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Art / History / Nostalgia

Michigan man first to shout "Shazam!" on silver screen back in 1941

by Kurt J. Kolka

 

Today, many people are awaiting the premiere of the movie "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" on March 25, which was partially filmed in Detroit and Lansing.

 

However, there are others alive who will remember the first time a superhero appeared on the silver screen, where the actor portraying him came from the metro Detroit area.

 

Seventy-five years ago, in March of 1941, the first cinematic superhero came to the silver screen in the "Adventures of Captain Marvel," a 12-chapter adventure, courtesy of Republic Pictures. The serial was extremely successful in 1941 and is still considered today to be one of the greatest serials of all time. And the man who brought the superhero to life was former Hamtramck resident, Tom Tyler.

 

Born Vincent Markowski in 1903, Tyler came to Hamtramck with his family at age 15. He had been born in Port Henry, N.Y., home of a movie studio, Arctic City, where the famous, early movie serial, "The Perils of Pauline," had been filmed. During high school, he became involved in athletics and weight-lifting.

 

After graduation, Tyler worked for a short time at the Dodge Main plant. Then, while competing in an athletic contest at the Martha Washington Theater in Hamtramck, Tyler was approached by a Hollywood talent scout who told him to give Hollywood a try and he'd provide him with some names.

 

Borrowing some money from his younger sister Molly, Tyler set out for Hollywood with his friend, Emil Karkoski. In Denver, Karkoski decided to turn back and return home. Tyler went on without him.

 

Tyler began in B Westerns in 1924, changing his name to Tyler after the first few films. By the time his fourth movie was released, "Let's Go, Gallagher," he was playing lead roles. In 1939, he appeared in both "Gone With the Wind," John Ford's "Stagecoach" and as the mummy in Universal's "The Mummy's Hand" in 1940.

 

"By 1940, he was the biggest western star in America," says Greg Kowalski, Chairman of the Hamtramck Historical Commission. "At one point, he was bigger than Roy Rogers."

 

It was with more than 100 movies under his belt that, in 1940, he was chosen to play the role of Captain Marvel. Originally Republic Studios had intended to produce a Superman serial, but when negotiations broke down, producers turned to the owners of the Man of Steel's biggest comic book competitor.

 

Captain Marvel had only been appearing in comic books for several months when Republic purchased rights to the character. But, after, the serial was made, Captain Marvel, went on to become the character with the largest comic book circulation during the 1940s, even beating out Superman.

 

Critics say it was a combination of the cast, its mystery villain (not revealed until the end), stunt work and the special effects by the Lydecker brothers which created the right combination to make the serial such a success. Even after its initial release in 1941, it would be rereleased in 1953 and during the Batman craze in 1966.

 

"Most viewers thought Tom Tyler was great as Captain Marvel," said co-star Frank Coughlan, Jr. in an interview with P.C. Hamerlinck in 1993. Coughlan played Captain Marvel's alter ego, teenager Billy Batson. Even after appearing in more than 400 films, Coughlan said his fans best remember him for his role in that one serial.

 

"Tom was very quiet and reserved," said another co-star, Louise Currie, in her 1996 interview with Hamerlinck. "I thought he handled the part quite well. He was nice, kind and cooperative."

 

"I was 12 or 13 when I first saw the 'Adventures of Captain Marvel,'" says actor/director Jackson Bostwick, who played Captain Marvel in the 1970s TV program SHAZAM!. "I saw Chapter One at a local theater on the same bill as the original 'War of the Worlds' for a 10-cent ticket price. The flying sequences are amazing. From then on I was hooked. It had everything going for it -- action, adventure and a superhero that’s fun to follow.

 

"I appreciate the serial even more, today. And seeing it in black and white lends more to its stark reality than if it had been shot in color. Think of the effect that the Tarzan movies had with Johnny Weissmuller, as the Ape Man, being shot in black and white. Color would have diluted that 'Noir' effect. Hitchcock knew this, when he filmed, 'Psycho.'"

 

Coughlan and Curry both described Tyler as very shy. His shyness, however, did not stop him from reaching out to others.

 

"During his career, when he was big in Hollywood, he would come back here," says Kowalski. "He would meet with the local kids and have cake and cookies with them. He was a big hero to the kids.

 

"The St. Anne's Community House was one place he would meet with kids. We had a couple of community houses here in Hamtramck and they were basically settlement homes for immigrants. He was very community-minded."

 

Tyler went on to appear in another 47 movies after Captain Marvel and some episodes of TV shows.

 

Unfortunately, his career was brought down early by scleroderma, a fatal and crippling disease. He returned to Michigan in 1953 where he stayed with his sister, Katherine Slepski, and her family in Detroit. Tyler passed away on May 3, 1954 at St. Francis Hospital, just three months before his fifty-first birthday. He is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Detroit.

 

While Tyler may not be as well remembered today as he once was, his contributions to early Hollywood are chronicled forever on film. And like Captain Marvel, he was a humble, daring hero to millions of film-goers from the 1920s and into the '50s, and even today through DVDs.

Rialto, Stancil family legacy part of Grayling’s long history

By Kurt J. Kolka  (Published April 20, 2017)

 

Keeping a family business going under the same family for 102 years is almost unheard of today. In Grayling, however, Rialto Theater has marched along with the community, becoming part of its long history.

 

George Olsen purchased the theater, then called the Grayling Opera House (established in 1882), from its previous owner in 1915. Olsen was an accountant for a lumber company back then and the theater was a side business.

 

His wife, Leelah, would accompany the silent films with a piano. However, if a big motion picture came in, the scores would be performed by Ed Clark and his orchestra.

 

On Easter weekend of April 1930, the theater caught fire. Olsen rushed back in when he couldn’t find the projectionist in the crowd outside. Once in, he found the projectionist gone and managed to rescue the next movie to be shown, “Anna Christie,” featuring Greta Garbo. He was badly burned.

 

Olsen’s grandson, George Stancil, says in those days the film used was made of celluloid nitrate which was highly combustible. Later, the film industry learned how to make it fireproof.

 

Amazingly, an architect from Detroit was brought in and the new theater was up and running three months after the fire.

 

Originally, there was no concession stand. Attendees could smoke but not eat or drink inside. Eventually, in the ’40s, Olsen allowed the concessions in. Also, during the ’40s, the new marquee was installed and the outside took on the appearance locals are familiar with today.

 

Olsen’s daughter, Georgianna and her husband Thomas “Tommy” Stancil, later inherited the business. During that time, their son George Stancil began working there at the age of eight.

 

“I remember during the ’50s and into the early ’60s, in the summer, the National Guard would come up either by train or by bus,” says George Stancil. “They weren’t allowed to bring their own cars. On the weekends or at night, the buses would bring them into town and there wasn’t much to do. They’d start lining up here at noon and we’d fill the place up and another bus would come along to drop more off. They didn’t seem to care what was on.”

 

Another event which stands out in George’s mind is from 1972.

 

“The movie, ‘Deliverance,’ had a shadow premiere here. We played it here at the same time as the world premiere in Atlanta. The only reason we were able to do that was because the author of the book, James Dickie, was a big fan of archery and a big, big fan of Fred Bear. Fred came to the premiere and employees of Bear Archery got in for free. That was a lot of fun.”

 

George bought the theater from his parents in 1982.

 

Much has changed just since then.

 

There used to be a company called the National Screen Service in numerous cities around the country. They handled part supplies for movie theaters. Everything from projection parts to chairs, notes George.

 

There was also a central exchange for films. This company would handle repairs to the films and send them on to the next theater.

 

“It’s entirely different now,” says George. “Now we have this code we enter through our computer. And this site downloads the film into a hard drive in our equipment. It even knows at what times the movies are supposed to play at our theater and when its run ends here.”

 

Today, George’s son, Jordan Stancil, owns the theater and George just helps out.

 

George remains excited by the fact that the theater’s history parallels that of Grayling for more than a century and enjoys being part of the community.

 

“There a sense of community here in Grayling — a cohesiveness — which other communities don’t have. We haven’t exploded with growth like other communities, say Gaylord, has. That changes the nature and character of a town. We have growth and we have progress here, but it seems to be on a more manageable level.”

 

“I think maybe, to a greater extent, older families have stayed here. My great-grandfather came here in 1876. It’s amazing how many families have stayed on. And I know a lot of people my age who are coming back here to retire now.”

 

In recent years, the Rialto has been renovated and continues to be. George is looking forward to creating a new concession stand in the near future.

 

“Old downtown, single-screen theaters are a challenge anymore,” says George, “but we’re looking forward to the next 102 years.”