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.


Rhatfink said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rhatfink said...

I remember being punished as a child for some offense by being denied a viewing of "King Kong" on The Big Show. To make matters worse, my mother still watched it while I listened from my bedroom doorway. (SOB)!

Lazarus Lupin said...

Local tv was so formative to us of a certain generation. Cable is nice, but it lacks a little something personal. I remember watching shows like "Domingo" (Mexican puppet show, or Popeye theater.... and even if the hosts weren't the most polished it did feel more like they were really talking to us.

Lazarus Lupin
art and review

unclesam328 said...

I got into a flamewar on Facebook about the Big Show. Seems I was mostly right. This really helped prove my point. Thank You.

FleshCamelia said...

O.M.G. It's summer, I have a little more free time than usual, I googled "The Big Show" and couldn't believe I actually found something on it! I lived south of Nashville and so remember coming home and watching these movies almost every afternoon. There's one I've been trying to find...A Sci-Fi hero find himself in a land where they sacrifice beautiful women periodically, and when they pull the women back, they've been burned to a crisp. Come to find out, they're inside some planet (maybe Earth?) and they put the women out on a mountain ledge and it's the sun that burns them. They're like some kind of mole people. All the movies were "B" movies and probably is one of the reasons I resisted any kind of intellectual work out. They'd probably drive me screaming from a room now!
But, thanks for doing the research and sharing! Got a kick out of it.

Randy Fox said...

I'm pretty sure you're thinking of "The Mole People" from 1956. I remember seeing it on the Big Show!

Glad you enjoyed the blog!

Allen Franks said...

Found this site as I was looking for info about my favorite The Big Show.Yes I miss it ..Does anyone one a clip of the opening of The Big Show ? THANKS

Allen Franks said...

Found this site as I was looking for info about my favorite The Big Show.Yes I miss it ..Does anyone one a clip of the opening of The Big Show ? THANKS

Larry Renegar said...

Thanks for helping me remember. I was telling my roommates about the big show tonight. I remember lots of giant creatures and people, a possessed skull that rolled around on its own,a really old zombie movie... Anybody recall creature feature with Sir Cecil Creepe?

Zane Smith said...

First place I ever saw "King Kong" birthday, 1973.