After all of these years, producer Kroger Babb (1906–1980) is
still my number one idol. When I was ten years old, the nuns in Catholic
Sunday School (the Magdalene Sisters of film critics) would tell us
we would go to hell if we ever saw his “condemned” movie,
Mom and Dad. This phony sex education film
played on and off for many years in Baltimore, and its record-breaking
grosses at the Century Theater inspired my love of cinematic atrocities.
By showing the “actual birth of a baby,” you could legally
see a full-fledged vagina on screen for the first time. The horny men
in the audience just ignored the baby and concentrated on the pubic
hair. Birth as a masturbation aid seemed so new and exciting.
As a lunatic child, I would secretly pretend I owned a dirty movie
theater and would redesign the advertising campaign for Mom
and Dad in a much more lurid way and imagine the horror it would
cause in my parents’ neighborhood. Luckily, no adults ever found
my secret drawings of filthy ads. Wanting to run a sexploitation theater
when I grew up wasn’t an option on “career-day” in
my grade school. It would have been hard to explain.
Kroger taught me cinematic defiance. He paid fake nurses $2 an hour
to sell sex education pamphlets up and down the aisles of Mom
and Dad. He’d “four-wall” (rent out) theaters
and segregate the audience by sex: women admitted only in the afternoon,
men at night. It’s rumored that Mr. Babb had employees release
nauseous gas from the theater vents so when ticket buyers would faint,
the press would have photos of “shocked patrons” being carried
out of Mom and Dad. In unsuspecting neighborhoods,
he’d blare come-on ads from loudspeakers mounted on the top of
cruising cars. According to writer Rick Trembles, Kroger even married
an Indianapolis theater critic named Mildred Horn who had complained
to a local exhibitor about playing such a “cheap, mislabeled morality
play.” They stayed together for the rest of their lives.
Kroger’s response to the Catholic outcry against his films was
the smart-ass title Father Bingo, and I wish
to this day I had seen it. Later he made a movie called One
Too Many, and it was mainly shown at AA meetings. He finally
announced plans to film The Best is Yet to Come
with an ad-line that promised “All there is to know about cancer.”
I still worship Kroger. I met the very nice man who now lives in the
Babb apartment. I have Kroger’s original business card and his
ballpoint pen with his engraved signature on it. Sometimes I pretend
I’m Kroger all day long.
Like Mr. Babb, I’m a carny at heart. One day I’m going
to buy a Tilt-A-Whirl. This classic amusement park ride costs $250,000,
which is fair, I guess; it’s the $65,000 shipping fee that makes
me balk. I’m told you can make a couple of dollars every minute
of every day and night this ride is “working.” Lie back,
do nothing, and collect money from supposedly normal people who pay
you to get on a machine that makes them feel like they are going to
throw up. Sounds like showbiz to me.