To my surprise, I have made a point of keeping up with "Swingtown" during the past few weeks.
The characters in CBS' retro tale of suburban angst in the summer of '76 have grown on me. "Swingtown" benefits enormously from its solid cast, anchored by Molly Parker (pictured far left with costars Miriam Shor and Lana Parrilla) as Susan, a mother and housewife who is starting to come out of her hausfrau shell. Parker is one of those thesps who is engaging on screen in a very natural way. At her best, she makes you feel like you can read her character's thoughts.
Another big part of "Swingtown's" charm is the 'remember-when' aspect. For those of us old enough to remember all the the Bicentennial ballyhoo (and if you were remotely conscious, you can't forget it), the hubbub over Nadia Comaneci and her perfect 10s at the Montreal summer Olympics and Carter vs. Ford at the polls that year, "Swingtown" is an immediate fix of nostalgia for a bygone era that, of course, seems rosier in memory that it was in real time. That sentimental feeling increased by a factor of 100 for me in this past week's seg, "Go Your Own Way," which involved Susan defying her husband Bruce's wishes by attending a fundraiser for the legal defense of the star of "Deep Throat."
To make up her mind, Susan goes to see "Deep Throat," and the location used for the theater was none other than South Pasadena's (once) majestic Rialto Theater. Oh, the movies I saw there when it was a Landmark-owned revival house. This was in an interesting transitional period for showbiz -- only a few years after the time frame of "Swingtown," and only a few years before video cassette players became a household appliance, allowing film buffs to indulge in a whole new way.
In reflecting on those days, I'm glad I got a taste of what it was like to have to ride your bike (from the Eagle Rock-adjacent part of Pasadena all the way around the Arroyo, down Mission Street to Fair Oaks where the Rialto stood like a beacon of all that was cool and hip) in order to see a legendary pic like "Casablanca" or "The Maltese Falcon." Even when mega-classics like these would show up on TV, the prints were generally so bad you could barely follow the story. Rialto's prints weren't always pristine but at least the screen was big.
Call it rosy nostalgia, but to me there was something special about having to venture out of the house and into a dark cavern with plush red seats (some more plush than others) and gargoyle figurines etched into the walls to give yourself an education in film history.
I remember sitting through six-hour marathons of early Hitchcock pics (every time I hear the kid's piercing scream in "Sabotage" I can smell the Rialto); double- and triple-bills of rock 'n' roll pics (screenings of "Quadrophenia" and the "The Kids are Alright" always brought out the Vespas); foreign films (the double bill of Murnau's "Nosferatu" and Herzog's "Nosferatu" creeped me out for weeks); endless Woody Allen pics, weird movies ("A Boy and His Dog"), B-movies, John Waters pics, Z-movies ("The Man Who Fell to Earth"), great movies I'd never heard of (I remember the joy of stumbling onto "Ninotchka"); and movies that I had no business watching as a pre-teen ("A Clockwork Orange" comes to mind).
I didn't know from Francois Truffaut but I recall one day, after sitting through a French pic I found boring (I'm pretty sure it was "A Man and a Woman"), deciding to catch just the first few minutes of a movie called "The 400 Blows." I wound up pinned to my seat for the duration with tears flowing. I got in trouble for getting home late but that only made me identify more with Antoine.
I went to other theaters, of course, to see contempo pics in this era ("Time Bandits" stands out as a favorite) but nothing compared to the revelatory experience of the Rialto, with all of its movie palace trimmings. (Even the ladies room was intense.) The fact that the infrastructure was decaying even then only made it seem cooler. I read every word of the theater's monthly calendar, complete with witty loglines for each title, and save them for months afterward. (I looked and looked but could not find an image of one of those calendars on the Internet. I'd kill to see one circa 1981-82.)
The Rialto in its last years refocused on arthouse and contempo pics before drawing the curtain for good (?) in August of last year. Thank goodness the building itself is registered on all kinds of lists as a historic landmark and cannot be torn down. But it's still very sad to think of the Rialto standing there as an empty vessel, only to be used these days for the occasional bit of location work when the shot calls for an old-fashioned movie theater.
I read about the Rialto's plight last year, but the magnitude of what it meant to my youth didn't sink in until "Swingtown" put me right back there on Fair Oaks, pedaling hard to make sure I didn't miss the start of the first feature.