Share this article

print logo

Frank J. Dinan: Saturday matinees kept us spellbound

In the early 1940s, there were no TV programs, computer games, streaming video, etc., but the movies afforded a form of release from the stresses of World War II, and people flocked to them. For kids, though, there was one movie event that couldn’t be missed: the Saturday matinee.

For us, going to a Saturday matinee at the theater wasn’t anything like going to the movies today. Back then, kids spent a dime to be entertained all afternoon. Candy bars and popcorn each cost a nickel and added to the fun.

A Saturday matinee always had two movies – a feature film and a B-grade second movie. The features were generally of good quality and starred first-rate actors like Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. But the feature films didn’t draw us kids; we were there for the add-ons – the B-movie second feature, the comics, the short subjects, the “news of the day” and the serials.

The B movie was usually a cowboy movie. As I look back now, I can see that they were all pretty much the same. The good guy cowboy hero always had a sidekick, who often provided comic relief. They inevitably ran into bad guys who were terrorizing a town. There was always a fight in a saloon, and one or more chase scenes on horseback in which the good guys ran the bad guys out of town. Both groups fired tons of bullets at each other from their six-shooter pistols, which never ran out of ammunition, and good always triumphed over evil.

Every kid loved the comics. Mel Blanc provided the voices for Looney Tunes characters like Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Tweety Bird, Porky Pig and countless others. We roared with laughter until they ended with “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!”

Short subjects could be about almost anything. They lasted about half an hour. Some were comic (“Pete Smith Specialties”), some informative (“The March of Time” series), while others were adventures (Frank Buck’s “Bring ’Em Back Alive” movies). In these, Buck, always wearing tall boots, white shorts and a pith helmet, would go into jungles, bravely capture dangerous animals and bring them back to American zoos.

My personal favorite shorts, though, were “The Three Stooges.” I just couldn’t get enough of their slapstick humor.

It is hard to imagine, given today’s 24/7 news cycle, but in those long-ago days, people used to get much of their news from movie newsreels. Sports, fashion and the latest updates on World War II battles were watched intensely even though the “news” we watched had happened weeks before.

The real Saturday biggie, the thing that kept us kids coming back week after week, were the serials. Serials, aka cliffhangers, were wild, exotic adventures that always ended with a scene in which the good-guy hero or lovely heroine was about to be killed by a ready-to-explode bomb, a runaway train or a fall from a cliff.

The episode always ended at that crucial moment, leaving us waiting all week long, dying to see what would happen on the next Saturday. We never seemed to catch on that, inevitably, the hero or heroine would miraculously be saved only to get into another potentially disastrous situation when the next episode ended. We loved it!

Movies are certainly technically and, arguably, artistically better now, but I’ll bet that today’s kids don’t enjoy them as much as we enjoyed our long bygone but still treasured Saturday matinees.