for a dance sequence that I wrote was “the drive-in equivalent of a musical interlude from Chico and Harpo.” Better still, this one features a completely rhythmless David Hasselhoff tearing up Papoo’s dance floor (such as it was) in a turn so spectacularly bad that many believe it singlehandedly spurred on the Saturday Night Fever phenomenon purely as a cultural emetic designed to flush all memories of Hasselhoff’s moves from memory forever. Thank God for YouTube, then, and low-budget DVDs!



Though I hadn’t been there for years, Papoo’s had always been a favorite of mine and my coworkers, given how easy it was to drop in for a Friday lunch. (This was back in the days of the early 00’s when most of us actually still had money to spare for lunches that we didn’t pack or defrost for ourselves.) And I often took my oldest daughter in with me to Papoo’s when it was my turn to pick up everybody’s grub. Leona and the staff would always greet her loudly, fawn over her and make her (and me) feel like she was a one-of-a-kind princess whenever she came in. It is my impression that if one were to gauge by the effusiveness of the folks at Papoo’s there are multitudes of princesses and princes toddling the streets of Burbank, and many who will remember ending up feeling pretty royal when all they thought they were doing was following Dad inside for a burger. And it was a hell of a burger too, to say nothing of the hot dogs. Whatever you ordered, Papoo’s put on quite a show. It’s a daily lineup that those of us who were lucky enough to frequent its performances, or silly enough to take them for granted, will dearly miss. Here’s hoping that somehow, someway the curtain will once again rise on this fine Burbank-Toluca Lake tradition, Papoo’s Hot Dog Show.

(Photos courtesy of Blogging Los Angeles and Dear Old Hollywood.)

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

ONCE AGAIN INTO THE LOBBY: A RETURN VISIT TO MY HOMETOWN MOVIE PALACE



During my recent trip to Oregon I had a chance to revisit and actually see a movie at my venerated old hometown show house, the Alger. Any return to this theater is kind of fascinating for me, but mixed with that fascination there is almost always a curious tincture of dread. The Alger was never, probably not even in its best, shiniest days, a technically spiffy place to see a movie, and those spiffier, shinier days are definitely in its past. In fact, much comedy and local legend in my circle of friends has been rooted in and enjoyed at the expense of this theater’s shortcomings. But despite all that, the Alger was where I learned to love the movies, and because of that fact it’s still sobering to see the façade, which once boasted not only bright colors and beautiful showcase windows for both current and coming-attraction one sheets, but also a selection of ornately displayed lobby cards and stills on the inner walls leading into the lobby from outside. As you can see from the photo above (and this one), that façade has fallen into disrepair and neglect, a state which began back in the mid'70s. (Vandals shattered the glass on the one-sheet cases, and rather than invest in fixing them the manager boarded them up, a state in which they remain to this day.) As far as the presentation of the movie itself, the last time I went there, some two years ago, I saw Jim Carrey in A Christmas Carol and was appalled by the poor quality of the sound. The picture quality was better, the theater having abandoned the worn-out, unkempt carbon-arc projectors of old with a platter system transplanted from a theater in Coos Bay. But the sound was wretched—no highs, and a completely muddy low-end, making dialogue almost indecipherable.

So when I arrived at the Alger a couple of weeks ago with my daughter Emma and my niece Kamaryn, on a mid-August Saturday night, to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 it would not be an exaggeration to say that my expectations vis-à-vis the technical presentation were on the low end of the scale. The first thing I noticed when I approached the box office window was a sign that goosed my dread in a different direction. It said: “This building was built in 1930. We do NOT have air conditioners. Only fans. Sorry.” It hadn’t been a particularly hot day, and I tried to remember any time when it was uncomfortably warm inside. Then I recalled that in my childhood days when I attended this palace with religious fervor the Alger was never open during the summer. Its doors were locked during the warmest time of the year in favor of the more seasonally appropriate Circle JM Drive-In. So I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of just how stuffy and hot the place could get.

Turns out I needn’t have worried too much. Inside, at the front of the auditorium, were two huge stand-up fans that effectively moved the air about the auditorium and kept things cool enough for relaxing with a summer blockbuster. They weren’t pretty, and they created a relatively deafening hum to compete with the movie’s soundtrack, but they did the job. However, we wouldn’t see them until we sat down. The trailers had already started when we walked into the lobby, and the first thing that struck me was how loud and clear the sound was. It wasn’t THX-approved Dolby Digital 5.1 or anything, but compared to what we grew up with, and certainly compared to the wretched audio soup of two years ago, it was a light-year’s worth of improvement. I was ready to see a movie at the Alger and perhaps for the first time really enjoy the sound at an unheard-of level of quality. My excitement dimmed, though, when I walked through those red velvet curtains separating the snack bar from the auditorium (the same ones that hung there when I was five years old, I’m sure) and saw the trailer for Captain America, a Scope trailer for a Scope movie playing before a Scope feature, squeezed to perfectly fit the Alger’s standard 1.85 screen. That screen is the same size screen that it’s always been, yet whenever a Scope movie would screen there in the past the projectionist would of course attach the anamorphic lens to the projector and the image would be stretched out to its proper aspect ratio. There would be some black (or white, absent masking) visible on the top and bottom of the screen, much the way 2.35 movies look when shown in letterbox format on TV, or even on wide-screen TVs with essentially a 1.85 screen aspect ratio, but I always felt this was an acceptable trade-off. (The screening of a wide-screen movie at the Alger was always a source of “fun” at reel changes too because the projectionist could never manage to get the anamorphic lens precisely in focus for the upcoming reel, so often the blurry, distorted image would take four of five seconds or more to get in focus and in a proper, non-warped rectangular shape once the reel changed over.)

But the sound was noticeably improved, and appropriately loud, so I vowed, when the movie started and was squeezed in the same way, that I wouldn’t allow my fussiness to ruin the evening. After about five minutes “I got used to it” and let it pass. Now, I know, from having seen the movie twice already that it is indeed a Scope movie with a 2.35 aspect ratio (like the entire series), and after the fact IMDb would confirm this. (And, actually, the non-IMAX, non-3D release print of A Christmas Carol was 2.35 as well, but the image was not the problem that night.) But this was clearly not a case of the right lens being on and the screen not being wide enough, as used to happen every time they’d show a Scope movie in one of those shitty rat-traps in Medford or White City, Oregon that I had to endure in the ‘80s. This image was squeezed up to fit 1.85—all the actors were elongated, stretched like taffy, the way they are when someone doesn’t have their fancy HDTV system formatted correctly.

So as I said, I endured and enjoyed the movie, for my blood pressure’s sake as well as for the enjoyment of the kids, who didn’t seem to much notice that Harry seemed taller and thinner than ever before, even before that moving epilogue. But afterward, as the credits rolled, the manager of the theater came down to shut off the two giant fans that would have drowned out the old-school Alger audio system. So I walked up to her and complimented her on the sound. I told her that I’d been seeing movies here since I was about four years old, that I couldn’t remember it ever sounding so good, and that it was a great improvement over the disastrously bad audio I heard in 2009. “Did the audio system get upgraded?” I asked, expecting an enthusiastic answer, the kind given when somebody hears an unexpected compliment from a satisfied, interested customer. “Uh, I dunno,” she mumbled, grinning sheepishly. “Maybe!” For some reason I thought it wise to drop that line of inquiry, and quickly picked up another. “And by the way, is there a reason why the projectionist didn’t show the movie in its proper aspect ratio?” I asked. The storm clouds of confusion began almost immediately to gather darkly over her face. “Huh?” she retorted. “I mean, it was a wide-screen movie,” I offered, “and he didn’t have the right lens on the projector. The image was all squeezed up.”


But instead of answering me, the manager tilted her head up and shouted, “Hey, (whatever his name was), this guy says you didn’t have the right lens on the projector!” I turned and looked up at the balcony, where I saw the projectionist filing through the rows of seats armed with a garbage bag into which he was tossing crumpled-up popcorn bags and the other remaining artifacts of the evening’s show. He stopped and replied: “What?” So I continued: “The picture was squeezed up onto the screen. You need an anamorphic lens to ‘un-squeeze’ the image on the film to its proper proportion.” He paused for a second, imagining, I was guessing, the weirdly skinny people on his own HDTV at home. “No, that’s the way it’s supposed to look.” I laughed. “Uh, no, it’s not,” I said, suspecting this conversation was going to go nowhere fast. “I’ve seen this movie twice before, and never did Harry look like he was seven feet tall.” I tried to explain how, if shown properly on this screen there would be some room at the top and bottom, just like on a letterboxed movie on video. He then tried to explain how the screen was completely filled with movie and therefore everything was the way it was supposed to be, adding for good measure that the lens that was on the projector was, in fact, an anamorphic lens. “Well, no, it’s not,” I offered one last time, “otherwise the picture would have been in the right proportion.” It was then that the projectionist reversed gears completely and told me that, well, they didn’t have an anamorphic lens. Not buying this dodge for a second, I retorted, “What happened to the one you had the last time I was here? Everything was fine with the picture then.” (A slight exaggeration, as this has never entirely been the case at the Alger Theater, but I digress.) “I don’t know,” he speculated, “because this is the one we always use. Besides, the picture looked fine to me.”

Anyone ought to recognize the futility of arguing with a projectionist who likely didn’t even know the meaning of the term “aspect ratio,” much less what an anamorphic lens was, so I bid him well and ended the dialogue. My daughter and niece looked up at me, the end credits having long since ended, as if to say, “You’re embarrassing us.” So I thanked the staff for the excellent sound and we headed out the front door, which was held for us by the manager herself, who was probably thinking that she could have been out of here 10 minutes earlier if it weren’t for me and all my nosy questions. “Thanks for coming,” she muttered, as we walked out into the night air. I smiled and thought to myself, well, at least we could hear the damn movie, a radical change from years of substandard sound at the old show house.

As we drove home, and as I drifted off to sleep that night, I thought of all the things I would do with the place if I won the lottery—new façade outdoors; new seats; take out that phony “stage” they built 15 years ago when some wise guy got the idea to moonlight the Alger as a community theater; maybe even turn it into a McMenamin’s-style pub theater with booths and couches and tables instead of seats, with pizza and beer to go along with popcorn and Pepsi; and a programming schedule that would alternate classics early in the week (lots of cowboy shows, for sure) with the regular sure-fire first-run family fare that has taken over the normal calendar. Ah, dreams. Not exactly the same kind I always used to come away with whenever I visited the Alger, but they were sweet indeed. And they were all unsqueezed and in the proper aspect ratio too.

WHAT, THIS OLD THING? A GALLERY OF BIRTHDAY MOVIE T-SHIRTS


The Mrs. (with some help from Mom, my pal Katie, and even my own keen fashion instinct) went a little crazy with a T-shirt theme for my birthday this year, so much so that I just had to show some of them off. Some were not movie-related, like the beautiful transfer of the Mothers of Invention Weasels Ripped My Flesh album cover, or the lovely periwinkle blue tee featuring a faux-worn image of Alfred E. Neuman, or the Rush print reproducing the art from the Roll the Bones album. But the majority of them accessed my movie love in wonderful, sometimes obscure, sometimes one-of-a-kind ways, and those were the ones I thought you might want to see. Some I will not comment on-- if you get the reference you get it; if not, well, think on it and try again later. A couple of them need some 'splainin', and I will do my best. For now, feast your eyes and imagine how cool I'll feel (and probably how dorky I'll look) as I sport this year's line of birthday movie T-shirts.




While scavenging for last-minute supplies at a WalMart in Newport, Oregon at the beginning of my Oregon Coast bike ride, I spotted this lovely designer number on the rack in the menswear department. Unsure if I wanted to take on any more of a load at this point, I vowed to return in two days and if Chucky was still hanging there waiting for me I would take him home. That was Monday. I returned Wednesday. Chucky was still there. But he's not anymore. Now all I have to do is figure out how to wear the shirt without my youngest daughter seeing it.


Mom picked this one up while vacationing in Utah earlier this year. It may not be the most beautiful design, but it is a neat memento of the recently renovated Gem Theater in Panguitch, Utah, which was built in 1909. They even have their own Facebook page and an ice cream parlor in the lobby.






Katie, an Indiana University alumnus, had these authentic-looking Cutters T-shirts made up to celebrate the completion of our 60-mile Oregon Coast bike ride, and she unveiled them to me as a surprise the night before we left. When this pic was taken, the ride was over and we felt triumphant, like we'd just conquered our own Little 500, and I can say with certainty that she and I will be ready for more next year. What a way to turn 51, with so much adventure and so many adventurous fashion statements to drape around the coming year. I will be the envy of all who see me, I'm sure-- those who can avoid completely averting their eyes, that is! Thanks, Patty, Mom and Katie for dressing me up and helping to make my birthday truly memorable.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

FOR CHARLIE, WHO WOULD BE 14 TODAY...



It’s 14 years later now. Fourteen years separated from the day I held you, my son, for what seemed like a moment of genuinely suspended animation. That moment, comprised almost entirely of sorrow the likes of which I could never, in my most empathetic moment, have ever imagined, was tempered by fear that any movement, any shift of focus, would cause the river of time to start flowing again, its unforgiving waters to come pushing through the doors of the little room just off the nurses station in which we sat together, rising to overwhelm us forever. Sometimes I wish that we could have drowned in that river, you and I. If we had, I wouldn’t need to write this now. More often, though, I just wish for the tens or maybe hundreds of things that went wrong that summer to have magically gone right. I wish that we were here, above water, together.

I’ve spent the last few days beside the waves on the most beautiful of coasts, and tomorrow I’ll be on the water again, in great company, floating, casting for fish, soaking up a world for which I am longing, but from which I am separated for now. And I often dream of how different my world would be if I could have only shared experiences like these with you. This is every father’s dream, of course, and there’s a very specific reason for mine. The dream is a way of keeping you near, of remembering you, of imagining who you might have been, of thinking about all the ways in which you’ve changed me, and the ways in which I might be different still if you had lived.

This is your day. It’s a day of sorrow, certainly, but as the years pass an increment of joy remains in it as well, because there is pleasure as well as pain in thinking about the beautiful young man you would have been on your 14th birthday. It is this way. It must be this way. That pain is the price to be paid for keeping you alive in my heart, in all of our hearts.

On this day I also often think of my own hopes and imperfections, two inseparable considerations, it seems, and contemplate the degree of love that even the most imperfect of men is capable of offering to his son. Two moments in two of the great movies of all time, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, for me perfectly sum up that love, that desire for the welfare and company of one’s children, and the regret for a life that took one too many wrong turns on a path choked with multiple forks in the road. In the second film, we see a young Vito Corleone assassinate a local don practiced in a parasitical “protection” of the neighborhood in New York’s Little Italy which they share. Vito’s escape from the scene, over the rooftops of that neighborhood during a parade commemorating the Feast of San Gennaro, ends when he arrives home to his wife and the three sons, all sitting outside on the steps of their modest apartment. He joins them silently, attending to the youngest, a newborn whose path in life he cannot yet know, though we in the audience do. “Michael, your father loves you very much,” he says to the infant, and there is no denying the exquisitely expressed truth of that simple statement.

The other scene plays out in the story’s timeline some 30 years later. Vito, now old and infirm, expresses to a grown Michael the political reality of the family business he is about to inherit, as well as one of its possible immediate outcomes, and the interaction of the actors, the tenderness of the screenplay, and its aliveness to the way fathers and sons silently express their affection and respect for each other in the way the men take up physical space together and inside the frame, perfectly crystallize the movie’s understanding, without moral judgment, of a flawed man’s dashed hopes and undying love for his boy. It is one scene inside a film full of similar empathy and power, a film that I so wish we could have one day seen together. I can only offer my thoughts of it to you in the hope that somewhere you’ll understand and know that, Charlie, your father loves you very much.



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