Kroger Babb's Roadshow

How a long-running movie walked the thin line between exploitation and education.

"ONCE IN A LIFETIME Comes A Presentation That TRULY PULLS NO PUNCHES! Now YOU Can SEE The Motion Picture That DARES DISCUSS and EXPLAIN SEX AS NEVER BEFORE SEEN and HEARD! THE ONE, THE ONLY, THE ORIGINAL...MOM AND DAD...Truly The World's Most Amazing Attraction! NO ONE UNDER HIGH SCHOOL AGE Admitted Unless Accompanied By Parents!! EVERYTHING SHOWN! EVERYTHING EXPLAINED!"

If you lived in a small town in the 1940s or '50s, it was virtually impossible not to know about a film called Mom and Dad. Sooner or later a flamboyant publicity man would drive into town, the ads would appear, and the tempestuous debate would begin. Plastered on every available storefront, barn, bus bench, and shoeshine stand was a poster seducing you with an attractive couple in mid-kiss and black bold-faced ballyhoo exploding all around them. And in a black box in the lower left-hand corner:

"Extra! IN PERSON: ELLIOT FORBES, 'THE SECRETS OF SENSIBLE SEX.'"

Alarmed letters to the editor would appear in the newspaper. Clergymen would express opinions from the pulpit. If you were Catholic, you'd be banned from attending. In some towns the police would send men to check the film for violations of the obscenity statutes. And as soon as the first women-only matinee was screened, at 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, the town would blaze with Mom and Dad gossip. Though all but forgotten today, Mom and Dad was so heavily promoted that Time once remarked that the ad campaign "left only the livestock unaware of the chance to learn the facts of life."

But this was not Hollywood promotion. In fact, Hollywood spent 20 years campaigning to get rid of movies like Mom and Dad. This was the last wave of the 19th-century medicine shows -- part biology lesson, part sideshow, part morality play, part medical "shock footage" -- and to this day many old-timers regard it as the purest and most successful exploitation film in history. It played continuously for 23 years, still booking drive-ins as late as 1977, and grossed an estimated $100 million.

Kroger Babb, who billed himself as "America's Fearless Young Showman," ruled over a vast army of Mom and Dad "roadshow units" from his headquarters in Worthington, Ohio. He used a form of exhibition that has all but disappeared today, called "fourwalling." Instead of booking his film into theaters for a percentage of the box office, he would simply rent the theater outright and take it over for the week or, in smaller markets, just one or two days. He would pay for all advertising and promotion, put his own banners and marquees out front, and turn the theater into a midway attraction, complete with lobby curiosities designed to lure customers. But because he was a pariah in Hollywood, he had to use independent mom-and-pop theaters that weren't part of the big chains like Paramount and RKO, and he had to fight censorship boards, police forces, judges, clergy, and outraged newspaper editors everywhere he went. The film was in 400 separate court proceedings during its run.

The Blowoff

Babb was an expert at creating a kind of mob psychosis that peaked at the moment the projector started to roll. Watching the film today, it's all but impossible to recreate the atmosphere of a capacity audience waiting breathlessly to see things they knew were forbidden and probably shocking. It was Babb's peculiar genius that he was able to evoke the emotions of a horror movie using what is actually one of the blandest, most formulaic stories ever concocted.

When the opening titles come up and the lush strings of the orchestra play the Mom and Dad theme music, the first thing you see is a type crawl:

"Foreword. Our story is a simple one! It happens every night, somewhere. It is the story of Joan Blake -- a sweet, innocent girl growing up in this fast moving age. The temptations which she faces are as old as Time itself. But Joan is no better fortified against them than was the girl of yesteryear, because her mother -- like many mothers -- still thinks that ignorance is a guarantee of virtue. 'IGNORANCE IS A SIN -- KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.' In this modern world Youth is entitled to a knowledge of Hygiene -- a complete understanding of the Facts of Life. Boys and girls of today aren't bad! But millions of them are becoming sexual delinquents and the victims of venereal disease, simply because they do not know the Full Truth about these subjects. This problem is a challenge to every Mom and Dad. If our story points the way to a commonsense solution...and saves one girl from unwed motherhood...or one boy from the ravages of social disease...it will have been well told! THE PRODUCERS."

This had two functions: to lessen the chance of obscenity prosecutions, and to make the film palatable to women. In fact, women tended to like the film more than men, who were often a little disappointed by the lack of sex and nudity.

The first hour of the movie was devoted to showing how a sweet and pretty young girl like Joan Blake could easily have her life ruined by pregnancy. She goes to a local dance, where she's swept off her feet by a handsome and worldly pilot who steals a kiss as they walk outside. They hold hands and make eyes at each other while watching a jitterbug contest, a torch singer, and a teenage acrobatic act -- all the usual padding found in exploitation films of the period. The next night he takes her to a smoky night club in his roadster, overwhelms her with sweet talk on a moonlit lover's lane, and convinces her that two people as much in love as this should definitely go all the way with it. Slow fade as the young lovers descend into the front seat.

Shortly thereafter the handsome pilot has to leave town on business, but he continues to write to her. When he mentions in one of his letters that it's been four weeks since he left, Joan suddenly becomes concerned. She checks her calendar and is obviously worried. She goes to her mother and asks if she has any "hygiene books," but her parent is flabbergasted by the request. "You're not married yet," says Mom.

A short time later Joan's father notices an article in the newspaper: A young man named Jack Griffith -- the pilot who took her virginity -- has been killed in a plane crash. Joan drops a dinner plate when she hears the news, goes to her room, tears up the love letter she's just written, and puts her head down on her desk.

At this point the film would stop entirely and the house lights would come up. Elliot Forbes, an "eminent sexual hygiene commentator," would stride onto the stage and deliver a 20-minute lecture on the need for openness in sex education, the morality of the times, the biology of the body, and what the community can do to avoid the ruination of its youth.

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