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Burns in the City
"Stand By For Mars!"
Burns in the City
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A King Kong Trilogy by James H. Burns (Click here for Index of Burns in the City Articles)
King Kong in the City
A Thanksgiving Tradition
Chris Steinbrunner:
A Renaissance of Fantasy
Meanwhile,
At the Empire State Building

King Kong and the City Part 3: Meanwhile, at the Empire State Building

by James H. Burns

No one need to have gone any further than the Empire State Building, to understand the hold that King Kong has maintained on the public, over the decades.

Once the tallest building in the world, the Empire State Building has, since its opening in 1931, stood as a symbol of the United State's vitality, and industrial ingenuity. For an America at the height of the Depression, the structure represented what still could be: almost an indestructible promise, of a better future.

Kong atop that marvel became one of New York's most vibrant, if off-beat, identifications.

There were immigrants, and others around the world, who had never seen a movie, who somehow were familiar with the image of the giant ape above the skyscraper.

"I don't see how anyone can everlook at the Empire State Building, and notthink of King Kong, Fay Wray commented, laughing, in 1978. "Of course, I may be predisposed!"

In 1972, stepping off the Observation Deck's elevators, a visitor was greeted by the sight of Kong on a giant, black and white poster, hovering, superimposed over the skyline of New York, visible through the gift shop's entrance.

At various times over the last few years, you could buy a Kong bobble pen; a Kong lollipop pole; a small stuffed Kong holding an apple (as in, "the Big Apple"-the doll roars when you squeeze him); or a Kong shot-glass or mug, both featuring what are actually stunning ceramic sculptures, of the icon.

"The Kong items are one of our mainstays, and, as far as I know, have always been amongst our top sellers," says an agent for HMSHost, the two-billion dollar a year concessionaire that runs the souvenir store, before explaining that company policy prevents an employee from giving a name.

(HMSHost-formerly Host Marriott Services-operates more than two hundred shops in airports and highway "travel plazas," throughout North America. It was bought by Autogrill, a similarly aimed Italian conglomerate, in 1999-meaning that the gift stands for one of the most famous landmarks in the United States, is controlled by European interests.)

This season, in the main lobby of the Empire State Building, a jolly stuffed gorilla, about three feet high, sits within a window display amid glistening, suspended Christmas orbs.

But unbeknownst to many New Yorkers is that for years, and until relatively recently, the Empire State Building had a free tribute to King Kong on the East 33rd street side of its lobby. Displays in the annex included models, original movie sketches, lobby cards, and other Kong memorabilia.

The oddest installation occurred in 1983, when a giant, inflatable Kong was attached to the building's exterior (on the Observation Deck), to mark the film's fiftieth anniversary. For days, the event's promoter couldn't get the balloon to operate properly, creating a field-day for the press (including a memorable New York Post cover), as there now seemed to be a giant plastic bag hanging off the landmark. But once functioning, reality was transcended, as a "life-size" Kong, could now be seen for weeks, and from blocks away....)


Fay Wray as Ann Darrow and Bruce Cabot as John Driscoll


Fay Wray

Beginning in the Autumn of 2005, one wall of "Kong Corner" was devoted to Wray (a New York resident, off and on, for much of her life). The montage was highlighted by photos of when Wray made one moretrip to the 86th floor (this time, by express elevator), in May, 2004.


Ray Harryhausen and Fay Wray

Remarkably, Wray was accompanied by stop-motion animation guru, Ray Harryhausen (the Sinbad movies, Jason and the Argonauts), a disciple of King Kong's effects ace, Willis O'Brien, who had worked with him on 1949's Mighty Joe Young (another "animated" ape movie, from Kong's creators)--Just two months before she passed away, a tad over five weeks shy, of her 97th birthday....


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.

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