January 01, 2010

Miami, Summer, 1978 - two weeks, eight movies

An English teenage movie nut in disco-era Florida

In October last year, I travelled from London to Key West, revisiting three places from a family holiday over 30 years ago. While I struggled to find anything I could still recognise, my memories were jogged enough to remember my eight trips to the movies during that vacation. Because it had been exciting and unusual to be in a different country, the experience remained quite vivid in my memory, enough to present this snapshot of American movie-going in the summer of '78.

July 1978, my family spent over two weeks staying with friends in Miami. We did tourist stuff, visiting Key West, Disney World and Cape Kennedy (when the Space Shuttle was just starting to be tested out). But with time to kill in Miami, I was hunting around for movie stuff, comics and disco on vinyl (honestly), as well seeing as many movies as I could. Luckily I've kept hold of several newspapers to jog my memory.

There were no home videotapes of movies for sale back then. The only way to see new films was at the cinema, and everything in the US came out months in advance of the UK (I think the same prints had to travel around the States before Britain could have them). That summer, it was fun to go see movies far in advance of my friends, and without knowing much in advance. Going in cold, no spoilers.

In 1970s in the UK, a few large local cinemas had already been converted and split into 2 or 3 screens. But this trip to Miami was my first sight of a movie multiplex - a purpose-built cinema boasting a spectacular six screens - the 'Omni 6' in the Omni shopping mall on Biscayne Boulevard. I'll never forget seeing the large painted numbers counting across the foyer walls, each one leading to a different cinema. It was exciting to get this much choice in one place.

For that matter, I'd not even seen shopping malls before. The idea of living in one building, restaurants, shops, even hotels and apartments, meant you never had to go outside again. The Omni Mall fired my imagination, it was perfect for The Omega Man, or anyone facing the Dawn of the Dead. My favourite store was an early type of Gadget Store, selling optical fibre lamps and the touch-tone game 'Simon', which I wanted but couldn't afford.

So, what to see? My first priority was to see Jaws 2. Sequels were rare, and I fully expected this to be as good as the first. Jaws had been huge, they wanted Jaws 2 to be huge too. There were full-page press ads and posters everywhere. Plus T-shirts and books (the novelisation and a making of paperback). Hardly a wealth of merchandising, but it wasn't yet a big money-making machine. 

The exception being Star Wars stuff, which was still selling well from the previous year's release - with T-shirts, poster magazines and trading cards. It was exciting, offered new thrills, but not as good as the first. I still got my money's worth - not everyday you see someone swallowed whole or a shark attacking a helicopter! There's a full review of my updated take on Jaws 2 here.

The only real horror film I caught was Damien: Omen II, another big sequel that was less impressive than the first film. Despite a great cast, the murderous set-pieces that provided so many shocks in the original were largely absent here. The actor playing Damien wasn't even as creepy as the little boy in the first. But it was certainly glossier than many thrillers and horrors of the decade.

My favourite movie of the holiday was Animal House, the first movie from National Lampoon. Even now, we still don't get Saturday Night Live on British TV. Back then, we didn't get National Lampoon magazine either. So I went to see National Lampoon's Animal House purely on the strength of the funny newspaper ads that all featured John Belushi. 

I didn't know who he was or recognise anyone else in the cast, except Donald Sutherland. I knew the director, John Landis, from Kentucky Fried Movie, which had been a big hit in Britain.

During National Lampoon's Animal House I laughed myself stupid and took to heart the cast and the characters. It was fast-paced, every scene was funny, edgy, and suggestively and explicitly ruder than any US comedy I'd seen. I pounced on the tie-in book, a fantastic large-format paperback that told the story in the many layout styles of National Lampoon magazine (pictured) - a mix of cartoon and text, double-page satirical artwork and photos from the film - one of the most creative and enjoyable movie tie-ins I've seen, and it was only available in the US. Of course, I saw the movie again when it finally got its UK release.

While Animal House was my first experience of John Belushi, a trailer for Foul Play was my first sight of Chevy Chase. I didn't know who he was but he was instantly funny. I knew Goldie Hawn from Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and director Colin Higgins from Silver Streak. But Foul Play launched both Chase and Hawn into a string of movie comedy hits, as well as Dudley Moore, who is only a minor character. His own megahits Arthur and 10 soon followed.

Foul Play is a fast-paced comedy that's also a homage to Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, with plenty of physical comedy and some fairly adult gags (the old ladies playing swearword scrabble and Dudley's penthouse full of sextoys). It's very daft and very seventies, a mainstream summer comedy hit typical of the time. The opening song, written for the film by Barry Manilow, 'Ready To Take A Chance Again', is probably better remembered than the film itself.

I'd loved Return of the Pink Panther and The Pink Panther Strikes Again, so I couldn't miss Revenge of the Pink Panther, and this time I went with my parents. In a packed cinema, we watched the entire comedy without hearing much of the dialogue, the audience completely drowned it out with laughter. We were used to hearing Peter Sellers' mangled accents and gags, but the American audience were way more vocal than the British, laughing so hard at the sight gags, pratfalls and stupid disguises that we couldn't hear it. Particularly mystifying to us was costume storeowner August Balls' bandaged hand continually flipping the bird - a hand signal that wasn't rude in Britain, as yet. Everyone fell about, but we didn't know why.

Besides seeing these new releases in the Omni cineplex, recent hits were being held over in older cinemas spread all over Miami, some at half the price of the multiplex. I travelled around to catch Hooper, Capricorn One and Grease. I also thankfully passed on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait, Disney's The Cat From Outer Space and The Swarm. Also wisely avoided Lee Majors as The Norseman, but was tempted by the great poster for Slithis (still haven't caught that). Somehow missed The Eyes of Laura Mars but hey, I did my best. Strangely, there were already full-page ads trailing Meteor for the following year.

I missed most of the sexual wordplay in Grease, not knowing much Stateside sexual slang. But I was one of the oldest in the audience, apart from the parents with really young kids - I guess they missed it all too (in the UK it was released in cinemas with an 'A' certificate warning, but now carries a much higher and restrictive '15', now the censors know what the dialogue all means). It was hugely popular at the time, with young teens seeing it again, mainly because of the many hit singles still riding high in the charts.

But the Grease take on High School nostalgia was miles away from Animal House and far cheesier. The much funnier Animal House set me up with a raucous mindset for my own impending trip to a college campus, where we actually had toga parties and food fights, not because it was a tradition, but because we loved the film.

Capricorn One was exciting even though the cinema was almost empty that afternoon, the temperature was in the 90's outside, and there were only four of us in the theater. One cliffhanger was so exciting that the one guy down in the front stood up and cheered. I'd expect that at a football game surrounded by thousands of others, but in an empty cinema it was very impressive. I think I saw this at the Regency Cinema on Lincoln Street. We took a look it and the foyer looked familiar - I also found a 1978 newspaper ad that said it had played there.

I then sought out Hooper because I used to catch every Burt Reynolds movie. Smokey and the Bandit, The Cannonball Run (and sequels) guaranteed spectacular car stunts if nothing else, but Hooper proved to be my favourite of his non-serious roles. As a stuntman himself, the film is a homage to this dangerous and unsung profession, showcasing every stunt technique in the game, while gently satirising movie-making. Regular co-star Sally Field, a pre-Airwolf Jan-Michael Vincent and a cameo from Adam West added to the fun.

Of course I went to Miami Beach as well, tempted by the chance to swim in the actual Bermuda Triangle. I avoided the deeper water because I'd just seen Jaws 2.

31 years later, Miami has completely changed. I didn't recognise any of Biscayne Boulevard or Downtown. The Omni Mall has been closed down for years, currently annexed to a Hilton Hotel. It may yet rise again! I was delighted to catch a glimpse of it again
after all these years (I grabbed this photo from a moving car).

The Miami Seaquarium was the only other place that I recognised, where a time warp has kept the Flipper dolphin show playing (I must have seen one of the original Flipper dolphins when I first saw the show in 1973). It's still cool to visit as a retro experience, because the Flipper TV series were recognisably shot there. We were told that one of the dolphins and one of the manatees had been there since my last visit in 1978 - which I find quite astonishing.

(As you may have guessed, the records, books and newspaper clippings are all actual mementos of the trip).


  1. Fantastic story man! What a memory! I still think that Foul Play holds up pretty well, and Hooper is one of my favorite Burt-movies (together with Sharky's Machine).

  2. great story! must have been a very intense experience to visit a place you've been to 30 years before...especially when having such fond memories!
    after reading this i was trying to remember if i had any cinematic experiences other than the ones i had when living/growing up in germany. i think the only time i've ever been to the pictures in another country was when i was travelling in brasil in 1995....i went to see pulp fiction,luckily not dubbed ,just with portugese subtitles....the whole cinema was involved in the movie..yelling,screaming,laughing...never had such an experience in germany or australia...

  3. When I visited cinema in Swiss I was surprised because they had an ice cream-break in the middle of the movie! Everybody stood up and went to buy ice cream.

    The cinemas in Thailand are the coldest I've ever visited.

  4. I know what you mean about Thailand! We went to the posh one in Bangkok's Paragon centre and they hand out blankets!

    I forgot to mention that I'd just been swimming when I went to see Hooper and was really looking forward to getting the taste of sea water out of my mouth. That's when I tried salted popcorn for the first time! We only ever got toffee popcorn back home!

  5. i remember just before the movies started (in germany in the 80's) the lights went on and one of the cinema staff came in with a variety of ice cream yelling "who want's ice cream"

    funny....i have a friend over from switzerland sitting right next to me and he was in the paragon center cinema too,remembering the blankets.
    small world really...:-)
    cheers marty

  6. Ah, Foul Play. What a brilliant film.

    The only country I've been to besides the US is Thailand--I thought it was so cool that everybody stands while they honor the King before the film.

    As usual, your great writing brings back fond memories of my own.

  7. You're too kind, Dan. I really can't see my writing as cool. More like a badly remembered diary entry forcefed with movie trivia! I'm not fishing, by the way.

  8. Ah, we're always a lot harder on our own stuff than anyone else. ;-)