Wednesday, March 29, 2006

In Praise of Older Geeks

I was lucky enough to see a preview of a direct to DVD documentary called "The Sci-Fi Boys". The movie itself was just okay, but the panel was something else. It was held at the Egyptian Theatre AKA American Cinematheque. The star of the evening was the legendary (among our people....Geekus North Americanus) Forrest J Ackerman, one of the original fanboys and creator of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, of which I was a devoted reader. The magazine began publishing in 1958 and Ackerman resigned as editor in 1995. After a protracted lawsuit the magazine ceased publication in 2001. In the intervening years it influenced several generations of movie geeks, some of whom went on to become some of the most influential artists around and include names like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Landis, Rick Baker, Stephen King, George Romero to name but a few. "The Sci-Fi Boys" is a love letter to Uncle Forry and his fans and contemporaries. He was there, frail looking, he is after all going to be 90 in November (Another Sagittarian Go figure). He looked much more robust when I had first met him a few years earlier at Comic Con in San Diegosince then he had gone through a major illness and had been forced by finances to move from his infamous "Ackermansion", where his amassed collection Monster Memorabilia was one of the most extensive in the world. It included things like the original robot from "Metropolis", and one of the Martian Ships from George Pal's "War of the Worlds". A portion of the collection had to be sacrificed to pay medical bills. Some of it has been donated to museums. Still Uncle Forry has thousands of friends and fans. When he finally goes to join his heroes (Chaneys senior and junior, Karloff, Lugosi) he will be remembered fondly and missed.

It also reminded me that it doesn't always end so well.

The genesis of a movie geek is an individual thing. I believe it's part nature, part nurture. You have to be born with a mind set predisposed to this kind of thing and both of my parents were of the same persuasion, so I saw a lot of what they saw, which ended up being a pretty eclectic mix. As previously mentioned, I was hooked on Monster movies at a pretty impressionable age, but I also ended up seeing a lot of other things too. My Mom's passion was spy movies. We saw a lot of Bond Double Bills, We saw the Flints, the Matt Helms, The Ipcress File, The Man from UNCLES, Operation Kid Brother (starring Neil guessed it)... Hell I could have written Austin Powers...It's seems Mike Myers and I saw all the same stuff. Add in the occasional Musical, but my Mom's taste also ran to black humor, specifically I remember "The Wrong Box" and "The Loved One".

My dad, on the other hand was into epics and war movies as well as horror films. The epics were not really my thing. Remember, I saw most of this stuff between the ages of 5 and 10. I was a kid, after all and bum factor was a major issue. I fell asleep during Khartoum. Dad also introduced me to another future obsession, the serial, when he took me to a revival of the original Batman chapter play.

Around the age of 7(this was in a different time and I was an ugly kid) I started going to movies on my own. I'd take the subway, or walk by myself. Essentially I went to movies my parents had no interest in, and in retrospect, I can't say I blame them. I saw a lot of Jerry Lewis and Elvis Movies in that time frame. Still I was developing my own tastes, dubious as they might have been.

After the divorce and the big move to the suburbs, my movie going was curtailed by the lack of theatres and distance between them. But around that time, the Ontario Educational Channel...TV Ontario started a program called Saturday Night at the Movies. It was hosted by Elwy Yost , a jovial older movie geek ( we know our own), whose enthusiasm for film came through the screen in spades. The opening show was a marathon that included the Original Fleischer Popeyes and Supermans, the latter of which I never knew existed prior to that night, as well as all 15 chapters of "The Mysterious Dr. Satan". They didn't have to try so hard. They had me at Popeye.

That night they had a panel of people talking about the serials and cartoons. The one that spoke most clearly to me was a man who went by the handle "Captain" George Henderson. He knew his stuff, he was funny, and he was a genuine fan. I also discovered that he owned a store in the Mirvish village called Memory Lane.

So at the first opportunity I took the hour long bus and subway ride down to the Annex and visited Captain George's world. It was an old building in a state of some disrepair. If there was an area of blank wall space I couldn't find it. Every inch of space was cover by original posters for sale. Hundreds of them. Boxes of photographs. Bins of lobby cards (all original) arranged alphabetically by film and/or actor. There were 2 rooms like this, the back room being the smaller, and also had comics and books. The musty smell of old paper was everywhere.
Captain George would sit behind the counter watching old movies on an old reel to reel VTR. He was always approachable, would talk to anybody. This meant a lot to me when I was in my early teens. He recognized that I had also done my homework, and knew My stuff as far as certain genres were concerned. That also meant a lot.

The poster and lobby cards were all for sale at reasonable prices, where even a dumb kid like me could afford build up a collection. This was before the big boom in Movie Memorabillia. I went mostly for lobby cards, as they were more affordable, among them was an original from Tarzan the Ape Man, with Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O' Sullivan, but I did have a couple of great full sized posters, including "Monster on Campus" "Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman" and "The Court Jester", all originals.

Unfortunately the forces of evil overcame Captain George.

My former partner Donna was working at a downtown nursing home, which occasionally had to take in indigent patients. She came home one day and asked if I knew of somebody called Captain George Henderson. I said I did. She told me he had been admitted into her home. He was in bad shape. He had lost his kidneys, suffered a stroke which damaged his part of his memory function (he had trouble with names, which was frustrating for him). During the course of his illness he had lost the store. The city had seized it for property taxes. The collection he had built up his entire life was gone. To top it all off, he had nobody. No family and his friends had all drifted off. Donna wondered if I would go in to see him.

So I did. I introduced myself. Told him I had been a patron of the store. We talked. He told me his story. I told him I'd be back. Next time I came, I had dug into my own collection and I put together a video recreation of a Saturday afternoon matinee, complete with a cartoon, newsreel, a serial chapter (The Mysterious Dr. Satan, of course) and a feature (As I recall, the first one was "Angels with Dirty Faces". Subsequent movies, as this became a regular thing, included Arsenic and Old Lace, The Big Sleep, and Scaramouche). We would talk during these times, remembering meeting some of the stars although, because of the stroke, he had trouble with the names. He talked about watching "Scaramouche" with Stewart Granger, and how the star cried, having not seen the movie in years, and recalling the days spent on the climactic sword fight.

I tried to contact some of his old acquaintances to let them know of his condition, and perhaps get him some vistors. These included some of the top names in Toronto broadcasting. People whose shows he'd been a guest on several times. Only one ever contacted him. Still he was overjoyed.

In addition to the visits, we went on field trips. It was on these I discovered that "wheel chair accessible" is a subjective term. I took Captain George to the Royal Ontario Museum. He specifically wanted to see the Egyptian Section, but we couldn't get to it, as it involved stairs. He also wanted to see Dances with Wolves (it had been out for a while), so I took him, but the theaters definition of "Wheelchair Friendly" meant sitting in the front row. Imagine "Dances with Wolves" viewed at practically a 90 degree angle. We were told we couldn't sit further back as we wold be blocking the aisle, despite the fact we were the only ones in the theatre.

All of this abruptly ended. Without notice (Donna was just as surprised as I was) he was transferred to another nursing home. I contacted the new place, but they were unwilling to let me continue with the matinees, and before I could visit him again Captain George Henderson succumbed to his illnesses. He was all but forgotten.

But I will never forget him.

The preview of "The Sci-Fi Boys" brought it back to me with a fresh perspective.

I'm still the same kid, by the way. Also on the panel was one of my all time heroes, Rick Baker, makeup artist extraordinaire, Six time Oscar winner, and I got to meet him. I was a 12 year old again. I shook his hand. We chatted briefly. I asked him if he ever thought about doing the Lon Chaney story, to which he replied " Yes, in fact I was just talking to Ron Chaney, Chaney's great grandson about doing a remake of "Man of a Thousand Faces" and it looks like it might happen". After I managed to keep myself from drooling at the prospect, I finally gasped out "That would be amazing." and after thanking him again, took my leave. Visions of what Rick Baker would do with Lon Chaney dancing through my head*sigh* Once a geek always a geek.

P.S. Captain George's old store has since been taken over by a charlatan who calls it Vintage Video and overcharges outrageously for used videos, and movie posters. When in Toronto avoid it at all costs.

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