Vintage TV: The CBS Late Movie
Starting in the late ’70s, my brother and I got sent to Camp Grandma in southwestern Michigan for a couple weeks every summer. The rules were extremely relaxed at Camp Grandma. Pepsi and Vernors and my brother’s beloved root beer flowed freely, and Grandma always bought Pringles and Lucky Charms and Slim Jims and all sorts of other junk food we got very little of at home. We’d sit up late with our grandparents every night, playing penny-ante poker or Kismet and listening to their stories of the Depression and the fabulous 50s until Grandma’s Gallo (from the gallon jug with the screw cap) and Grandpa’s Pabst Blue Ribbon got the better of them. Then we’d roll out our sleeping bags in front of the TV and watch until all the stations had signed off. Those were great days.
The late-night-TV pickings were slim in those days when there were few choices beyond CBS, NBC, and ABC. The networks gave it up at 12:30 or 1 a.m. and most of their stations just signed off. WKZO, Channel 3 in Kalamazoo, sometimes ran a late-late show, if I remember right. Independent WUHQ, Channel 41 from Battle Creek, always did, if memory serves, but we couldn’t pull it in unless the sky was clear and Grandpa’s antenna rotator was working. Weather and antenna usually determined our bedtime, actually! A few times, we were still up when Grandpa made his way to the coffee pot at 5:30.
We always looked forward to the CBS Late Movie, which started right after the news. It ran lots of B and made-for-TV movies in the mid 70s, including monster movies on Friday nights. But by the late 70s, the CBS Late Movie showed more and more crime-drama reruns, which were sped up by 10 percent and crammed so full of commercials that the shows ran 70 minutes instead of 60. We preferred the movies, but could be happy with good action and suspense in Hawaii Five-O, Quincy, M.E., or Kolchak: the Night Stalker.
What made the CBS Late Movie so cool was its open and bumpers. The opening theme’s vigorous horns triggered anticipation of gritty drama to come. The colors in the star and spinning wheel popped against the black background, and there was nothing like it in prime time. Here’s how the program opened one night late in August, 1982.
Because this bumper was transferred from the 35 mm masters, you can see how colorful these elements were. This particular bumper was used in and out of commercials, and the announcer would say either “We will return to” or “We now return to” followed by the movie name and its stars. The music sounded lonesome, which seemed appropriate for watching in the dark in the middle of nowhere.
The CBS Late Movie theme is called So Old, So Young, composed by Morton Stevens, who wrote lots of television music in his time. Here it is, from my collection.
In the summer of 1985, the CBS Late Movie ditched these elements for CBS’s then-current prime-time movie look and theme. The program was also renamed to CBS Late Night. David Letterman, filled with mock indignation over the slight to his program, then on NBC and also named Late Night, called CBS during his program one night, demanding to know why they were infringing on his territory. I saw that bit back then, and it made me laugh. That almost made up for losing that classic theme and graphics. At least until YouTube brought them back.