Tag Archives: 1976

A New York Minute (13)

30 Jan

January 30, 2012

Here’s your New York Minute. Go tell the neighbors.

New York has a lot of famous residents, from Donald Trump’s hair to the giant inflatable rat that unions put up outside of non-union construction sites, but the most famous one of all arrived in 1933 and still holds as place in our hearts. Of course I’m talking about the original Big Ape, King Kong.

We all know the story. Carl Denham, played by Robert Armstrong, traveled to Skull Island to make a movie but ended up bringing Kong back to New   York, where the giant ape tore up some train tracks and wrecked some buildings, before finally climbing the Empire State Building where he fell to his death. And in true New York fashion, in the sequel Son of Kong Denham had to dodge about at thousand lawsuits.

The film was a hit and is considered a cinematic classic.

The 1976 version? Not so much.

In 1976 Dino DeLaurentis made  a big-budget remake, which the movie poster somehow called “the most exciting original motion picture event of all time.” It kept the same basic plot but changed some key elements. Kong was found not by a movie producer but an oil company, but the biggest change was that Kong climbed the South Tower of the World Trade Center, which had beat the Empire State Building as the tallest building in Manhattan since the original movie came out.

The film got mixed reviews. Personally, I think it isn’t horrible on the one hand but not too good on the other. But it has one huge drawback. In most scenes, King Kong was played by a man in an ape suit. And it didn’t go over very well when Dino DeLaurentis put out an ad looking for, and I quote, “a well-built black man” to play the ape.

Even Rick Baker, a special effects man known for Hollywood makeup and said that the suit wasn’t at all convincing. And he should know, he wore it. However, they did make, and highly publicized, a 40 foot tall mechanical Kong. It cost 1.7 million dollars but didn’t convince anyone and it ended up appearing in just 15 seconds of footage. Yes, I said seconds. 1.7 million for 15 seconds. However, there were some other giant props, like Kong heads, hands, and arms, and that’s where I come in.

In 1976 my father had an office on the 15th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, and his office overlooked the plaza where King Kong was being filmed. This was the World Trade Center’s first brush with heightened security. People who worked in the building had to have special passes. Certain parts were blocked off for filming. Notices warned everyone that they might be filmed as they went in or out of the building. Extra security and police had to be brought in to keep back the crowds who wanted to get a glimpse of the filming.

Although I was very young I have vague and fuzzy memories of looking down from Dad’s office and seeing some of the filming and especially some of the props. Most of the filming at the Trade Center was done at night but there were always things going happening on the set. And even though it was 35 years ago I’m pretty sure I’ll never forget looking down and seeing a giant ape being laid out in the plaza below the World Trade Center. Some things are unique, and in the age of CGI probably never to be repeated.

Kong has been remade and reimagined over the years, from Peter Jackson’s overly long period piece to the Japanese-made battles with Godzilla and robo-Kong, but I’ll always think of King Kong as the giant gorilla who crushed Charles Grodin under his hairy foot.

This has been your New York Big Ape Minute.

And that giant inflatable rat I mentioned? Here it is:

An audio version of this legend recently appeared in the amazing FlashPulp website. Check them out for awesomeness and goodies!

Groucho Marx, circa 1976-1977

16 Dec

December 16, 2010

The 1970’s were a great time to be Groucho Marx.

Unless you were Groucho Marx.

Groucho died on August 18, 1977, at the age of 86. By all accounts he was unhappy in his personal life, although his career had undergone a celebratory resurgence. By some accounts, he may have been a bit senile. It was generally understood then as well as now that he was being pushed past the point of what was physically good for his health by his much younger companion, Erin Fleming. Groucho, thrice divorced, was 86. Fleming was 35. By the 1980’s, several lawsuits brought against her by the Marx estate were settled in the estate’s favor, including a payment of nearly a half million dollars to Arthur Marx, Groucho’s son.

While Groucho’s health was on a downswing, leaving the comedian thin and gaunt, his voice nearly a whisper, his image and humor had become a cultural touchstone. Some of the biggest stars of the biggest sitcoms of the 1970’s were huge fans and it was not unusual for Groucho and Marx Brothers impressions to turn up on television. Groucho had become a cultural touchstone for a new generation who discovered him in late night movies.

From M*A*S*H, episode Yankee Doodle Doctor:


Alan Alda, Gary Burghoff, Marcia Strassman, Wayne Rogers

From All in the Family, episode Where’s Archie? part 1:


Rob Reiner, Betty Garrett, Jean Stapleton

Welcome Back Kotter featured Gabe Kaplan’s Groucho impression in nearly every episode, and Robert Hegyes patterned his performance on Chico. Here are the two of them portraying the Brothers on stage for Gabe Kaplan’s Groucho stage show.

Gabe Kaplan, Robert Hegyes

While Groucho seemed to be all over television, at least in the form of his persona, the real Groucho was set to make a guest appearance on Welcome Back Kotter. Kotter, it should be noted, also starred Marcia Strassman, who was part of the Yankee Doodle Doctor M*A*S*H hijinks a few years earlier. Now just a few months before his death, Groucho had to be helped onto the Kotter set, where the audience, expecting the grease paint mustache, duck walk, and rapid-fire zingers of his younger days did not recognize him and even the cast was shocked by his appearance. Robert Hegyes, especially, was affected, wondering aloud how he could go on with the show and do his usual Chico Marx impression after seeing Groucho that way. The cameo was nixed and only a few publicity photos were taken with the cast. However, Groucho’s appearance was so disturbing that the pictures have never been released.

Groucho’s last appearance, one year previously at age 85, was a one and a half-minute sketch with George Burns (then 80 years old himself) on a 1976 Bob Hope television special. The program demonstrated with both perfect genius and utter sadness the two sides of Groucho in the 1970’s. On the one hand we see the real, frail Groucho, sitting on a chair and feeding straight lines to George Burns in a raspy whisper. On the other hand is Billy Barty, dressed as Groucho in his prime, wearing grease paint features, smoking a cigar, and chasing women. It seems that the producers felt that without Barty in the sketch as Groucho “as a young boy” no one would recognize the real Groucho Marx.

Check the sketch out here, at about the 18:20 mark, until YouTube takes it down again.

hope, burns, marx

Groucho had lived long enough to be eclipsed by his own legend. A legend which, unlike Groucho, had not aged in 40 years.

Thank you, Captain Spaulding. Goodbye, Doctor Hackenbush. Rest in Peace Rufus T. Firefly. This is how we’ll remember you:

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