King Kong, and the City, Part Two: Chris Steinbrunner, and a Renaissance of Fantasy
Chris Steinbrunner standing outside Cabin B-13 on a mystery cruise to Bermuda
Chris Steinbrunner, through the years, would often be asked, "Whoever thought of putting King Kong on Thanksgiving?'
Chris, after all, was a longtime executive at WOR-TV (and then its parent company, RKO General), had been a film programmer for Channel 9, AND was a lifelong fan of Kong..."
Until his untimely passing in 1993, Steinbrunner was also a dynamic presence in the worlds of science fiction, fantasy, mystery and nostalgia.
In fact, Chris has evolved as one of the great unsung heroes of those genres, which is particularly remarkable, since the mark he made still reverberates...
Chris Steinbruner, born in 1933, in Middle Village, Queens, New York, was a graduate of Fordham, where he co-founded a Sherlock Holmes society, and hosted a pop culture radio show.
While still a student, Chris wrote one of the very last episodes of the classic The Shadow radio series, and upon graduation, went to work almost immediately at WOR.
One of Steinbrunner's first fun memories at the station was writing some gags for the legendary horror movie host, John Zacherley. John, like many of Chris' associates, became a lifelong friend.
"I told Chris that I wanted to screen 'King Kong' on my show," Zach quipped. "But WOR wouldn't let me have it!"
Steinbrunner had a dual career, also writing extensively about fantasy and horror and, perhaps with the greatest renown, mysteries. In 1972, he coauthored, "Cinema of the Fantastic," one of the VERY FIRST books about fantasy and science fiction movies. Well-received upon its release (and still on library shelves throughout the nation), "Cinema of the Fantastic" was extra-specially impressive because it appeared when publishers were generally reluctant to consider such volumes.
Steinbrunner wrote a monthly column for "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine," and later won an Edgar Award, for The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection. (Chris was also a regional Vice President for the Mystery Writers of America, and edited their newsletter, The Third Degree.)
(Steinbrunner was a publisher as well, the silent partner in CentaurPress, which re-presented such fantasy classics as Dr. Cyclops and The Werewolf's Daughter.)
At WOR, Chris also worked as a writer, and producer, including film history and media tributes, and a 1970s series of travel specials with Gunther (Journey to Adventure) Less.
One of his initial projects should be of particular interest to 007 fans, and COULD present a challenge for the most ardent Bond buff to try to track down--
Since it comprises a rather curious mystery of its own...
Steinbrunner's official biography states that he wrote and produced a 1960s television special entitled The Incredible James Bond. Friends and aficianados presumed that this was the documentary for David Wolper Productions, directed by Chris' college classmate, Jack Haley Jr., that ran on NBC in November, 1965 (preempting The Man From U.N.C.L.E.).
Afterwards, the Wolper show was virtually impossible to view again. When it finally surfaced as a bonus on a Thunderball DVD release, fans realized that this production was entitled The Incredible Worldof James Bond, and Steinbrunner's' name was nowhere in sight.
This would not necessarily have been unusual at the time, when all but the absolutely top talent might not receive screen credit. (It's important to realize that Steinbrunner could be shy about his accomplishments. I don't remember him lying about anything. He was also one of those lovely people whom if he wasn't sure of a possible fact, would tell you so. Chris, at least in person, was modest. He hated being heralded with his resume, and much preferred to be introduced as, "This is my friend, Chris Steinbrunner.")
It seems obvious that Steinbrunner's' show WAS a different, local presentation for WOR. (I vaguely recall that Chris may have mentioned that United Artists politely asked for the program to be shelved).
Sadly, Chris' show has been lost for years. But considering the vast detail with which the 007 phenomenon has been chronicled, it's stunning that Steinbrunner's special has been forgotten--if EVER known about—and never listed, by any of the Bond historians.
While there were, no doubt, a multitude of local television treatises on 007 when Goldfinger became such a massive hit, Steinbrunner's program would have been among the debuts-- and maybe the PREMIERE--of a showcase exclusively devoted to Ian Fleming's master spy!
It's plausible, of course, that Chis Alsoconsulted on Haley's special...!
...Which he later did on at least one of the producer/director's That's Entertainment/That's Hollywood projects. In fact, one of the neatest mementos in Chris' office (at WOR's famed 1440 Broadway environs) was a
gift from Haley for professional courtesies rendered:
An exactreplica of the Maltese Falcon statue, back when such a reproduction was extremely rare...
Less enigmatic(!), is that in 1967, Chris wrote and produced The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes, for WOR. Steinbrunner was one of the country's leading Sherlockian authorities, a devoted member of the Baker Street Irregulars (the society dedicated to the detective, and his creator, A. Conan Doyle), and co-wrote "The Films of Sherlock Holmes" book, in 1978.
The special commemorated the passing of Basil Rathbone, the actor best associated with the role, and was anchored by Joe Franklin, New York's venerable talk show host.
(Is it possible that Franklin also hosted the James Bond special? I asked Joe, and he wasn't sure!)
The Holmes celebration also seems to have disappeared....
Although casual, Steinbrunner's most recurrent behind-the-scenes activity was for The Joe Franklin Show, Franklin's nightly nostalgia and show business chat-fest. Chris would occasionally discuss show ideas with Franklin, supply information, and even help steer guests to the series.
(Joe Franklin's broadcast career began in the 1940s, and his TV talk show ran for over FOUR DECADES, before taking its final bow in August, 1993. (The Joe Franklin Show gave "a first break" to tens of thousands of performers.) His weekly WOR radio program (Memory Lane, four to five hours on Saturday nights), lasted for another eleven years, and Joe-now well into his eighties!-stilltapes daily entertainment news reports for the Bloomberg Radio Network.)
Joe and Chris were workplace friends.
When Billy Crystal began doing a Joe Franklin skit on "Saturday Night Live," Franklin was furious, and deeply hurt. He stepped into Steinbrunner's WOR sanctum, wondering what actions he should take. Chris explained to Joe his opinion that the spoof was one of the best things that could have happened to Joe, that it was making him famous to a whole new audience...
Franklin did begin to take legal steps against two of the next people to satirize him, but listened to Chris-and possibly others-about Billy Crystal, and today cites the Saturday Night Live sequences with a grin, saying, "They were a sendup of a sendup!"
Joe ultimately honored Chris with an incredibly classy gesture. When "The Joe Franklin Show" aired its finale, the end credits listed many of those who had been helpful, or integral, to the program's longevity. Although Steinbrunner had already been gone from the professional scene for some time, Joe made sure to include his name in the television show's thank-yous....
Steinbrunner sometimes stepped in front of the cameras, for Franklin's and other talk shows. In the late '70s, he even shot a fun segment on "To Tell the Truth," as an expert on mysteries (replete with two Chris Steinbrunner imposters)! Chris' most unusual credit came a short while later when he journeyed to Pittsburgh to play, in makeup, one of the zombie horde in Dawn of the Dead (the first Night of the Living Dead sequel.
Steinbrunner's position at WOR enabled him to, intermittently, be something of a film preservationist.
For years, Channel 9 had been the New York home of The Marvel Super Heroes cartoons. Debuting in 1966, the syndicated series was often primitively animated, but also featured some terrific voice-acting, and relatively faithful adaptations of their source comic books. (Frequently unrecognized today is that it was this program, along with the next season's Fantastic Four and Spider-Man on ABC's Saturday mornings, that introduced most of the country to the sensational Marvel characters and storylines.)
In the early 1970s, when WOR's broadcast contract for the show finally expired, the syndicator sent a note asking for the 16-millimeter film prints to be destroyed. This was not an unusual request in the era before widespread use of video cartridges, or stations "simply" downloading a show from a satellite feed. There were program providers who saw no reason to pay the hefty shipping costs for MULTIPLE canisters of film.
Chris, no doubt horrified at the impending waste--in a move that I don't think he would mind my revealing all this time later!--called Stan Lee, the co-creator of many of those superheroes (and then the editor-in-chief of the comics company), to see if he'd like the episodes. Stan was ecstatic, and they arranged for the prints to be brought to Marvel's offices.
For a while there, Marvel apparently DIDN'T have copies of the cartoons, or easy access to them. Steinbrunner was responsible for Marvel, or Lee, finally having an edition of their own first television series!
Chris' zeal for classic comic strips and comic books may be the least remembered of his passions. As a young man, Steinbrunner contributed to some of the nascent fantasy fanzines (and later, a few of the preeminent monster movie magazines). One of those articles was included in another pioneering pursuit, All in Color For a Dime, a non-fiction anthology edited by Dick Lupoff and Don and Maggie Thompson, that was one of the earliest books to be published about the history of comics.
Chis lovedmovies, and literature, and really any form of entertainment that was inherently engaging or imaginative.
Steinbrunner actually shared in the CREATION of what he might have termed "A mysterioso destination," one that looked like it could have materialized full blown out of some down and dirty, hard boiled dystopia...
On New York City's West 40th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues—the visceral heart of Hell's Kitchen, in what then seemed like a rundown AND dangerous area--was a thoroughly nondescript doorway, its apparent anonymity nearly eclipsed by its similarly shabby, and cramped, few-storied neighboring structures.
But past that portal, and down a handful of steps, was something of a miracle:
A small, and charming, movie theatre.
(Steinbrunner was fond of O. Henry's description of Manhattan as "Baghdad on the Hudson...")
The screening room was home to "The Film Co-Op," which existed for over
a decade, commencing some time in the late 1960s. (Noted film researcher
John Cocchi was also one of the key founders, responsible for running
Nicknamed "Joe's Place" for Joe Judice, the gentleman who built and
maintained the theatre, the Co-Op was basically a loose, semi-secret
conglomeration of movie buffs and film fans (with nary a stuffy cineaste
wannabe in view...!). Today, the Co-Op is best remembered for
showing--in the era before easy access to home video---the then elusive
adventure serials, and other well-enjoyed "B-movies"!
Steinbrunner also supervised the film schedules for many of the original comic book and science fiction and related conventions, during what's regarded as those organization's "golden age". (Chris and I first met as he was leaving, and I was arriving, at a party in the hospitality suite at Phil Seuling's 1976 International Comic Art Convention!) He was a frequent, and delightful, participant in panel discussions and other programming, as well as helping to organize such happenings. Chris' most prestigious event involved co-producing (as "Co-Chairman") Bouchercon-the annual summit of mystery writers and book lovers, held annually in various cities-in 1977 at the WALDORF ASTORIA, and for an unprecedented Manhattan encore, in 1983.
The movie lineup at Channel 9 itself had always been a bit eclectic. By
the late 1970s, when WOR was available across the United States (as a
cable "Super Station)," Steinbrunner
took particular pride in the uniqueness of their "Late, Late Show." It
would run the gamut from the super-Bs of the '30s, to horror of the
'70s, to virtual art-house fare.
It wasn't particularly recognized at the time that Channel 9's Late, Late Show was almost like having a cool revival theatre, on your TV.
Any writeup of Steinbrunner's career would be incomplete without attempting to convey that amongst his greatest assets was his enthusiasm, and his desire to want to share his knowledge, and help people out.
To some degree, Chris was almost like a medium-sized Falstaffian figure, but always an honest, kind and intelligent one.
To many of us, he was like an uncle.
(He once told me, however, that he'd much prefer being thought of, age-wise, "as a cousin"!)
Steinbrunner took joy in introducing people to each other who might benefit from or cherish the acquaintance of the other.
There are thousands of people who still owe part of their livelihoods, and certainly a cornucopia of good times, to gracious amenities rendered by Chris.
His tomes of scholarship will endure as a beneficial resource.
But perhaps just as important as so many memories of vitality, and fun.
One of the great times Chris and I were together came early one morning in 1983 when we ran into each other high atop the Empire State Building, gathered on the Observation Deck for a special press party commemorating King Kong's fiftieth anniversary. With the men in suits and the ladies elegantly attired, champagne was poured as we looked towards the bi-planes in the distance, booked especially for the event, that buzzed as though in a dream, above the shores of Manhattan.
When someone asked Chris about Kong Thursdays, he replied, as he almost always did, with a quick pause, a sudden smile, and said:
"King Kong on Thanksgiving...? Whoever would have thought of such an odd idea?"
The color photos of Chris Steinbrunner are courtesy of Karen and Billy Palmer: www.bogies.net
Special Thanks To: Steve Vertleib, Bhob Stewart, and Karen Palmer
||James H. Burns was a pioneer of the second wave of fantasy and science fiction movie magazines, being one of the first writers for Starlog (and several other late 1970s publications), and a contributing editor to Fantastic Films, and Prevue. (Jim was also a key figure in many of the era's North Eastern American comic book and Star Trek conventions.) Burns was one of the field's first writers to cross
over to such mainstream fare as Gentleman’s Quarterly, Esquire, and American Film, while still contributing to such genre stalwarts as Cinefantastique, Starburst, Heavy Metal and Twilight Zone magazines. More recently, Jim has made several contributions to Off-Broadway, and Broadway productions, become active in radio, and written Op-Eds, or features, for Newsday, and the New York Times.