A King Kong Trilogy by James H. Burns (Click here for Index of Burns in the City Articles)
King Kong and the City: A Unique Thanksgiving Tradition
by James H. Burns
My father loved King Kong.
By the time he was forty-seven, by his best estimate, he had seen the
classic over fifty times...
And no dummy he, my Dad was a decorated World War II veteran, a near-master of four languages, and a professor
of engineering, first at NYU, and then tenured at CUNY (where he taught
at least one or two future astronauts...).
For kids at the height of the Depression, when King Kong was first
released, the movie had to be something of a miracle. For only a nickel,
or a few (depending on what point in Kong's run, you attended), you
could be transported to a world that never was.
|(James H. (Jim) 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.
(Often overlooked, is that one of Kong's other initial allures was
presenting many people with their best chance to see dinosaurs "brought
to life," these prehistoric creatures that had previously existed only
on the printed page, or in museum recreations.)
My Dad wasn't alone in his endearment.
Various playwrights and novelists have waxed poetic on the hold Konghad on many of that "Greatest Generation." (Bill Macy, in a memorable
episode of Maude, the early 1970s All in the Family spinoff, gave an
eloquent surmise of the magical film's long-lasting impact, and Kong's
ill-fated crush on Fay Wray...)
Of course, Kong had been a smash from its very beginnings, opening in
Manhattan exclusively on March 2, 1933, at Radio City Music Hall, AND
two blocks south, at its erstwhile, smaller, twin, the RKO New Roxy
(combining for a per-screening capacity of almost ten thousand seats!)
There was a unique affinity for New Yorkers, thrilling to Kong's mayhem
in Manhattan, confronting an old mid-town elevated train, and climbing,
of course, the Empire State Building--culminating in one of the most
famous tableau, in cinematic history.
King Kong had already been successfully re-released to theatres,
severaltimes, before debuting on television, in 1956. WOR bought
King Kong for its pioneering program, The Million Dollar Movie,which would air the same film every day, for a week--and some times,
more than once a day!
There were children, and adults, who watched everybroadcast. For some
viewers, the daily screenings were like meeting an old friend. For
youngsters, there was a bonus:
Kong had become a window to a second wonderland, its Manhattan now
nearly as mythical as anything found on Kong's Skull Island; a New York
known to many, only from family memories.
The fascination with Kong was a love that many parents first shared
with a child, in front of a television's once-upon-a-time, glow.
But it's towards the end of November, remarkably, that marks the
anniversary of when many Americans were first introduced to King Kong,and the picture's heady blend of romance, and adventure.
For over ten years, beginning in the early l970s, King Kong was shown
by Channel 9 (the former WOR-TV), on Thanksgiving--making the movie one
of the Tri-State area's more unique holiday traditions. It was now not
uncommon for three generations of Kong fans, to be watching the movie,
WOR's Thanksgivings soon included the sequel, Son of Kong (shot and
released, incredibly, later in the same year, as its predecessor), and
1949's Mighty Joe Young, another stop-motion animation picture, from
Kong's creators. (Channel 9 also threw Godzilla into the mix, and in 1977, added a Friday full of Japanese monster flicks, to the annual
(By the end of the decade, "Kong Thursdays" became, to some degree, a
nationally available event, when WOR became a "Super Station" (such as
Ted Turner's WTBS in Atlanta, and Chicago's WGN), featured throughout
the United States on cable television systems.)
Although the King Kong festivals ended in 1985, "Kong's" subsequent TV
ratings, and video sales, were consistently strong. The filmmakers had
accomplished the nearly impossible: a high cinematic fantasy, barely six
years after the advent of "talkies," that not only remained believable,
In ways which were unusual for even the greatest blockbusters,
Kong--from its superbly paced adventure sequences, through what some
have called its off-beat sub-plot of unrequited love--held a special
resonance for audiences, that reverberated, across the decades.
For those New Yorkers who felt a personal connection to the film, the
intimacy of television could only have added to that alchemy. It's even
possible that the meticulous, handmade nature of "Kong's" lovely special
effects, registered on the subconscious in ways not yet fully possible,
with high technology.
(Through the years, Kong had also presented many people with what were
actually some of their earliest impressions of New York, and even
America. There were natives of other lands who had never seen King
Kong, who somehow knew of the movie, or at least its iconic imagery.)
MY first encounter with Kong happened over fortyyears ago, via Super
Adventure Theatre, a 1960s Saturday morning WOR movie program, emceed
by Claude Kirchner, a famed kids-show host (Super Circus, Shrub
Club), starring in one of his last programs. (It was odd being
introduced to the legendary movie by a middle-aged man in ringmaster's
garb, talking to his sidekick hand-puppet, Clowny...)
Later that day, I may have asked my father, "Have you ever heard of
My Dad and I didn't need to bond on Kong. We were already
wonderfully close. But even as a tot, I think I knew there was
something remarkable about a movie that could transfix two film-lovers,
separated only in time.
Together, we journeyed to one of the last great double tiered Manhattan
movie palaces on 14th Street, to see a Kong revival in 1970. (It's
always an unparalleled experience to view even a familiar classic, on a
now all-but-gonelarge screen.) We were also there, four years later,
when Kong was featured on a strange double-bill with the much heralded
re-release of the Marx Brothers Animal Crackers..."
As much as I love stop-motion animation, I became one of those Kongfans whose favorite part of the movie is its more traditional, first
third: the eventful voyage to Kong's domain, and the meeting there with
wild, primitive natives (almost a cinematic tribal dance into the
unknown), before the more famous cinematic wizardry even commences.
My Dad and I both ignored the 1976 Kong remake, but--purists
be damned--were especially tickled by the colorized version of the
original, released in the early 1990s.
(Perhaps we got an extra blast out of the video--not just because if you
pressed Kong's chest on the cover-box, a micro-chip roared--but because
my father had predicted such an innovation, decades earlier.)
Ultimately, Kong's strongest suit might simply be that of a fantastic
tale, well told. Like the best fables, King Kong has managed to
transcend, the parameters of its particulars...
These last days of November will always be when King Kong took his
initial bows, for a legion of our area's movie-lovers. All of which,
goes to explain, why for so many raised in or near New York, the scent
of a simmering holiday dinner, will instantly, and forever, conjure
images, of another enchanted isle.
||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.