Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Attaboy, Luther!

I'm not sure how old I was when I first saw "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken."

I'm quite sure I didn't see it at the movie theater in my hometown. My parents liked Don Knotts, always enjoyed watching him on The Andy Griffith Show, but, for some reason, they didn't want me to spend money to see his movies at the movie theater — even if all my friends were going to see them.

As a result, I don't think I saw him in a movie at a movie theater until I was old enough to drive to the theater myself.

When I look back on my youth, I get the distinct impression that my social development may not have been everything it should have been. You see, my hometown (I've written about it here before) was rather small. It wasn't necessarily small by Arkansas standards — but, by the standards of other states, yes, Conway was small.

I didn't even grow up within the city limits. I grew up on a manmade lake, Lake Beaverfork, that was a few miles outside the city limits. In those days, there weren't many houses out there — I've been told there is a lot of development there now — and even fewer families with children my age.

Consequently, my circle of close friends, the ones I played with after school and during the summers, consisted of the kids who lived on that lake. Some were my age; most were not. My interactions with the kids in town were confined to the hours we were in school together. We seldom saw each other away from school.

And there weren't many places for young people to socialize in those days outside of school. As I have mentioned here before, my hometown has grown quite a bit since I was a child there, and I'm sure there are many more options for kids in Conway today.

There was no shopping mall in my hometown when I was young — just a strip mall that had an arcade, where a kid could go and spend several dollars in an evening playing the pinball machines and listening to popular tunes on the jukebox. Life's lessons in that environment consisted mainly of periodically going out into the tall grass next to the arcade and, under cover of darkness, sharing alcohol or the occasional joint with one's buddies.

There was the bowling alley/skating rink on the other side of town, which was where kids went to socialize on Friday and Saturday nights when they were in those awkward early adolescent years — and, occasionally, when I was still under the legal driving age, I managed to persuade my parents to take me there for an evening of trying to impress the opposite sex with my (mostly imagined) prowess at bowling and my ability to inhale cigarette smoke.

In those days, weekend evenings spent at the bowling alley/skating rink still qualified as rites of passage for just about everyone who grew up in my hometown. That is the kind of thing that is probably regarded as quaint by young people who live there today since, as I have said, I am sure they have many more options today.

Be that as it may, the bowling alley/skating rink played a major role in my formative years. And, so, too, did Don Knotts — in spite of my parents' efforts.

Why does "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" stand out in my memory? I'm not really sure. It came out in 1966 — and, in those days, my hometown was served by a single movie theater (not counting the drive–in on the outskirts of town that had a reputation, when I was in my teens, for showing R–rated B movies that tended to serve as the backdrop for young couples who were a lot more interested in each other than what was on the screen).

I was in first grade in 1966. It would be many years before I saw a movie at the drive–in.

Anyway, I know I didn't see that movie at the town theater, which had a reputation of its own. It wasn't at all unusual in those days for popular movies — and even the not–so–popular ones — to take a year or more to find their way to Conway.

There were other, more lucrative markets in Arkansas in those days — the state capitol, Little Rock, wasn't far away and first–run movies usually came there long before they came to Conway.

When I was growing up, if one wanted to see a movie while it was still the subject of dinner conversation everywhere else, you had to see it in Little Rock. By the time it got to Conway, it was certain to be yesterday's news — or, more accurately, last year's news.

I remember seeing "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" when I was spending the night at the home of one of my buddies. This friend, Larry, always appeared to be somewhat worldly to me, and it seemed I was always seeing comedies that made impressions on me when I was at his house.

It was at Larry's house, for example, that I first saw "The Fortune Cookie" — and, while everyone seems to think of other films when they think of Walter Matthau, I think of "The Fortune Cookie."

It brings back pleasant memories of childhood.

And so it was that one night when I was about 7 or 8, I was spending the night at Larry's and "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" came on. Larry's parents had adopted him when he was little, and they had lavished affection on him. He was the only kid I knew who had a TV in his bedroom, and he had a 10–speed bike long before anyone else.

Anyway, on this occasion, I remember sitting in Larry's room watching his TV, munching on chips and laughing at Knotts' bug–eyed physical comedy in an hilarious house of horrors — and his exaggerated nervousness when delivering his speech (punctuated by the off–screen shouts of "Attaboy, Luther!").

All things considered, there probably were worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

I didn't know it at the time, but Knotts' co–star, Joan Staley, had been a Playboy centerfold about eight years before she made "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken." She had to make it wearing a dark wig because the film's producers thought she was too sexy as a blonde.

Well, I guess you can judge that for yourself. You can see "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" on Turner Classic Movies tonight at 7 p.m. (Central).