First things first — this is an autobiographical article about the ‘different’ way I grew up watching movies, different because I was an Air Force dependent, the son of a Chief Master Sergeant E-9. When my father retired in 1967 he was the ranking non-commissioned officer in the Air Force. I know there are many ex-service dependents out there that might like to read this, because some of them must have been introduced to movies the same way I was. The military movie ‘system’ I’ll be talking about functioned all over the world, and hasn’t been written up anywhere that I can see. People from more mainstream backgrounds might be interested too. The article is also a little bit about how we lived.
As a dependent of a non-commissioned officer (effectively an enlisted man with privileges) my upbringing was not a fancy one. I don’t think my parents got really decent housing until Dad’s rank and service record — like being a main facilitator of the Texas end of the Berlin Airlift — won him some plum assignments. For us it meant that between the ages of three and nine I lived on-Base, in fairly nice quarters. By 1955 my father was in demand to run Flight Lines for C.O.s that wanted impeccable efficiency records. But duty at any one Base often lasted only three years.
A high, dry desert.
Edwards, California was the center of flight-testing, as is shown with some degree of accuracy in the movie The Right Stuff
. Note that the hotshot fliers in that movie didn’t live in particularly attractive houses. The enlisted men below them had quarters on a par with low-grade public housing blocks, two bedrooms for a wife and three kids, no yard, that sort of thing. Part of my father’s ‘deal’ with his C.O.s was that his family could live in quarters the equivalent of what would be given to a Major. What this got us was a decent house in an incredibly secure on-Base neighborhood. The speed limit was five or ten miles per hour on residential streets and the MPs (or was it APs for Air Police?) were relentless. My mother parked slightly off the tarmac once and her driving privileges were suspended for a month. She couldn’t drive my father to work, which meant that he took the car and we had to walk a mile to the shopping area, partly across the desert. I loved it. In Kindergarten I was a typical ’50s dinosaur addict and considered myself smart because my (beloved) older sister had already taught me to read. I must have been a shameless teacher’s pet.
Edwards is where I saw my first movies, probably at age four. I was later informed that the first film shown at the brand new Edwards Base Movie Theater in 1956 was a quasi-premiere of Toward the Unknown, which had been filmed at Edwards. When I finally caught up with the movie I didn’t recognize the military testing area, as kids weren’t allowed there. But William Holden and Virginia Leith did take a stroll up a neighborhood identical to ours — modest houses, no curbs.
My dear mother took me to my first movie, which I think was Oklahoma! We saw Hollywood films anywhere from three months to a year after their civilian debuts, depending on how popular they had been. My recollection at age 5 isn’t perfect, but I remember the theater being fairly large, with a wide screen positioned on a stage so that the auditorium could also be used for other presentations, ceremonies, and meetings. The building was built from cinder blocks and glass bricks (I think) and may have been part of a new shopping area. I imagine it was an immediate hit, for the nearest town with theaters was Lancaster, almost forty miles away. Oh yes, one more detail about Base Theaters — they played a two-minute film with pictures of the flag and the Star Spangled Banner on the soundtrack. Everyone stood at attention for this, even kids.
I remember seeing Sayonara and reissues of Perri, the Flying Squirrel and my first Disney animated movie, Peter Pan. I remember just one scene from Friendly Persuasion. A little later I got to see a real episode of a Republic serial. All I can recall is a shot of one of their tin-can robot monsters walking down a hospital corridor and threatening a nurse. Scary stuff, and I’d never even heard of a robot before.
In reviews I often refer to myself as a sheltered ’50s kid, and it’s the truth. Locked away on such ironically peaceful military bases and never seeing the real world, I was completely ignorant about common conflicts. I don’t remember seeing any black airmen, but they must have been there. We were not a religious family, and I received few if any lectures about life beyond “what I wanted to be”. The books I read were about Natural History. Death, crime, real war,
insecurity, anxiety — they didn’t exist because nobody talked about them. Sex? The issue never came up. My parents never swore, and if their friends did, I was somehow programmed to not hear. This of course made movie content very exciting. One didn’t know what would pop up on that screen.
At the theater I was blown away by trailers for the monster grasshopper epic Beginning of the End and the plaster-monster-man movie Curse of the Faceless Man. I also remember seeing TV commercials (on our fuzzy reception from Los Angeles) for the monster movies Rodan and The Blob, but nothing else. I knew I couldn’t go see them. I must have felt guilty, for I felt sure that my TV privileges would vanish if I were to ask. Where did this guilt come from? My first ‘most terrifying thing I ever saw’ was a shot of a jeep blown off a highway by Rodan’s supersonic shock wave. Sonic booms could be heard over Edwards perhaps ten times a day — were the two things connected?
Just before leaving Edwards in 1958, I either saw a trailer for Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, or perhaps part of the feature. I wasn’t fully following what was going on but the scene where Julie London was forced to disrobe at knifepoint was really something… I think it activated some previously unused part of my brain. Yes, now there were more reasons to go to the movies, each more guilty than the last.
My father’s rank service stature had become even more enhanced by that time, partly because many non-coms at his rank and pay grade were leaving the service to establish more rewarding careers. Aerospace and civil aviation was booming as well as the arms race. As military dependents we were really living in a communal bubble — we had billeting and food allowances and maybe another perk or two, but one couldn’t save very much on the pay. As far as my father was concerned, the service was everything. He wasn’t working for money. He was never aware of what things in the real world cost.
Clearly with the aim of holding on to experienced airmen, Hollywood made another movie at Edwards at this time, Bombers B-52. I was later surprised to discover that it
had to do with the family and career problems of the ranking Sergeant on the Edwards Flight line. My father was the ranking Sergeant on the Edwards Flight Line, so technically the movie was about our family, us. By any measure Bombers B-52 was a ridiculous distortion. The young boy playing “me” didn’t have much of a role, but he had an older sister, just as I did, and she was the star of the picture. To this day I remind my sister that Natalie Wood played her in a Hollywood movie.
The Sergeant/Father in Bombers B-52 is Karl Malden. He has time to worry about his wife, micro-manage his daughter’s love life and even appear on a Los Angeles quiz show. He took his family on a real vacation. And he even showed himself to be a two-fisted guy, catching a government agent breaking onto the flight line to test Base security. Most hilariously, this Sergeant father relaxed at home wearing a dressing gown. The real McCoy I knew consistently came home after shifts lasting between 18 hours and two days, collapsed in bed in his underwear, and slept for 14 hours straight. I might see him looking great in his uniform once more before he went back on duty, gone. The only hobby he had time for was keeping up his old Ford pickup, as part of Edwards’ Model A Club. That was reality. As his #1 son, my job was to keep quiet and stay out of the way.
Onward to paradise.
My father’s next assignment, from 1958 to 1961 was the big lifestyle payoff for the family — he took charge of the Flight Line at Hickam AFB, which the flyers still called Hickam Field. We got to live on Base in Hawaii. I woke up after an 11-hour plane flight like Dorothy Gale opening the door to Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz — purple flowers poking in the window, strange tiny birds chirping and a smell like perfume in the air. It was amazing — since age four all I had seen was the brown glare of the desert. We lived on officers’ row on 9th Street, in front of acres of green parade ground. A tall water tower was at the end of the block, where our elementary school was. This same water tower can be seen in several shots in Tora, Tora, Tora, as it is right on the edge of Pearl Harbor. The water tower and our ‘front yard’ can be seen briefly in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, when some fighter planes zoom down the length of the parade ground. The administration building and hospital at the other end of the grass strip had dozens of big pockmarks where machine guns or bomb shrapnel scarred the granite exterior. It had all happened fewer than twenty years before. I felt like I was living on a real battleground. My family was defending the country.
The best part of the setup was that the main Hickam Base Theater was only about a block away, just beyond the clinic. With all cars limited to a strict 5 mph speed, I was allowed to ride my bicycle anywhere on Base, and to walk to the Theater by myself at age seven to see movies. Child’s admission was 15 cents. Three pennies in a vending machine bought a bag of salty, dry popcorn. The auditorium was big and the picture was bright. It was heaven. I think the first film we saw there was South Pacific.
I figured out the theater’s system fairly early, because I’d ride my bike there every day and stare at the posters. The movies changed four or five times a week, and by walking around the building one could see posters for the next seven ‘attractions’. There must have been a giant film circuit going at these Base theaters, for every couple of days a film print or two would be picked up and others dropped off. Posters and trailers circulated as well. There were at least two other theaters on base that we didn’t go to much. One was completely outdoors, to watch movies under the Hawaiian stars.
I was allowed to attend the movies on my own because I wanted to see things nobody in the family wanted to see. This was good, because my mother had a habit of covering my eyes if she thought something terrible was going to be shown on screen. She did this for a beheading in Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Instead of protecting me, she gave me nightmares. For years I tried to imagine what a man having his head chopped off looked like… only to find out later that the event wasn’t shown at all. I was allowed to attend matinees on my own and eventually evening shows as well, which is how I saw, by myself, The Mysterians, Caltiki the Immortal Monster, The Atomic Submarine and Battle in Outer Space. The two Japanese space movies had
stock shots of American planes unloading secret anti-alien weapons in Japan — and the planes bore the MATS (Military Air Transport Service) insignia of our fathers’ own squadrons. We Air Force dependent kids cheered any display of U.S. military hardware, but when our planes were suddenly on screen we jumped up like maniacs. At age ten we were all warhawks, by default … and our fathers were fighting the aliens too!
Every week brought something amazing. At age seven I saw Gigantis the Fire Monster and Teenagers from Outer Space within the space of a couple of weeks; I thought Teenage was emotionally moving! I’m not sure how I got to see The Mummy, as movies with open horrific themes or ‘adult’ content were out of bounds. I was told that Village of the Damned was a no-go because the advertising mentioned something to the effect of bastard demon children from outer space. Ditto a no-go on The Tingler, The Brides of Dracula and The World The Flesh and the Devil, although the dramatic trailer for that show stuck in my mind for years.
By 1960, many kids out in the civilian world were already hip to the world of film. But I still lived in a total information vacuum regarding movie history. I loved the lizards-only The Lost World and had no idea that it was a remake. I read the Conan Doyle book and also H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, without knowing that an exciting screen version already existed. The 3 Worlds of Gulliver made a big impression, but it would be several years before I found out about Ray Harryhausen. My only knowledge of King Kong was hearing some older kids talk about it. I gathered that a monster was involved but that was all. This was not a world I was sharing too much with my parents, for fear that they’d think I was becoming a delinquent and cut off my access. Meanwhile, I had a secret life as a ‘movie expert’. For a couple of years I kept a little file with titles and one-sentence opinions. I tried to sit through The Time Machine twice in one afternoon, and was yanked out of the theater by an usher and my mother, who had come looking for me. Big pictures for me in 1961 were Gorgo and Atlantis the Lost Continent. At the time I thought Atlantis was perfect in every way. You’re only young and impressionable once.
San Berdoo… Mormons and Hell’s Angels.
I really missed my little Base Theater when in late 1961 we moved to Norton AFB in San Bernardino, California. I’d stay in that town until leaving for college nine years later, and essentially never came home again. We had one year of beautiful desert climate in San Berdoo before the smog moved in to stay. Our yard was overrun with lizards and ‘horny toads’. My mother must have had some illusions about my independence because at age 11 I was permitted to take a bus downtown to see matinees, often alone when my friends were off on vacations. Thus I finally became aware of how real movie theaters operated, as opposed to the stern discipline at the military theater. At the shows downtown I waited in line, fought for a good seat, yelled during the show and fought again to buy candy at the intermission. Like every movie-mad kid I scanned the paper every Wednesday to decide what show would be the best bet for the Saturday noon slot. I usually chose science fiction monsters over horror pictures. Space films had unfortunately all but dried up, but there were several seasons of Japanese monsters and the much more in-your-face Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
, back on a double bill with Mysterious Island
. At age eleven I also went alone to
see Hitchcock’s The Birds, and white-knuckled the whole experience. When I walked out of the theater I was transformed. The world was still the same, but I’d never again take it for granted. Chaos and catastrophe could strike at any time.
This is when I finally met friends with similar interests, on the school playground of Hunt Elementary. Instead of smoking or talking dirty, I’d listen while Arthur Gaitan and Bill Harris lectured me on the entire genealogy of classic Universal monsters: “so, Frankenstein falls in a well at the end of this movie, and is found frozen underground in the next one”. They also loaned me copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and showed me the grungy liquor stores where they could be bought. As the monster mags were always racked next to the sex-oriented magazines, one had to get in and out fast. San Berdoo was a mix of Mormon repression and sleazy license, and you never knew what blue-nosed adult might call the cops and denounce you as a delinquent. At least we heard stories to that effect. Through Famous Monsters we learned about Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Hammer films and A.I.P., Paul Blaisdell and Ray Harryhausen. We saw stills for rare movies we’d spend the next forty years waiting to see.
There were amazing matinees to be had downtown. The 1964 double bill of Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein had kids yelling and cheering, while The War of the Worlds came back linked with Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors, and redoubled my interest in ’50s sci fi.
Unfortunately, the really weird stuff only seemed to play at drive-ins, which were out of my reach. My parents had stopped going to movies altogether, and if by chance they did they weren’t going to take me to see Gorath or Atragon. We didn’t live on-Base at Norton but bought a small house in Del Rosa, an Eastern extension of the city being carved out of orange groves. I saw ad flyers from Norton’s Base movie theater but couldn’t attend, because the only way to get on Base was in a vehicle with the proper pass decal. I wasn’t even driving yet. Thus I’d look at little ads for things like The Time Travelers and Planet of the Vampires and just shake my head. My idea of an impossible dream, something I knew would never happen, was a home movie machine that would allow me to see Our Man Flint projected on my own wall, in ‘Scope. I actually dreamed that the ‘film’ would be in some kind of cartridge roughly the shape of a VHS cassette.
On the drive home from the Base once, I remember reading a theater flyer while, outside the car window, one could see long lines of troops boarding cargo planes destined for Vietnam, just as in the movie Hair. I assumed they were all gung-ho soldiers eager to fight, and didn’t give a thought to the fact that in a couple of years I’d be eligible for the draft as well. I was still a military kid — that was just how the world operated. I considered myself intelligent but in no way was I thinking for myself, nor was I giving much thought to the real world I’d be living in. There was my schoolwork, my friends and these marvelous movies to occupy my mind. How to Become a Lifelong Dreamer, Chapter One.
I got my license in 1968 and was soon a regular customer at the Base Theater. As normal ticket prices downtown were at least two dollars, the 35-cent admission on the Base was great. The theater itself was little more than a converted barracks with a screen probably less than thirty feet wide. But the projection was good and the audience of young airmen was always enthusiastic. One of the first shows I saw there, in standard 35mm and mono sound, was 2001: A Space Odyssey. When I saw it again three years later at the Cinerama Dome, it was quite a different experience. The Base Theater screened many films not shown locally, and most everything released by a major studio. The politically challenging If…. and Medium Cool fascinated me. In my junior year some progressive schoolteachers took us students to a strange new ‘art theater’ in neighboring Riverside, to see Cassavetes’ Faces and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. The bookstores in the new mall downtown suddenly had a fat movie section. I bought Raymond Durgnat’s Films and Feelings and a thoughtful girlfriend gave me the Truffaut: Hitchcock book. It became my bible, even though I hadn’t even seen Psycho yet.
Meanwhile, the downtown theaters suddenly became oppressive to teenage moviegoers, presumably in reaction to the ‘permissive garbage’ Hollywood was putting out under the new ratings system. In 1969 I was turned away from The Wild Bunch because I wasn’t 18. I excitedly pointed out that I was 17, and that the manager’s own posted regulation for “R” movies said that children under 17 were the ones that needed to be accompanied by an adult. It was no go — the theater manager wouldn’t budge. I’d have to settle for going back to the Base Theater, where I could bring some friends to see the “R” rated Wild Bunch, as well as M*A*S*H and even the rare Age of Consent, with its eye-catching Helen Mirren nude scenes. Yes, the “repressive” U.S. military was the most liberal entity I encountered in my teenage years.
In my senior year I was told about a special film class being held on Base, at Norton’s gigantic, high-security Air Force film center. Some officer wanted his son to be indoctrinated in film and so pushed the weekly class through the bureaucracy. With the draft on, my parents liked the idea of my qualifying for a photo outfit, as they thought I was so un-aggressive that any other kind of military duty would be a disaster. Considering that they were such hawks, I’m grateful that my parents didn’t pressure me toward a military career.
The film club was fun and our teacher Ray Ussery was a great guy. We shot 16mm with a new Arriflex. We were impressed by the high-tech building, a giant concrete block. Its maze-like interior was suitable for the underground bunker of a James Bond villain… or Adolph Hitler. We got to view some pretty awful films that the Air Force propaganda people were making. One montage of jets taking off on a bombing mission was synchronized to a Moody Blues song (“Dawning is the Day”) about realizing one’s dreams. A terminally lame informational film imitated the style of the TV hit Laugh-In. Then we were told that the club would be giving out a pair of scholarships that included two semesters of college tuition. The anointed officer’s son didn’t bother to fulfill the requirements but won anyway. I got the second prize because I dazzled them with my enthusiasm and turned in a full script (for a terrible film idea). I must have looked like a big chipmunk that wanted to make movies. That good experience led to my giving an uncharacteristically upbeat performance at a general school scholarship interview, and suddenly I was on my way to UCLA. Add that to the list of personal contradictions — the Military Industrial Complex helped send me to a hotbed of radical political activity… which I quietly observed from the sidelines.
UCLA in 1970 was a fine place to be exposed to new ideas. I never was drafted. I reported to my induction center to get my card, and found that I was the only white kid in a room packed with Latins and blacks. My student deferment held out until the Big Draft Lottery. My lucky birth date came up 307 out of 365, so I was home free. I’d return to San Bernardino frequently from UCLA, until the gate pass on my Volkswagen expired. But by that time I was heavily into the Los Angeles vintage movie culture, what with Film School screenings, passes from professors, special series at the County Museum of Art, celebrity-hosted screenings at the Director’s Guild and of course FILMEX. I’m still that kid who got to walk to his own private movie theater at age seven.
June 24, 2014