Bringing Back Classic Movies and the Old-Time Ballyhoo, Bruce Crawford Shows ‘King Kong’ the Red Carpet Treatment
I’ve been writing about Bruce Crawford’s film events for more than a decade. The Omaha-based film historian and impresario has gained national recognition for his elaborate revival screenings of classic movies. This story appeared in 1998 on the eve of his screening the original King Kong. Crawford’s special guests for the show were special effects master Ray Harryhausen, who cut his chops alongside Kong special effects genius Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young, and noted science fiction author Ray Bradbury. I had the chance to interview Harryhausen for the story. Crawford is very close to Harryhausen. You’ll find several more stories by me about Crawford and his work on this blog.
Bringing Back Classic Movies and the Old-Time Ballyhoo, Bruce Crawford Show ‘King Kong’ the Red Carpet Treatment
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Ever imagine yourself at a Hollywood premiere? Well, Omaha promoter Bruce Crawford lets area moviegoers experience the real thing without ever leaving town. Using his gifts for old-fashioned showmanship and ballyhoo, he presents gala film events at local theaters that capture the hoopla of a Los Angeles opening night.
Since 1992 Crawford has screened classic films in the grand Sid Grauman tradition, complete with searchlights, limousines, photographers and elaborate theater displays. Crawford, the producer of noted radio documentaries on film composers Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa, adds to the glitter by bringing celebrity guests. At a screening of Patton he arranged for the grandson of the film’s legendary subject to attend, along with top military brass. For Gone with the Wind he brought co-star Ann Rutherford and added atmosphere with women in period hoop skirts.
For the Hitchcock suspense masterpiece Psycho he got star Janet Leigh to visit. Family members of late-great directors Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and William Wyler (Ben Hur) and producer Darryl F. Zanuck (The Longest Day) came at his request to events featuring films made by these legends. He enticed special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (Mysterious Island) to appear at a tribute in his honor.
Crawford’s latest spectacular is the 65th anniversary showing of the 1933 RKO classic, King Kong, a movie that’s captivated generations of filmgoers. A newly restored print will run one night only, Saturday May 30, on the giant Cinerama screen at the refurbished Indian Hills Theater in Omaha. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. The event, sponsored by Midwest Express Airlines, is a fundraiser for Children’s Square USA in Council Bluffs. Tickets, priced $15 each, may still be available at the Hills’ box office.
Like all Crawford events, this one is sure to turn heads with its red carpet fanfare. A 30-foot tall Kong balloon will tower over the theater. Searchlights will brighten the night sky. Crawford, his wife Tami and guests will arrive, via limousine, in black tie and tails. Paparazzi will snap pictures. No doubt, fans will gather to glimpse two much-anticipated celebrities who are fervid Kong admirers: Harryhausen and famed sci-fi author Ray Bradbury (Farenhite 451). Each will sign autographs after the show.
In true impresario style, Crawford has planned “a live prologue” with dancers and acrobats recreating the film’s native ceremonial ritual — painted faces, grass skirts, shields, spears, drums, et all — as performed for “Kong’s” original Grauman’s Chinese Theater run. Crawford said, “Of all the events I’ve done, it will probably be the most showmanlike.”
For most in the audience the event will mark the first time they’ve seen Kong (rarely reissued in theaters) on anything approaching the Hills’ 65-foot curved screen, one of the largest remaining of its type.
“To appreciate its awesomeness you must see it on a big screen,” the 70-something Harryhausen said by phone from his home in London. “It’s not the same seeing it on television. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Crawford said what he aims to do with his extravaganzas “is recapture the magic of going to the movies I felt as a kid, and add to it with the glitz and glamour. You get your money’s worth at a Crawford show. You get to see movies shown the way they’re meant to be, and so rarely, seen.”
Many wonder how someone so far removed from the center of the film industry is able to pull off major events with such big name draws. In a word, passion. As a boy in his native Nebraska City Crawford fell in love with movie scores and special effects and by his teens was corresponding with various film artists, many of whom are now his friends. Most are much older than Crawford, 39, but they share his passion. He credits the warm reception with which he’s been received to his “sincerely enthusiastic” zeal. “You have to have that extravagant enthusiasm…that charisma.”
Apparently it’s infectious.
“I’m delighted he takes it so seriously and takes the initiative to try and present pictures the way they were presented in the early day,” Harryhausen said. “What it takes is somebody with enthusiasm for these types of things. Bruce has that, and it’s wonderful.”
Gerry Greeno, Omaha city manager for the Douglas Theater Co., whose Cinema Center hosted past Crawford events, said, “He has an exuberance that generates interest and gets people to participate in what he’s doing. He’s not bashful about it. He puts a lot of time and effort into these special events. He loves doing it.”
You don’t have to be a film buff to appreciate classics. Like Titanic today, Kong reaffirms the powerful hold cinema exerts on us all. In the darkened theater we sit transfixed as our dreams, fears and desires are projected on the silver screen. Kong’s rich symbolism has gained it cult status and inspired Freudian interpretations. While director Merian Cooper dismissed such notions, there’s no doubting the film’s potent imagery. Who can forget Kong besieged by airplanes atop the Empire State Building, with the impossible object of his affection, Fay Wray, lying on the ledge below?
Those same images fired the imagination of Harryhausen, who saw Kong as a young photography buff and was sufficiently moved to begin experimenting with the film’s stop-motion animation techniques. “I was 13 years old when I saw it, and I haven’t been the same since,” he said. “It left me startled and dumbfounded. It started me on my career. That shows you how influential films can be.” He later worked with Kong’s creator, special effects master Willis O’Brien, on the Kong-inspired Mighty Joe Young.
While Harryhausen went on to create critically acclaimed effects for a series of highly popular fantasy films, he still considers Kong a milestone:
“It is the most outrageous fantasy ever been put on the screen. The storyline, along with the phototgraphic effects and Max Steiner’s wonderful score, was way ahead of its time and very clever in making you believe what you saw and setting the mood of the picture. Willis O’Brien’s animation was superb. He put the personality in Kong. It was just an 18-inch size stuffed puppet with rabbit hair, and it became a star personality.”
A model with feelings, no less. “It especially comes through in Kong’s eyes,” Crawford said. “As vicious and powerful as Kong could be, look how gentle he is with the Fay Wray character.”
The film’s become a fixture of popular culture. References abound in comic books, comic strips, paperbacks, posters, print-TV ads and movies. Toymakers have churned out Kong action figures. There’s a Kong theme park ride. There’s even a King Kong restaurant in Omaha. Oft-imitated and parodied, the film’s never been surpassed. “Kong is timeless. No matter how many remakes…they don’t equal the original,” Harryhausen said. Crawford agrees, adding, “The picture still holds up today. Some of the animation’s still so dynamic. And the film is just a part of our folklore. It’s legendary. It’s pure escapist-adventure.”
But why has a film about an oversized ape had such lasting impact? For starters, it tells an irresistible adventure story whose action unfolds as in a dream or fable. A filmmaker, Carl Denham, charters a ship sailing from Depression-era New York to mythical Skull Island. The woman hired to star in his film, Ann Darrow (Wray), is kidnapped by natives and offered as a sacrifice to Kong, which steals her away to his island domain. Kong fends-off dinosaurs and the ship’s crew to, as he sees it, protect her. Despite his savagery, Kong elicits our sympathy when captured, brought to New York and exhibited in chains. The theme of a noble beast felled by beauty and civilization still reverberates with audiences today.
“I think what makes it so touching is that Kong is a tragic hero. Kong is a symbol of a creature that should have been left alone. Of a wild animal that you can’t contain or train. And what’s made it so enduring is its Beauty and the Beast theme. Kong risks his life for this woman,” Crawford said.
Many scenes stand out in his mind, but none more than the climax. “For sheer drama and visual magnificence, the finale on the Empire State Building is just incredible. Max Steiner’s music fades out entirely and all we hear is the drone and the whir of the airplanes’ prop engines, the machine guns firing and the roars and grunts of Kong’s defiance.”
For Crawford, films like Kong are national treasures. It’s why he devotes much of his life to their continued exhibition and recognition. His efforts have paid off too. His documentaries (made at KIOS-FM’s studios) have aired nationwide on public radio, his eight film events have netted wide media coverage and his growing status as a film historian has earned him commissions to write for major film publications.
What’s next? Future projects may include an audio biography on film composer Dimitri Tiomkin, events honoring native Nebraskan screen legends and a revival of the 1958 movie The Old Man and the Sea.
Meanwhile, he can’t believe how far his passion for movies has led: “I didn’t know what I was tapping into. It’s rewarding to have it all come together and it’s a good feeling to know people appreciate what I’ve done.”
- Spotlight on…Ray Harryhausen (kurojabber.com)
- The Genius of Ray Harryhausen (filmverse.wordpress.com)
- Sci-Fi’s No. 1 Fanboy, Forrest J Ackerman, Dies at 92 (time.com)