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Chicago TV Flashback: Memories Of 'The 3:30 Movie'

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 24, 2015 2:45PM

I am a firm believer that movies should be seen unedited, commercial free, in the correct aspect ratio, and with the best picture quality possible. But the truth is that my passion for film was largely formed with all these qualities totally absent.

Yes, young millennials, there was a time before streaming, before cable and satellite—hell, before home video—when dinosaurs roamed the earth and commercial television was the only way to watch movies at home. Movies were chopped to pieces to fit time slots, squeeze in as many commercials as possible and censor FCC-deemed inappropriate content. All widescreen movies were panned-and-scanned to fit the average TV screen size of the era and well-worn transfers of well-worn prints were the norm.

And, at the risk of sounding like Dana Carvey's grumpy old man, we liked it. God forgive us, it was all we knew.

As it was for countless Chicago area grade-schoolers of my generation, WLS-TV channel 7's "The 3:30 Movie" was my salvation from Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island reruns when I got home from school. Of course I watched that crap too. I mean, what else was I going to do? Read a book? Play outside?

Ad from The Chicago Sun-Times' "TV Prevue," February 23-March 1, 1975.

Late afternoon movies had been a staple on channel 7 going back to the early '60s, though "The 3:30 Movie" officially premiered in 1968. The occasional schedule shakeup aside, it ran almost consistently until 1984, moving up a half-hour to become "The 3:00 Movie" during later years. For me, the show was a frequent after-school ritual from the late '70s to the early '80s.

The time slot was 90 minutes, including commercials, which meant even shorter, older features would be pretty well hacked to fit a single day's showing. Movies with an original running time closer to the two-hour mark or longer were often shown over two afternoons. Even then, the station's editor went at the flicks like a crazed butcher.

Films of all varieties from the station's considerable library played on "The 3:30 Movie," but at some point, the ratings must have shown that kids were the biggest part of the audience. Horror, science fiction and fantasy became more and more prominent. I cannot express how damned exciting it was at age 9 or 10 when the station would show an entire week of Planet of the Apes movies, or when a fantasy epic like Jason and the Argonauts hit the airwaves. Even channel 7's opening graphics and music made it seem like an event.

Weeks were also devoted to the Frankie and Annette beach party movies, westerns, Don Knotts comedies and Hitchcock films, among many themed groupings. And a fair amount of made-for-TV stuff was shown as well. For a pre-adolescent me, that was great when the original Night Stalker TV movie was shown; not so great when nearly two full weeks were given over to the Rich Man, Poor Man mini-series.

My love affair with Hammer horror films really began with channel 7. Thanks to overly-tired parents who didn't enforce a bedtime, I would stay up to watch Hammer flicks on the station's late night weekend movie programs, but "The 3:30 Movie" would deliver the Cushing and/or Lee goods occasionally as well.

It wasn't all monsters and talking apes for me, however. Mutilated as the showings may have been, "The 3:30 Movie" or "3:00 Movie" provided my first viewings of Key Largo, To Sir With Love, Cooley High, The Lords of Flatbush and other movies that gave me a glimpse into a more adult view of the world.

As a cinephile, I am thankful at-home viewing options have increased and greatly improved over the decades. But back then, I didn't know what I was missing and local television was the flawed but essential source that got me hooked. So, thank you "3:30 Movie"...even those station editors with the chainsaw technique.

The Museum of Classic Chicago Television website has a few snippets of "3:30 Movie" segments and though categorized under "The 3:00 Movie," offers what looks like a pretty thorough listing of nearly all the movies shown during both time slots.