In this week’s episode…
Published 8:07 pm Tuesday, December 9, 2014
By Frank Roberts
Once upon a time, in a less sophisticated time before television, there was the “cost-a-dime” Saturday matinee. You know, a grade-A movie, a grade-B movie, a newsreel, a cartoon and the thrill-a-second chapter known, for obvious reasons, as a cliffhanger.
Remember? A car careens down an 800-foot cliff at chapter’s end. Next week, at chapter’s beginning, the driver-hero crawls out from under, hair still neatly combed. He brushes some dirt off his britches, and the adventure continues.
Email newsletter signup
An early adventure, “Perils Of Pauline,” was the ultimate bit of nonsense. A cute blonde (Pearl White) is tied to a railroad track, a choo-choo heads for her lithe body and, just before the two would have met, a disaster is avoided. Just in time, she unties the 78 knots and takes off.
There were more serials than cereals, but my favorite was Flash Gordon. That was blonde-haired Buster Crabbe, often seen with his sweetie, Dale Arden (Jean Rogers), who screamed as much as Fay Wray did in “King Kong.”
There were adventures galore — “The Planet Of Peril,” “The Tunnel Of Terror,” “Captured By Shark Men,” “The Destroying Ray,” “Flaming Torture,” “Battling the Sea Beast.”
Each exciting, outlandish offering lasted about 20 minutes, and each adventure usually offered up to 20 chapters.
In my Sunnyside, Long Island, neighborhood, there were four theaters: the 43rd Street, the Sunnyside, the Center and the Bliss. The latter later became a house of worship for Jehovah’s Witness.
I witnessed the Crabbe there — witnessing excitement, if not sophistication, and returning week after week to see him and similar heroes recovering nicely from near-death situations.
I think I was about 8 when I began watching Crabbe as Flash and also as Buck Rogers. The latter sort-of sci-fi tales featured toy rockets and balloon-like planets.
We didn’t look at them with such a jaundiced eye. We knew we were witnessing the real thing.
We saw those rocket ships landing with gentle thuds on those strange planets. We saw the earthlings walk out into the strange atmosphere.
Flash was always battling Ming on Mongo. That sounds like a Latin song, but Ming the Merciless was the villain, Mongo the planet. He also fought shark men and hawk men, octosacs and orongopoids. Those last guys wore gorilla suits and sported horns atop their heads.
Crabbe was everywhere on the silver screen. He starred in several adventure movies. He was a champion swimmer, had a good build and handled dialogue reasonably well.
Tom Tyler starred in a few chapters, but he had a problem: dialogue. In the 12 chapters in which he appeared as Captain Marvel, he spoke the equivalent of only one page of dialogue.
Well, the 8-year-old plus fans came for the excitement, not the speeches.
Speaking of excitement — whatever happened to Flash Gordon in his battle with the flaming crab monster? I wish I could remember.
My collection of old movie things includes a full-sized glossy color ad for the serial “Jungle Girl,” advertising Chapter 1, “Death By Voodoo.” It was advertised as a Republic serial with 15 chapters. Frances Gifford was Nyoka in this serial loosely based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs book.
During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.