King Kong, The City, and Thanksgiving
by James H. Burns
This week marks the anniversary of when many New Yorkers were first introduced to King Kong, and the picture's heady blend of romance, adventure, and a giant gorilla.
For over ten years, beginning in the early 1970s, King Kong was shown by Channel 9 (the former WOR-TV), on Thanksgiving -- making the movie one of the Tri-State area's more unusual holiday traditions.
Of course, Kong had been a smash from its very beginning, opening exclusively in Manhattan on March 2, 1933, at Radio City Music Hall, and two blocks south at its smaller twin, the RKO New Roxy (combining for a per-screening capacity of almost ten thousand seats).
King Kong had been successfully rereleased to theatres, several times before debuting on television in 1956.
WOR bought King Kong for its afternoon film program, The Million Dollar Movie, which would air the same film every day for a week, sometimes more than once a day. (There were children, and adults, who would watch The Million Dollar Movie every day.)
For youngsters, there was a bonus. Kong had become a window to a second wonderland, a Manhattan now nearly as mythical as anything found on Kong's Skull Island; a New York known to many only from family memories, if that.
The fascination with Kong was something many parents shared with their children in front of the once-upon-a-time glow of a black-and-white TV. It was not uncommon for three generations of Kong fans to huddle on or in front of the couch and watch the movie together.
WOR's Thanksgivings soon included the sequel Son of Kong (shot and released later in the same year as its predecessor), and 1949's Mighty Joe Young, another picture about a mighty, stop-motion-animation ape by Kong's creators. (Channel 9 also threw Godzilla into the mix, and in 1977 added a post-Thanksgiving Friday marathon of Japanese monster flicks.)
Kong was still the big draw, though. Perhaps its weird, handmade special effects, with the intimacy of television adding to the alchemy, registered particularly in the subconscious.
Although the King Kong festivals ended in 1985, the movie's subsequent TV ratings and video sales remained strong. Though made six years after the advent of "talkies," Kong kept exhilarating to viewers even into the age of the CGI blockbuster.
For many of us raised in or near New York City, the scent of a simmering holiday dinner will instantly, and forever, conjure images of another enchanted isle.