Googling Bygone Beaneries, Tough Guys and Rich Gals

We love old movies on their own merits, but we watch them in a way that’s very different from the way we watch modern films. For us (and we’re confident we’re not alone in this), old movies are like time travel. We listen closely to the dialogue for slang we might not have heard before, we examine all the actors from head to toe to take in their vintage clothing, we watch for period billboards and advertisements to discover long-forgotten products and businesses, and when we do uncover something new, we quickly turn to our good friend Ms. Google to see what knowledge she has to share.

Recently, we were watching Undertow, a film noir from 1949. It stars Scott Brady (he was Lawrence Tierney‘s brother, you know) and an actress we weren’t sure we recognized named Peggy Dow.

We looked up Dow on IMDb.com and learned that, after just a handful of pictures, she gave up Hollywood to marry a guy named Walter Helmerich, who was just getting started in the family business, which just happened to be oil drilling. The Helmeriches resided in Tulsa, Oklahoma (our native state), raised five sons and must have done pretty well for themselves, because the theatre department at the University of Oklahoma is now named the Peggy Dow Helmerich School of Drama (we figure they must have kicked in with a pretty sizable donation to earn that honor).

We graduated from that very school (though it hadn’t yet been named after Ms. Helmerich at the time) with a BFA in Theatre, so we feel a certain connection to her now. If we hadn’t watched Undertow and been inspired to do a little digging, we’d have never known.

By the way, as of this writing, Ms. Helmerich is still with us. And not only is OU’s drama school named after her, so is the auditorium at Northwestern’s Annie May Swift Hall (her alma mater). And since 1985, the Tulsa Library Trust has annually presented the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award to a deserving writer.

Now, back to the movie: At one point in the picture, Brady returns to his hometown of Chicago and there are some nice shots of South Wabash Avenue as he tries to ditch a cop who’s tailing him. How do we know it’s Wabash Avenue? Well, a restaurant called Lander’s caught our eye as Brady strolled past it (In Chicago, It’s Launder’s was the eatery’s slogan).

It had an appealing vintage look to it, glass bricks and all, so we turned again to Ms. Google with fingers crossed to see if it had somehow managed to survive to the present day.Read More »

A Journey Back to Old New York

A couple of years back, The Museum of Modern Art performed a digital restoration on some travelogue footage of New York City that was shot in 1911. They did a great job with it, and the video was widely disseminated—you may have seen it at the time or in the months since.

Now, a Swedish company called Svenska Biografteatern has done even more work on the footage, giving it a higher frame rate and resolution (4K) and a subtle color tinting.

For anyone who loves New York (or dreams of time travel), it makes for a magical eight-minute journey into the past.

A Headline for the Ages

Today marks the 84th anniversary of the appearance of the greatest newspaper headline ever—or, at the very least, the greatest headline ever to appear in a trade publication.

It was on this day in 1935 that the front page of Variety blared the following:

Photo of aforementioned Variety headline

We’d always understood that the point of the headline (and the story it touted) was that, contrary to the common wisdom of the day, rural moviegoers weren’t showing an interest in motion pictures that took place in rural and small-town settings; they wanted depictions of big-city life.

But that’s not the whole story. In fact, now that we’ve read the article at Variety.com, we’re not really sure this headline is a particularly good fit, as the bit about small-town movie patrons enjoying city-themed movies makes up but a tiny percentage of the story.

Still, over the years, that aggregation of words has brought us great joy; it makes us profoundly happy. We’re not certain who penned the headline—some say it was written by Lyn Bonner; others insist it was the work of Abel Green—but we tip our hat to whomever was responsible.

The headline was also featured in the classic 1942 musical Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which George M. Cohan (played by James Cagney) translates it for a couple of teens.

This post first appeared in this space in slightly different form on July 17, 2012.

Under Chicago’s Hawaiian Skies

Anyone who watches old movies even ocasionally has witness a scene set in a restaurant or nightclub where a fetching young women approaches a table occupied by the leading man and lady and asks if they would like a souvenir photograph.

After our mother’s passing in 2010, we spent hours going through dozens of old photographs we’d never seen before (many of which we’ve shared with you here), and one that especially sparked our interest was enclosed in a folder labeled “Louie’s Club 29,” a long-gone nightspot in our home town (Oklahoma City, don’t you know). The picture inside the folder depicts Mom and Dad Cladrite as young marrieds, out for an evening of fun with friends (their backfence neighbors) and Dad’s youngest sister and her beau. You can learn more about that souvenir photograph here.

The cover of the Honolulu Harry's Waikiki photo folder Eddie, Lois, Mom and Dad at Honolulu Harry's Waikiki

Last year, sad to say, we lost our father, which led to another deep dive into the photograph bin, and we were very excited by another souvenir photograph, this one from—wait for it—Honolulu Harry’s Waikiki, a tiki bar and restaurant in Chicago. In this picture, Mom and Dad (that’s them on the right) are accompanied by Mom’s lifelong friend, Lois, and her husband, Eddie. Lois and Eddie resided in Atlanta, so the two couples must have met up in the Windy City (we don’t know for certain what the occasion might have been). This picture was taken in the early to mid-’50s—we know this because Honolulu Harry’s opened in 1952 and by the late ’50s, Mom had gone blond. In this picture, Mom still sports the medium brown locks she was born with, so the picture has to date to the few years in between.

Honolulu Harry's WaikikiWe were amused to see that the photographer at Honolulu Harry’s seems to have been quicker on the draw than the waiter. As you can see, the table is spotless, the ashtray empty, the four cocktail napkins still fresh and unsullied by condensation or spilled Mai Tai. We imagine the plastic (or were they paper in those days?) leis were placed around the foursome’s necks as soon as they entered and before menus were even placed on the table, and that the Johnny (or Jill)-on-the-spot photog hurried over and snapped this picture.

Honolulu Harry's WaikikiWe wonder if the two couples were initially seated facing each other (note the arrangement of the napkins) but for the sake of the photograph, with an empty table beside them, perhaps Lois and Eddie slipped around and slid in next to Mom and Dad, only to move back to the other side of the table afterward (yes, yes, it’s a minor detail, but we’re suckers for such minutiae.)

Honolulu Harry's WaikikiHonolulu Harry’s Waikiki was in operation for a decade, from 1952-62. It offered that odd combination of Asian and Pacific/Polynesian influences so often seen in tiki joints of the era—the establishment’s advertising touted “American, Cantonese, Japanese and Hawaiian foods with dancing under the Hawaiian skies” and that same awkward but fun cultural blend can be seen in the club’s decor and even the design of its exterior.

Fun fact: The previous occupant of this space was the Barrel o’ Fun Tavern, a favorite hangout of Mr. Fun himself, John Dillinger.

If only Mom and Dad Cladrite (and Honolulu Harry’s Waikiki) were still with us—we’d join them in a heartbeat for a Waikiki Zombie and a Pupu Platter.

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

Did we ever tell you about our family’s minor but memorable role in the legend of the Mother Road, Route 66? No?

Some years ago, our father told us that, in 1933 or so, his parents operated a combination gas station, cafe and motor court right on Route 66 in the western section of Oklahoma City (our hometown, don’t you know). Our recollection is that he said it was west of Portland, not far from where the 66 Bowl bowling alley was for so long (the preceding details are included for those who are familiar with OKC).

Route 66 holds a place of honor in the states through which it passes; it certainly does in Oklahoma. And we count ourselves as Mother Road aficionados; we even drove the entire length of Route 66 in the summer of ’92. So we were very excited to learn that our family had played even a small role in the history of that fabled highway.

And we were even more delighted when Dad filled in some details. His father (our grandfather) was always looking for a leg up, a new scheme to make it big, and that’s why, when he moved his family moved from a farm outside Wayne, Oklahoma, to OKC, they ended up owning (or renting, we’re not sure which) the motor court.

But the story got juicier: Dad told me that not only did the cafe serve beer (we’re pretty sure this all took place during Prohibition, but Oklahoma was a dry state even after repeal), but the rooms were available for shorter stays of, say, an hour or two in length. And yes, that means just what you think it means.

We could not imagine our devout, church-going, teetotaling Grandmother putting up with such nonsense (you can see Grandmother in the photos accompanying these posts—does she look as though she’d be comfortable operating such an establishment?). Dad acknowledged that his mom was none too happy about the family’s new enterprise, but Grandpa was not a man easily denied. It is interesting to note, however, that our grandparents only operated that gas station/cafe/motor court for a year or so, so while Grandpa may have won the battle, it seems that it was Grandmother who won the war.

Spring forward 77 years: Our mom was a go-getter. She got stuff done. But one task she never accomplished was sorting through what she insisted were boxes and boxes of family photographs. When she passed 2010, we finally gained access to those boxes (we never even knew where they were) and we spent hours going through them. While our siblings were more interested in the photos from our own lives, the color shots from the 1960s and ’70s, we were fascinated, it will not surprise long-time readers of this site to learn, by those taken during the first half of the 20th century. We always want to know what we missed! So we were tossing aside all the color shots and going right for the black-and-whites (we’ve shared any number of those with you right here on this website over the years).

And were we thrilled when we came across these photos of Dad’s family posing for snapshots outside that roadside establishment on Route 66! We do wish someone had stepped across the road and taken a shot of the entire layout, but beggars can’t be choosers. We’re very happy to have this photographic evidence of our family’s contribution to Mother Road lore and legend.