Vintage Cable Box: Jaws 3-D, 1983

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“White sharks are dangerous. I know ’em. My father, my brother, myself. They’re murderers.”

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Jaws 3-D, 1983 (Dennis Quaid), MCA/Universal

Jaws III (in 3-D) was one of my purest, truest pleasures as a child.  There was a long line around the Sam’s Place theater chain on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia waiting to get in, sit down in the dark in an air conditioned auditorium on a hot July day in 1983.  We used to go to Sam’s Place all the time, at least twice a week.  Tickets (first-run, mind you) ran about two bucks each, maybe a buck-fifty for kids and seniors.  We got our tickets and 3-D glasses, our popcorn and soda, got out of there without spending ten bucks.  If I remember correctly, even the previews were in 3-D, which was unusual (even though the most recent 3-D movie, Spacehunter, was released a few months before).  I vaguely remember, one of my earliest memories was watching the original Jaws at a drive-in.  I remember having nightmares.  Jaws 3-D might be considered schlocky celluloid junk to purists, but it was incredible fun for me.

When Jaws 3-D came to cable television (retitled Jaws III, denoting the lack of 3-D effects), it lacked the punch of the big screen in your face, wearing the glasses and watching such items as severed arms, bifurcated fish, and papier-mâché sharks flying off the screen, but the movie still worked as schlock-horror.  Dennis Quaid plays Mike Brody (Chief Brody’s oldest), all grown up and working as an engineer for Calvin Bouchard’s (Louis Gossett Jr.) SeaWorld.  His girlfriend, Kay (Bess Armstrong, again!), the senior marine biologist at the park, wonders why her dolphins are so scared and flighty (dolphins can sense sharks, you know).  Meanwhile, Mike is investigating the disappearance of one of his employees, drunken ne’er-do-well Overman.  Kay and Mike conduct a search, but are soon beset by a great white shark.  They capture the shark, but Brouchard puts it on display, but it promptly dies in captivity.

Pretentious naturalist filmmaker Philip FitzRoyce (an appropriately douchey Simon “Manimal” MacCorkindale) and his trusted unintelligible assistant, Jack Tate are there to document the opening of SeaWorld’s underground tunnels, so that spectators can view sea life from inside the water (actually a great idea).  Overman’s remains are found, but Kay ascertains that their shark didn’t do the damage.  It’s mother did!  A big bitch they estimate to be about 35 feet long, the shark gets into the park and attacks performers.  The sharks blocks the park’s filtration system, so Brouchard tries to flush her out, but she won’t budge.  FitzRoyce, using himself as bait, tries to blow her up with underwater grenades.  He is eaten.  The shark finally breaks through (a very bad 3-D effect) the window of Brouchard’s underwater control room.  Now, why would you put a control room under water?  This park is supposed to be a triumph of engineering, but you put sensitive electronic equipment under the water?

There are some surprisingly good character beats in a script about an enormous shark terrorizing a theme park.  Quaid and Armstrong are exceptional as a couple not quite ready for a long-term commitment.  The running subplot of their relationship has them wondering which partner will give up his/her livelihood to join the other in a great job opportunity.  There’s a great bit where Quaid’s Basset Hound is eating on the kitchen counter and Quaid is holding the dog’s floppy ears up, so the dog doesn’t make a mess.  Quaid’s kid brother, Sean, visits and hooks up with a cute Lea Thompson.  FitzRoyce flirts with Armstrong.  These are nice beats in an otherwise flawed piece of entertainment.

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Despite some of the 3-D pitfalls and gaps in logic, this movie is a lot of fun.  The effects aren’t as bad as in The Man Who Wasn’t There (a film that didn’t really require 3-D visual effects), and admittedly it is a cheap gag to sell a Jaws franchise movie in 3-D, but they look a lot cleaner than previous attempts.  Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone was probably the most successful in terms of the visual quality, but that movie’s inflated budget killed the concept for a time.  Friday the 13th Part III,  Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, and Amityville 3D were also released around this time, to mixed results.  In 2003, 3D enjoyed a resurgence with James Cameron’s Ghosts of the Abyss.  The Polar Express and Cameron’s Avatar would follow in the years to come.  Now, it seems every action or animated film is released in 3D.  I don’t like this particular process (a kind of photographic layering of disparate elements in the foreground) as it makes me somewhat dizzy and a little nauseous.  Give me Jaws 3-D over Avatar any day!  It’s a lot more fun and a hell of a lot less preachy.

Next time, I keep the 3D glasses on for the third installment in the Friday the 13th franchise; Friday the 13th Part III (in 3-D!).

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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“Movies At The Colonial”

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It was in a rotten part of town; the high-crime, low-rent section of South Philadelphia now known as Lower Moyamensing. The place has cleaned up considerably since (had to be about thirty years) but the old Colonial is no more; demolished in 1989. It looked like a palace in 1910 when it first opened. All glitter, all neon, art-deco lighting piping, beveled curves and thick red carpets, I could imagine the ticket-takers in red uniforms and little pill-box caps opening the double-doors for the next show. You’d probably get a newsreel, cartoon, two short-subjects, and a feature for a nickel. Even had a pipe organ in residence, just off to the side of the screen.

The pictures were the only place you could escape to in those days. No television, no internet, no cable. Even radio would be interrupted with little snippets of reality from time to time. News of the wars, tragedies, epidemics hung on the limited airwaves. So they went to the movies – en masse, flocks of the curious watching projected stories and eating popcorn and Black Cow chocolate caramels. People still dressed up for the movies. Men in suits with ties, and ladies wearing laced walking gloves and snoods.

All that changed by the time I walked through the double doors under the marquee. In big, red blinking lights, the word “COLONIAL” lit up dark Philly skies. South Philadelphia was very dark and flat at night and you could hear crickets. Strange that you could hear crickets in an area almost completely made up of row houses with very few trees.

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It was creepy but well worth the rather long walk from my house. It was cheap. Anybody could afford it. I’m dating myself a bit, but I remember the shows were a buck a ticket, and it could be any kind of show – double features, triple features. I saw “Ghostbusters”, “Fright Night” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” on a triple bill for one dollar. I saw “Jaws” and “Jaws 2” for one dollar. So it goes.

This was not a multiplex with stadium seating. The seats sloped up to a point and then there was an enormous (off-limits around the time I was a customer) balcony that stretched to both sides. This could just be nostalgia since I was a young man, but everything looked big to me. I was amazed every single time I went through the double doors.

Time was not kind to the Colonial. It had fallen into disrepair starting in the late sixties. The thick, red carpet had worn down. There were gashes in the walls. The incredible chandelier hanging from the ceiling teetered threateningly, and even in packed houses, people moved away from it when the Dolby soundtrack of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (due to the Lucasfilm theater alignment program) thundered and vibrated all across the room. The chandelier would shake and we would gulp and say silent prayers that the crystalline beast would not collapse and devour us all.

The homeless would sneak in after hours and help themselves to the Colonial’s comforts. There was the unmistakable odor of urine in the aisles. There was no maintenance or janitorial upkeep, so popcorn, candy, and sticky soda would litter the floors. In those later years, the Colonial had a roach and rat problem, but people still came to see the very cheap shows. A triple feature I was not permitted to see consisted of “Porky’s”, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, and “The Last American Virgin”. You might get the occasional trailer for a movie the Colonial was scheduled to show, but there were no commercials, no pleas from Roy Rogers for donations, and nobody telling you to turn off your cell phone and shut up.

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In recent years, movies have been turned out to be more of an event. The rising ticket prices and 3D glasses, and the cattle-herding of audiences into and out of the theaters has transformed us into what we suspected we were all along – mindless consumers looking to kill two-plus hours in the dark. As early as the late 70s, Hollywood put all it’s money into the first weekend, and as the quality dropped, the prices for tickets went up dramatically, $15 to $20 (or more) a pop.

Repertory houses were the last thing we had that was close to the roadshow/Roger Corman rollout from many years ago. Movies would roll out in selected territories, do their business and move on, and not all the advertising money was spent in the first week. Very few prints were made (none of this 4,000 screen business), and very rarely did any of those movies lose money.

Sometimes I could hear the ghosts of old, shuffling in and out of the theater. You’d suspect there were well-dressed patrons, the sound of a big band down the street, sailors home on leave making their way into the Colonial to catch the latest James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart. With that news that more than 100 theaters will close by the end of the year because they refuse to make expensive digital improvements to their screens, the Colonial’s demise seemed to be the first warning sign that simply taking in a movie was going to be a thing of the not-so-distant past.

Originally published December 2, 2014.