Vintage Television

Vintage TV: The CBS Late Movie

I mentioned this post recently here and decided it’s high time to rerun it. It’s an oldie, originally published in August, 2008.

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 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.

Me at Camp Grandma, 1977

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 1950s until Grandma’s Gallo wine (from the gallon jug with the screw cap) and Grandpa’s Pabst Blue Ribbon got the better of them. Then my brother and I would roll out 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 then. 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 show. If skies were clear and Grandpa’s antenna rotator was working, we’d try to bring in independent WUHQ, Channel 41 from Battle Creek; they almost always had a late show. Weather and antenna usually determined our bedtime, actually! Once or twice we were still watching TV 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 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, as we did.

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.


15 thoughts on “Vintage TV: The CBS Late Movie

  1. That was sweet, especially the part about still being up when the next day started for your grandfather. :) I’d forgotten about the CBS Late Movie till you reminded me. Ah, the pleasures of the night… before “the pleasures of the night”, I mean. ;)

    I was 13 when I started seriously sailing the seas past midnight on my own. Summertime, of course. The big one for me was a local independent station in Toronto, Channel 47 CFMT. “Chuck the Security Guard” would come on, do a running dialog with his unseen camera man, “Ryerson”, which was utterly unscripted and part of the charm of feeling it was “real”. They’d show classic television, weird animations, unusual commercials, and even 70s proto-music videos. That’s the show where I caught up on so many cultural references. The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Fugitive, McHale’s Navy, The Phil Silvers Show, etc., etc. Stuff I would have seen first-run if I’d been 10 years older. It was a real treasure box.

    Things went south for the show financially after a couple of years and the producer bulk-erased the tapes. Almost nothing of the show survives except what viewers captured with early VCRs. Some of it’s made its way to YouTube. Makes me smile. You might enjoy a couple of minutes of it. (My word, but commercials were corny in 1980…)

    • Chuck the Security Guard sounds like great fun! Did you have the local horror-movie shows hosted by local people dressed as ghouls? In Indianapolis there was Sammy Terry; in Chicago there was Svengoolie.

      So much TV was lost to bulk erasing or reusing of tape. :-(

      • I don’t think we had anyone around here with the nerves to put on a costume and do that. The closest I remember was Joe Flaherty sending them up as “Count Floyd” on SCTV. On the other end of things, though, I remember Tom Jolls (“joles”), the weatherman on ABC’s WKBW in Buffalo, was also kids’ show host Commander Tom for nearly 30 years, and thanks to him I saw a lot of old kids’ shows and early animation I missed out on somehow when I lived in Nova Scotia. I’m closing in on 50 these days and I still think his red uniform looks cool. :)

        • Heh, yeah! I grew up with Chicago television, so I watched Ray Rayner in the morning and sometimes Frazier Thomas with Garfield Goose, or BJ and the Dirty Dragon. Great stuff.

  2. Traverse City had Don Melvoin as Count Zapula hosting all the horror flicks you could watch. My mom loved it. Me…. I still have nightmares about one movie which features a runaway carriage racing down a hill at break neck speed, bouncing over the rough terrain. Though the rough terrain, on closer inspection, were the dead bodies left behind by the tenant of a dilapidated castle. There was at some point in the movie a drawning & quartering and there may have been a vampire. There was definitely a girl in a white dress trying to escape… hence the runaway carriage.

    • Ooh, yeah, that was the problem with the “creature feature” shows!

      One show I remember that actually played on prime-time NBC scared the bejabbers out of me. It was about this runaway car. Couldn’t sleep that night.

      • loneprimateinto says:

        Oh, was that The Car with James Brolin? I just found that on YouTube recently. It’s kind of silly if you’re an adult but there’s this part of you that never quite grows up, I guess, and it’s still kind of creepy because of that. A driverless car that comes out of the night, relentlessly, to run you over? The part of us that’s forever 8 years old loves that kind of scare. :)

    • The one that messed me up when I was 9 or 10 was an episode of Quincy in which Mexican illegals were dying of typhoid fever, being buried in shallow graves, and flooding was washing the infected bodies into the river. I remember this very creepy scene of a plain coffin scraping its way slowly along the rocks of a stream. Had me waking up in a panic. I didn’t help that my bedroom window in our summer cottage looked out into a grave yard. I somehow convinced myself my mattress was from Mexico and had typhoid bacteria in it. I drove my parents nuts all weekend. They came pretty close to banning me from watching Quincy. Lucky for Jack Klugman they relented. Where would have been without me? :)

  3. I watched those bumpers a lot, but mostly starting around 1974-76 before the ugly necessity of summer jobs.

    Fort Wayne had 3 main channels then and I would not go to sleep until all were safely off the air. All had some variation of a patriotic video montage backed up by the national anthem as the sign-off.

  4. George Denzinger says:

    Growing up near Youngstown, Ohio, we didn’t have our own “late night” host. We mostly saw whatever the network feeds were for the Big Three TV networks back in the 70’s. I remember the nightly sign offs, particularly when I would work afternoons at the restaurant and come home late. At least WJW TV Cleveland had Big Chuck and Lil John (when I moved there in the early 80’s) which ran all kinds of bad movies with skits interspersed. It was usually very good for a laugh after returning from the bars (successfully).

    Sometime we need to discuss the CBS Radio Mystery theater that ran on their AM stations. Again, great late night listening in the car when driving home from the afternoon shift of loading trucks…

    • There are clips of Big Chuck and Lil John on YouTube. Looks like a perfect show for its period. I used to sometimes listen to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater; it was almost always great.

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