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Burns in the City
"Stand By For Mars!"
Burns in the City
Recommended Reading

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: 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 playwrites 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 longlasting 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 rereleased 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, together....

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 marathon.)

(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, but exhiliarating.

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 subconcious 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 Kong...?"

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 Manhatann 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 rerelease 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.
Recommended Reading

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