When National Screen Service came to collect the rented poster and drop off the one for The Sunshine Boys, we claimed Blazing Saddles had been torn and, for a small fee, we collected it: easy to do in the 1970’s, but nearly impossible in the earlier decades of the twentieth century.
That particular poster was a one-sheet (27" x 41"), half the size of the two-sheets (41" x 54") that fit our giant poster cases. Four of those cases line the wall opposite the box office windows, red and white to match the foyer’s chandelier. The first case always contained the main feature, with a card in elegant script, Now Showing. The middle case housed the second feature if there was one — Also Showing— and the last two cases offered glimpses of Coming Attractions.
Some of our coming attractions never actually came — there was a certain amount of dreaming associated with booking movies. We even went so far as to rent trailers for movies we never had any intention of showing. What could you do if in your heart you really wanted to show The Wizard of Oz but the neighborhood wanted Towering Inferno?
Prior to 1939, when Oz first came out, movies and their posters generally belonged to the distributor — Warner Brothers, etc. — and arrived, often enough, at the Greyhound Bus Station in most small towns as one package, overnighted via bus from the previous small town theater. Under no circumstances could the theater operator collect or give to patrons a beloved poster, because the next theater needed it.
For collectors this explains why pre-1940 one-sheets and two-sheets are so rare. For the most part, only “window cards” (14" x 22”) liberally distributed to shopfronts around a downtown area and not re-collected, remain to show us Claudette Colbert or Jean Harlow.
In 1940, the National Screen Service took over the advertising wing of the movie business, and by the seventies there were plenty of posters, making it possible for me to snatch that Blazing Saddles one-sheet — and a few other things besides. To make things even more convenient for collectors of the future, those posters bore an NSS Identifying Number bottom border on the right — which makes it possible to verify their authenticity.
Like so much else in the industry that surrounded movie palaces and other single-screen houses, with the advent of multi-screen theaters, NSS lost much of its business beginning in the mid eighties and finally disappeared — bought out by Technicolor — a few years after the Millennium. Multiplexes, for one thing, discouraged all but the smaller one-sheets, given the lack of space for coming attractions.
A few weeks ago, at our favorite Manhattan multiscreen theater, I joined Dean, who was mesmerized by what turned out to be the “posters” for film after film, flashing by, all on a ($70,000) Plasma screen: Coming Soon, Coming This Christmas, Now Showing, and, of course, the inevitable Starts Wednesday.
1. Speaking of Blazing Saddles, Cleavon Little, (seen rearing on the palomino) was not Mel Brooks’ first choice for Sheriff Bart. If the studio heads had trusted Richard Pryor, it would have been an entirely different movie... Little, however, was perfect in the role, lending his character charisma, tinged with irony. He died in 1983 of colon cancer and is remembered primarily for his role in the Brooks farce.
2. And while I’m thinking about Blazing Saddles, which happens to be a movie about racial bigotry produced and directed by a white man, HBO Max has seen fit recently to give it some “context.” They did the same thing with GWTW, although the two movies hardly belong in the same category, as one glories in racism, while the other calls it constantly into question.
2. National Screen Service also dominated the trailer industry for the better part of the last century, beginning in 1919.