3. Palaces of Imagination
|Paramount in Oakland CA 1931|
Some of those worlds had a long tradition, some were near the beginning of a perhaps lost tradition, and some in that era were new, at least in their presentation. All informed the worlds imagined decades later when these children grew up, including influence on creating the Star Trek universe.
|Los Angeles CA|
This was the era of the movie palaces. They had the opulence of opera houses and stage theatres of previous generations (and some were converted from these uses.) Some were huge, seating thousands, elaborately decorated in Art Deco style (Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall which opened in 1933) or in the exotic decor of Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
|This recently restored mural from the 1930s was darkened by time|
when I saw countless double features in this western PA theatre in
the 1950s. It's now called the Palace, but does mostly live shows.
For a Saturday matinee, children might leave bright sunshine and pass through a cool outer lobby festooned with colorful movie posters (though the movies were still mostly in black and white; a few big features began appearing in technicolor in 1936.) This often led into a dimly lit inner lobby with furled heavy drapes and polished columns, and a brightly shining candy and popcorn counter at the end. Uniformed ushers stood at the entrances to the curtained, darkened auditorium. Inside, barely visible, were row upon row of plush seats.
In many if not most towns and neighborhoods and city downtowns, these were the largest, strangest, most mysterious and wondrous buildings children could enter, especially on their own. And once inside, they owned it. For a nickel or a dime they saw a newsreel, cartoons, a comedy short, an ongoing serial and a double feature. These were the palaces of imagination.
Movies poured out of Hollywood--even in 1933, one of the worst Depression years, Warner Brothers studio alone released 55 movies. As the double feature became the everyday standard, the major studios plus independent companies added "B" pictures to their releases: shorter, more quickly made, with lesser stars.
There were comedies with Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin. There were fantasies of The Wizard of Oz and the first Disney animated feature, Snow White.
Also born in 1931, William Shatner would remember racing from theatre to theatre in Montreal, seeing as many movies as he could afford on his allowance (“two, four, even six films.”) “It was my introduction to the dream of being an actor,” he recalled.
The most famous serials of all were set in the future, featuring Flash Gordon and young Gene’s favorite from the newspaper comic strips, “Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century.”
Some of these serials would continue to be shown for decades, and would continue to inspire. Steven Speilberg would remember seeing 1930s serials at the movies in his 1950s Arizona childhood, including Tailspin Tommy (1934) and Zorro Rides Again (1937). But it was the Flash Gordon serials that fascinated young George Lucas in Modesto, California.
These movies, comics and radio shows provided other worlds to enter into, and some suggested models to consider and heroes to admire and maybe emulate. Amidst the action and excitement, their heroes demonstrated courage, energy, perseverance, compassion, self-sacrifice.
Jerry Siegel was 20 when he and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1934, influenced, he recalled, by “President Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats...being unemployed and worried during the Depression and knowing hopelessness and fear. Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany...seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered by the downtrodden...”
Siegel was also reading about crusading heroes and seeing them in the movies. He wondered how he could help these victims of the 30s. “How could I help them, when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.”
In his 1930s adventures, he rescued miners in a cave-in, battled stock market manipulators and munitions manufacturers fomenting wars to sell their wares. He fought crime, but also poverty and unsafe labor conditions. He came to the aid of individuals in trouble, and was devoted to the common good. He was a compassionate, high-spirited and humorous hero of the people.
Movie theaters were dramatic, physical palaces where imagination was king. But Gene Roddenberry had also discovered the personal palace of imagination represented by books. His hunger for reading would lead him to another discovery, another relatively new form—the science fiction pulp magazines.
Gernsbach made his fortune before World War I designing and selling the first home radio sets, and then by designing and marketing home kits for hobbyists—mostly adolescent boys—to build their own radio sets and radio telephones. His first magazines were little more than marketing for his kits but they became even more successful.
So from his Modern Electrics, Radio News and Science and Invention magazines (whose fervent readers included Marconi, Edison, Tesla and rocket pioneer Robert Goddard), he moved on to Amazing Stories, and later to Science Wonder Stories and other titles. Among his talents, Gernsbach had a way with naming things, like “television” and, after a false start or two, “science fiction.”
But soon the pulps were publishing new writers. Those stories often emphasized the wonders of new technologies (called “gadget fiction”) though sometimes their perils as well: a 1933 series in Wonder Stories depicted a future Earth depleted and ruined by pollution.
By 1938 there were more than 20 pulps publishing science fiction stories—from Astounding and Amazing and Astonishing Stories to Thrilling Wonder Stories, Future Fiction and Planet Stories. The ideas were exploding—and some may seem familiar. For example, the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories included “A Martian Odyssey” presenting a silicon based creature that ate sand and excreted bricks, which it used to build giant pyramids.
The writers responded by becoming “future-oriented, with the sense that the present was not the permanent center of everything: to them, the future was a real place. It was three-dimensional.”
To make these futures “real,” Campbell urged his writers (who would eventually include names like Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, Van Vogt and Lester Del Rey) to imagine the social implications of new technologies.
He urged them to question their assumptions based on the present or even prior science fiction. “’Yes, but’ was one of his favorite openings to a discussion,” Del Rey recalls. Campbell “had no desire to ‘bring science fiction into the mainstream,’ Del Rey observed. “But he was totally serious about the fact that science fiction was the only fiction that dealt fully with modern reality.”
As he recalled years later, Gene Roddenberry became aware of the science fiction pulps when he befriended a classmate who was unpopular because of his physical ailments. Gene also had experienced health problems. His new friend shared with him his treasure trove of magazines with titles like Astounding and Amazing. (While Gene’s health improved in adolescence, he recalled that this boy died at 16.)
One aspect of science fiction that appealed to the young in the 1930s (said classic sci-fi writer Frederik Pohl) was the evident failures in society in the midst of technological success—these stories spoke to that discrepancy.
Gene added such science fiction to his omnivorous reading. Out on his porch, he might sprawl on an old couch with a stack of crackers held together with peanut butter, and read for hours in the soft air and sharp light of a southern California afternoon.
There were also books that provided shorter illustrated versions of classic stories like Gulliver’s Travels. A series in twelve sturdy volumes called My Book House began appearing in the 1930s—it collected verse and stories, from nursery rhymes and fairy tales to longer adventures and stories about many cultures.
Later in his adolescence Gene might lose himself in the pulps and the science fiction novels, along with Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn and other tales of adventure. Though King Solomon’s Mine was made into a movie in 1937 and She in 1935, the original late 19th century novels by H. Rider Haggard were perennial favorites with young readers—tales of exploration that include elements of the mystical and philosophical (it was in She that the phrase "the heart of darkness" first appeared.)
The adventure tale, the hero’s journey, the tests of courage, perception and integrity; the voyage to the unknown, the romance of encounters with strange new worlds: all the themes that run through these classic stories were the backbone of the better science fiction, newly available in the 1930s. This was the first generation that absorbed them all together in their formative years. To their eager eyes and open imaginations, it was all new.
The books that stretched young imaginations often had lasting and formative effects. Young Isaac Asimov, devouring the same pulp magazines as Roddenberry, recalled that he read them in “vivid and agonizing transport because I wanted to be part of the story and couldn’t.” These stories “ravished my soul and opened it to a music of the spheres that few can hear.”
Or the writer Henry Miller remembering his youth a couple of generations earlier, as a reader of H. Rider Haggard, which he shared with his blood brothers in a secret hillside cave. “These books were part of our Spartan discipline, our spiritual training.” In the 1960s, when the first moonshots were planned, he wrote: “Our children have already voyaged far beyond the moon. They are ready, at a moment’s notice, to take off for Vega—and beyond.”
“Something so absurd as a boyhood book momentarily captures the mind and never quite releases it,” a character muses in a novel by Jim Harrison. But these books spoke not only to boys.
And the young Margaret Atwood, hiding from homework in the basement by reading H. Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells in old volumes forgotten by her father.
They were responding to the age-old fascination of stories. “Let us worship the spine and its tingle," Vladimir Nabokov remarked. "That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science."
For young Gene, these stories from the palaces of imagination could inform the dramas invented and acted out with his brother and sister and neighborhood friends on the grassy, wooded hill behind his house. Or they might be the subject of his reveries while feeding the chickens in the backyard or the rabbits hiding in their hutch.
Some stories might also inspire other reveries. Los Angeles in the 1930s was still a city of clean air, so from his house on the many sunny days, he could see distant mountains. And on clear nights, the immense black sky was layered with stars, thin carpets of them strewn in glowing white waves, while others seemed nearer, and boldly bright. He could watch them and wonder.
But beyond the movies, the radio show, comics and science fiction pulps, a vision of the future—in three dimensions and physical form—would fascinate the nation at a moment of impending peril. That vision will complete this tour of the 1930s, next time.