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What Showmen Used to Do to Thrill Us Long Before Digital Technology

independent film, entertainment, film festival, film events, film reviews

By Ron Merk

First of all, please don’t write me and politically-correct me on the term “showmen.” Despite looking for female hucksters back in the glory days (50s and 60s) of show biz gimmickry, I have not been able to find a single “showwoman” working in the industry. It’s too bad, but that’s just the way it was.

I grew up at the end of the glory days of the major studios, when some of the first indie producers and distributors got into the business, usually in the fringes of low-budget exploitation productions and very low budget distribution of those films. Back in the glory days of Burlesque (which I was not old enough to see, thank you!), strippers always had a gimmick. If you’ve ever seen the Broadway musical, “Gypsy,” on the stage or on film, each of the minimally-clad performers in the strip show has a gimmick. My favorite one was the one who lit up like a Christmas tree at the end of her routine.

No, this is not a tract on feminism in the movies, it’s about gimmicks and ploys used by producers and distributors to pull audiences (who’d been lured away from theaters by FREE television) back to the movies. Studios and indie producers were all looking for a gimmick, and while some of them are still with us (wide screen, and the recently re-born 3D craze) many of them were just one of a kind, like the showmen who invented them, and if you didn’t see some of this crazy stuff way back then, well, you missed some pretty amazing (and yes, tacky) movie stuff.

While there was lots of screaming by the heroines in many of these films, and by the audience in that classic shot (that seems to be in most horror films) in which someone is standing alone with their back to the camera which is menacingly moving toward them, and then a hand taps them on the shoulder, at which moment they spin around to see who (or what) is there, and we all gasp, then learn that the hand belongs to a friend or someone they know, and not the “what.”

As you can imagine, many of the “exploitation” films, as they came to be known, were horror movies. They were cheap, could be made on short schedules with lesser-known actors, and often re-used sets from other films that were still standing, costumes that nearly fit the cast, and any kind of smoke and mirrors that the budget could afford to create an effect that would startle or thrill the audience in some way.

After a while, audiences tired of the same old plots and tired thrills, and the showmen who created these films had to scratch their heads, and ask “what can we do now?” The answer was gimmicks. The one I remember best was a film with Vincent Price in which he was trying to scare someone to death (his mission in many films, it would seem), and he has a skeleton on a wire, and a fishing reel device on which he is controlling the skeleton. As I sat in the Branford Theater in Newark, New Jersey, watching this little horror epic, the skeleton emerged from behind a curtain at one side of the screen, and traveled on a wire up to the balcony. All sorts of screams and gasps could be heard in the theater, and I’m sure at the box-office, too, because the house was full. Another gimmick, and I don’t recall the film or the subject matter, was that certain seats in the theater had been “wired” to give a slight electric shock to the “lucky” person who happened to chose that seat. There was even a film, called “Scent of Mystery,” that pumped fragrances into the theater to match what was being seen on the screen.

All of these required the producers and distributors to send their teams into theaters to rig these gimmicks and make sure they operated properly during the show. It was tricky to make things work all the time, and costly to send teams out there to run the show. So, producers and distributors began to look for other solutions.

Gimmicks lead to technology, and much of that technology is still with us. Widescreen films had been around since the early days of silent films, and had been toyed with again during the early days of sound films. Abel Gance’s Napolean featured sequences in various widescreen techniques, including three projectors showing three images at the end of the film, a precursor to Cinerama. The Bat Whispers and The Big Trail were shot in two versions, one standard 35mm and one widescreen. The 70mm format has also been around for more than 80 years. 3D was also around for a long time, and has had several incarnations, the first in the 50s, and then briefly in the 80s (but not long enough to be called a renaissance) and then in the last 5-7 years with many major filmmakers choosing 3D as a major element of their films.

Cinema is often a reinvention of itself, with producers, directors and writers borrowing from older material, dressing it up, sometimes truly transforming it, into some new. The same is true of technology and gimmicks.

Technology that was originally designed by Fred Waller to teach gunnery to military personnel became Cinerama. The success of Cinerama sent studios scrambling for lower budget wide screen technology. Henri Chretien’s anamorphic lens was re-named CinemaScope by 20th Century Fox, and lead the way for all modern wide screen formats. The list goes on and on. I remember the first ads for CinemaScope saying “it’s like 3D without the glasses.” Everyone hated those cardboard 3D glasses, especially people who wore glasses to see. It’s still a pain in the neck (yes, if you tilt your head, 3D stops working) and that forces us to keep our heads level while watching 3D films. With filmmaker James Cameron dedicated to 3D like an evangelist, I’m sure that this, too, will be solved, and maybe we’ll soon be able to see movies in 3D without glasses, just like in real life!

There’s a wonderful article that I saw recently about all the wonderful gimmicks and technology that producers and distributors have used over the years that would be wonderful reading for those of you who are interested in some of the gory details of gimmickry and technology. Check out