The other night when I was cooking dinner, I noticed "The Towering Inferno" was on TV. For those who don't recognize the title, it's one of the Hollywood star-encrusted epic disaster flicks made famous during the 1970s.
Every person of my generation will remember it, along with "The Poseidon Adventure," "Earthquake," "The Hindenburg" and a host of other silver-screen smorgasbords that kept you guessing: Which big-budget actor would bite the dust first, and in what horrible way? Will we cry or cheer?
Most of us saw these films at the Ritz theater in Muskogee, a once-beautiful opera house that opened in 1928 and later transformed into a movie theater, but had already gone to seed by the time we moved to Fort Gibson. When you walked into the lobby and looked up, you could see an oculus hinting at the presence of a second floor, the expansive stairs to which were always barricaded from the public by velvet ropes. The lobby had cool tile floors, but in the foyer and auditorium were threadbare velvet carpet, and so did the stairs. The auditorium always exuded the faint smell of urine and ancient popcorn, even after it had been cleaned from the previous show. The floors were sticky, and sometimes, so were the seats. We didn't ask questions. We kids sometimes walked to the front and peered into the dark orchestra pit, wondering how deep it was. We could never tell, because they never brought up the house lights; the once-ornate wall sconces provided the faintest of light, although the orange glow of cigarettes could be seen through the haze of smoke on the outer rows of seats. You could still smoke in theaters back then.
Families always sat in the wider middle row, away from the dim figures of the smokers and other questionable characters around the edges. A tad more illumination around the screen revealed the sadly frayed set of house curtains, along with what we imagined to be a couple of bullet holes on the gold trim around the stage. Once, my brother escaped and ran up one of the staircases to check out the balcony. Unfortunately, he was thwarted by a couple of sets of locked, wrought-iron gates over the entrances from the landing. The theater people were a little upset; they said it was "dangerous" up there and no place for kids. I think my brother got a spanking after we got home from whatever movie was showing; for some reason, I seem to remember its being one of those Dean Jones movies. They did open the balcony once that I remember, and that's when they were showing "Where the Red Fern Grows." I could hear quiet voices and other movement from above, but our mother wouldn't let us go up there to check it out. There were rumors about what was going on up there. I was told later by some luckier kids that although the main balcony was open, the box seats fanning down the walls were blocked off.
For some reason, I always associate disaster movies with the Ritz - perhaps because it was a disaster itself. I recall seeing "The Poseidon Adventure" there in 1972, and the memory is so clear that I even remember the music being piped into the auditorium before the show: an instrumental version of "You Only Live Twice." Though no musicians had been inside the pit in decades, the music still softly emanated through speakers overhead. A few years later, when the Fort Gibson majorettes brought our batons to twirling camp at NSU, we walked downtown and observed publicity posters for "Poseidon" in the front windows of the old Thompson Theater. There was Stella Stevens, wearing only Ernest Borgnine's shirt, silver platforms and a pair of panties. Ernest himself had only a T-shirt, but plenty of muscle, and Gene Hackman had on that filthy, torn white turtleneck, also ostensibly designed to show off his frame. And that's how I know the name of the last movie that played the Thompson.
But "Inferno" was the be-all-end-all of disaster movies. It was made back when Paul Newman, one of the most handsome - not to mention philanthropic - gentlemen ever to walk the earth was still above the soil instead of beneath it; back before Steve McQueen was revealed by then-wife Ali MacGraw to have an aversion to bathing, and before he was taken by lung cancer; and back when O.J. Simpson was still known as a lovable retired pro football player, rather than a murderer. Perhaps ironically, he was a "good guy" in "Inferno" - a security chief who saved the life of a cat. He died in "Capricorn 1," another catastrophe caper, and so did Sam Waterson - which was sad, but at least James Brolin lived. At least there were no imperiled pets in that movie. Guys who saved animals were always heroes in these films. I still remember seeing "The Hindenburg," and at the end, it showed still photos of those who survived, and those who didn't. When the picture of the dog showed up under the list of survivors, the cheering from the audience was deafening - far more so than the tepid applause accorded to George C. Scott, although the demise of the villain, played by Erich Ludendorff, was heartily cheered.
"The Towring Inferno," though, probably had the most big-name stars ever, and as I was watching parts of it the other night, I also noticed some bit-part players who later became big names, like Dabney Coleman. Of course, those didn't much matter to my sister and me. Our hero was Newman. I remember once when we were gushing over him, my father made a sarcastic comment about his ethnic background: "Newman: What kind of a name do you think that is?" That was well before genealogical research revealed my father and his siblings to be 1/16th Jewish, a proud claim now confirmed by the recent receipt of my DNA test kit results. (Newman's heritage was not the source of familial disdain during his later years; his status as a political liberal is what brought him low in the eyes of many of my kin.)
There were rumors about egos and fights between top billing between Newman and McQueen. Turns out the one making the demands was William Holden, whose career was on the wane at that time - and who reportedly pushed Faye Dunaway against a wall when she repeatedly failed to show up for shoots. They acted together in "Network" just a few years later. My sister and I didn't care much for Dunaway, because she made out with Newman, and because she wore a translucent, low-cut dress - an outfit either one us would have gladly worn ourselves as adults. The dress may have been why our brother had a crush on Dunaway at the ripe old age of 10. Lisa and I made fun of her, calling her Faye Dungheap and praying that the producers would be "done-away with Dunaway."
We didn't care much for Robert Wagner, either, because he "made love with a girl," his secretary. Blech - gross and disgusting, we thought in those days (which, by the way, were before Wagner was accused of chunking Natalie Wood overboard). In those kinds of movies, someone was always "making love" - like the faithless Charlton Heston with Genevieve Bujold in "Earthquake." At least Newman didn't do that with Dunaway.
I have more to say about disaster movies, and celebrities we thought were hot, or not - but as is typical for me, I've run out of room. I think the only person who can give me a run for my money in the department of verbosity is NSU President Steve Turner. I'll take up where I left off next week.
Poindexter is managing editor for the Tahlequah Daily Press.