Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Big Show Time Machine

This week's post is a look at the past, in two ways. The article below was originally written back in 1998 for the third issue of John Hudson's excellent video fanzine, The Rewinder.   (You do remember when you had to "rewind" movies don't you?) Due to complicated circumstances issue three never saw the light of day, so here it is at last.

I had originally wanted to write a full history of The Big Show, but I couldn't find anyone that worked in programming for WLAC in the seventies. My only sources were memory and microfilm (remember that too?) of TV schedules from the Tennessean.  Still, I think the piece turned out rather well and hopefully, can be enjoyed by anyone that grew up with a weekly afternoon movie on local TV. So grab a can of Pringles and a grape Nehi and enjoy!


            Okay, here's the deal. The bell rings at three o'clock on the dot. Fifteen minutes to get on the bus before it pulls out, that is if they don't hold it up for some stupid little kid that's messing around. The ride home takes about 35 minutes -- in the house throw the books down, ten minutes to go. Mom bugs you about your chores and you promise her to do them later. She's in a good mood, so she lets you slide. A big glass of Kool-Ade, some chips, and on the couch, shoes off -- crank the volume up. It's four o'clock and time for The Big Show.

            For more than twenty years, The Big Show was a weekday ritual for kids in the Nashville television viewing area. Growing up in the sixties and seventies meant rushing home from school to catch the latest showing of Son of Frankenstein, Commanche, Tarantula, Pinocchio in Outer Space, A Night at the Opera, Tickle Me, or any of the other hundreds of movies that would come blasting out of WLAC-TV, Channel 5 every afternoon at four.

            While syndicated movies were a staple of most local television programming -- filling up time on weekends and late nights -- WLAC did not begin programming weekday afternoon movies until October 29, 1956 with Screen Hit Theater. The afternoon movie continued under that title until February 18, 1957 when it changed to the name it would carry for the next twenty years, The Big Show. Unfortunately, the Tennessean and the Nashville Banner did not list the titles of individual movies in their programming guide at that time, so the debut title of The Big Show is lost to history. Judging by the movies listed in 1958 and 1959 it's likely the first Big Shows were comedies, dramas, and musicals from the thirties and forties -- titles like Words and Music, Damsel in Distress and A Likely Story. Add to these, series films like Henry Aldrich and the Bowery Boys, and various horse operas.

            As the sixties began, movie producers learned what a valuable market television presented, and more and more films poured into syndication. WLAC also seemed to learn that its main audience in the afternoons was kids, and kids wanted to see action. Westerns, gangster films, and horror and science fiction epics soon became the mainstay of The Big Show. The comedies, musicals and dramas didn't disappear from the schedule. They were mixed in, making for some breathtakingly eclectic weeks of viewing. A look at one week's worth of Big Shows from October, 1966 reveals the 1958 Fred MacMurray western Day of the Badman on Monday, followed by 1959's monster and hot rod epic, The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow on Tuesday. The Jeff Chandler 1958 adventure yarn, Raw Wind in Eden, followed on Wednesday, with Hedy Lamarr in the 1958 drama The Female Animal on Thursday. Closing out this already mixed-up week was the 1959 Roger Corman beatnik-horror classic, A Bucket of Blood.

            Of course, rare was the kid that watched all these movies, every day. But part of the charm of The Big Show was its demonstration of the diversity of American film. Can't stand Lucille Ball in the Fuller Brush Girl?  Well, tune in tomorrow for Brando in The Wild One. Can't handle Doctor Blood's Coffin?  Just come back the next day for The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.

            As The Big Show moved into the seventies, the size of WLAC's film library continued to grow and, despite the occasional theme week, like John Wayne, Frankenstein, Elvis, etc., the bulk of The Big Show's programming remained wildly diverse. One new wrinkle was WLAC's weatherman, Bob Lobertini, becoming the host of the show. First appearing as a kiddy host in the guise of "Captain Bob," and later hosting the "Dialing for Dollars" segment during the movie, Lobertini became a face and name known to every kid in Middle Tennessee and South Central Kentucky. You had to trust the forecast given to you by the man that had just introduced Gamera that afternoon.

            Probably one of the most exciting experiments with The Big Show's format came in the seventies when WLAC aired the complete 1944 Republic serial, Captain America, showing one episode after each movie for three weeks in a row. While the experiment may have not been successful, since WLAC never showed any other serials in this manner, I can testify from personal experience that kids at my grade school were hooked. Even if the movie was boring, you just didn't miss Captain America.

            The end was coming for The Big Show, however. In the fall of 1976, WLAC moved The Big Show from its traditional 4:00 time slot up an hour to 3:00. This made it impossible for most kids to make it home for the start of the movie. After one year in this new time slot, The Big Show came to an unceremonious end on August 12, 1977 with the 1958 Van Heflin Western, Gunman's Walk. The following Monday, WLAC began showing standard afternoon rerun fare -- The Munsters, Gilligan's Island, Gomer Pyle USMC, and The Doris Day Show.

            The Big Show may be gone, but it left an indelible imprint in the hearts and minds of the kids that grew up with it. Not only did its eclectic schedule introduce a wild mix of American movies, but it was a lesson in creative anarchy. Where else could you see a movie like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies on the day after Thanksgiving, or rest assured that Christmas would bring another showing of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

            For many people in the Nashville viewing area, The Big Show fostered our love of movies, and we felt a loyalty to it. I remember watching the 1966 Batman movie on late night television several years after the demise of The Big Show. I was shocked and dismayed to find out there were several scenes that I had never seen on The Big Show presentations. How could The Big Show have betrayed me?  But of course, with only ninety minutes minus commercials to show movies, The Big Show frequently cut films to ribbons. Another failing was it tendency to show the same films over and over. Frankenstein week almost always consisted of Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The other Universal Frankenstein films were seldom seen even though WLAC held the syndication rights to show them.

            Despite its shortcomings, The Big Show still served up fun movies every day, and for that, a lot can be forgiven. There was a specialness in having random access to a variety of movies every day after school. When I started researching this article I called WTVF, the successor to WLAC. No one I contacted had any information on The Big Show or programming from that time, but Mark Benda, the current programming manager, described in affectionate terms the afternoon movie show he grew up watching in New Jersey.

            Today, with cable, satellite TV, and videotapes, The Big Show may seem like quaint nostalgia, but it was an important part of many kids' lives. You knew if you missed The Curse of the Fly on The Big Show, you were looking at least a year before you would see it again, if then. But even if you did miss it, you knew the next day there'd be another movie probably as equally cool and as equally unmissable.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Message from the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

Just a quick post to plug the new issue of Twisted South that has my feature article on Wanda Jackson and the first installment of my new column - Hillbillies, Hepcats & Honky Tonkers – “Charlie Feathers and the Sound From Another World." For a list of stores that carry Twisted South (nationwide!), just check out their website at:

Friday, March 11, 2011

My Autumn of Aliens, or Why a Swiss Hotel Clerk Owes Me $1.25 (Plus Tax!) – Part 3

So as the seventies rumbled on my interest in UFOs and all manner of weird stuff continued. But along with my interest in the “weird stuff” came my growing interest in “slightly less weird stuff,” such as more conventional science (mainly astronomy and space exploration) as well as science fiction. While I was still a comic book collector, the number of titles I was buying began to slack off as I turned more of my budget to buying science fiction novels and magazines. Not to mention the explosion of movie magazines that began to appear in the aftermath of the release of Star Wars and the growing popularity of Star Trek.

In the fall of 1977, I started high school, and one my best friends was a big time science and astronomy geek. This association would only push me more in the direction of “conventional” science. Also, that fall the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released. At the time absolutely loved it, in some ways even more than Star Wars. It struck me as great science fiction with a really positive message about “man’s place in the cosmos.” (I should interject here that my opinion now is less glowing, but no need to get into that...) So I was rather surprised when one of my main literary heroes of the time, science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, came down so hard on the movie – criticizing it for promoting “pseudo-science” over “true science.”

And Asimov wasn’t the only one. I had also discovered astronomer Carl Sagan through his many appearance on television talk shows and documentaries, and he was fast becoming a hero of mine. Sagan was not only a brain, but he had a lot of natural charisma and really understood how to use television to his advantage. He was a staunch supporter of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial life, but could also be an incredibly harsh critic of UFO reports and many of the self-proclaimed “experts” in the field.

So for a while I was torn between two masters. Even though what people like Asimov and Sagan were saying made sense in a logical way, flying saucers and all the other associated weird stuff were just so darn cool. I finally settled on a middle ground where I felt it was good that someone was too skeptical, because that would be the only way the real truth could eventually come out. Yeah, that's the ticket...

"Just the facts, ma'am..." 

And Close Encounters had done its job well on the pop culture scene. Following the movie there was an immediate explosion of UFO books, magazines, documentaries and even TV shows. One my new favorites was the Jack Webb produced Project U.F.O., even if the show was a bit of a cheat at times. The typical episode would start off with some person witnessing an incredibly detailed sighting, often with occupants, but by the end of the episode Major Gatlin and Staff Sgt. Fitz would demonstrate how they had actually seen a flock of birds, swamp gas, or maybe a runaway balloon animal. Still, the Dragnet-just-the-facts formula worked for the show, and eventually the writers starting ending most episodes with some small bone that seemed to show what the person had seen really was unearthly.  (They just needed a big “THE END?” before the credits to make it complete.)

But the end to my days of high strangeness was approaching fast. As part of my new fascination with hard science I had discovered the truly excellent PBS documentary series, Nova. In March of 1978, Nova produced the special episode, “The Case of the Ancient Astronauts.”  While I expected some serious debating of von Däniken’s theories, I was not prepared for the epic smack-down that Nova delivered.

Point by point, the calm, collected narrator ripped the arms off ancient astronauts and beat them to death with their own detached limbs. The one that still stands out in my memory, and what I think was the tipping point for me, was the examination of the famous “spaceport” photo.  In Chariots of the Gods? von Däniken had presented the photo with the caption, “Another of the strange markings on the Plain of Nazca. This is very reminiscent of the aircraft parking areas in a modern airport.” Nova showed the lines from the exact same angle and then had someone walk down the “landing strip” to show that it was about two feet wide, and then pulled back to show that the lines were plainly the leg of a giant drawing of a bird!

What the TV Guide had to say about the smack-down of the millennium!

I was furious. This wasn’t just a matter of debating the interpretation of evidence. This was out and out fraud. And I had sacrificed six comic books for this? After the episode concluded I yanked my copy of Chariots of the Gods? off the shelf and took a black magic marker to spine in order to black the “Non-“ in the word “Non-Fiction.” Take that you lousy Swiss hotel clerk!

But my fury wasn’t totally reserved for ancient spacemen. Even though I didn’t take the magic marker to the rest of my library, the fun of UFOs, bigfoot, ghosts and the like seem to have vanished. Although there was not as clear of dividing line for the rest as there had been for ancient astronaut theories, the old thrill and appeal, not to mention the creepiness, just wasn’t there anymore.

Skip forward to the late nineties. Although my interest in weird stuff was occasionally sparked by episodes of Unsolved Mysteries or Fox’s incredibly goofy Sightings, not to mention the “Alien Autopsy” shell game or The X-Files, I never experienced a real temptation to return to my UFO “research.”  The skeptic in me was pretty hardened, not to mention the mythology that had developed since the seventies – abductions, the elevation of "Roswell" to scripture, “Grays,” government conspiracies, anal probes and the like – struck me as boring for the most part, and quite frankly, just not any “fun.”

It was on a road trip to Chicago in 2002 that my friends Jack Daves and Dave Conover got into an extended discussion about John Keel’s classic tome of weirdness, The Mothman Prophecies and the movie that had just been released based on the book. At the first mention of the word “Mothman” they had my attention – the old favorites never fail, and even though the book had been published in 1975 I had never encountered it.

When we got back from the trip I tracked down a copy and made several great discoveries. Keel was one of the first researchers to completely reject the extraterrestrial theory in regards to UFOs. Instead he postulated the UFOs were merely the latest “form” of a phenomenon that has been going on since the dawn of recorded history – and the way the phenomenon is perceived is determined by the culture and prejudices of the time. Of course this is a much oversimplified version, but the point is that both the skeptic and, even more important, the 10-year-old boy tucked away inside of me could accept this as a possibility.

But even better than a palatable theory was the fact that the book scared the crap out me.  Now, I love horror fiction and horror movies, but I’ve reached a point where they don’t scare me.  Maybe a small scare at the time I’m reading or watching, but not of the good old lying-in-bed-at-night-staring-at-the-ceiling-waiting-for-the-boogerman-to-get-me kind of fear. What I discovered was reading books about UFOs, bigfoot and the like really got under my skin – even in a case when I knew what was written was mostly B.S. It still gave me that old exquisite feeling of irrational terror.  And so my hobby of collecting pre-1980s UFO and bigfoot books began. And fortunately, I also found that a new generation of weirdness writers, who probably cut their teeth on books with “the font,” are rejecting the anal probes (can you blame them?) and conspiracies of the eighties and nineties and writing some fun and funky stuff.

But when it comes to von Däniken’s books, I won’t touch ‘em!  Us crackpots got to have some standards!