Beer, Bourbon, and Buffs
By Neal Pollack
If you're lucky enough, Bob Connelly will invite you down to his basement. He'll show you his memorabilia. Then he'll show you his movies. Then he'll get you drunk. He will do this any time he's able. "The party never ends in this house," he says. "This is the house of fun."
To get to the basement you go down some rickety wooden stairs, past a laundry room, and into a damp, low-ceilinged netherworld where Connelly provides refreshments: Old Style, Sam Adams, vodka, bourbon. The walls are covered in old movie posters--ads for everything that Douglas Fairbanks ever appeared in, the whole run of the Congo Bill serial, Fred Allen in It's in the Bag, George Sanders in They Came to Blow Up America, Victor McLaglen and Boris Karloff in John Ford's The Lost Patrol, Paul Muni in Counter-Attack, Corregidor, Joan Fontaine in The Affairs of Susan, and Sal Mineo in The Gene Krupa Story. There are ads for dozens of others, silents and talkies, shorts and features, the worst of the B-movie junk heap and the best pictures from the best studios, as well as nightclub photographs, George M. Cohan song sheets, an E.T. doll, and a Jimmy Carter bottle opener.
On a recent weekday night, Steve and Tom, a couple of guys from the neighborhood, which in this case is Andersonville, stop by. Connelly pops the seal on a bottle of 114-proof Old Grand Dad bourbon. He mixes himself a drink, puts on a Ted Lewis vaudeville song about a speakeasy, and pulls down a screen at the front of the room. Steve and Tom ease into comfortable recliners.
"I gotta get me an easy chair," Steve says.
"Ah," Connelly says. "I hate them. Hate the things. Can't get around them to get to the movies. It's like having a big fat Republican in your basement."
Connelly whirls a Super-8 reel onto a projector and sits on a high stool. He is tall and thick-waisted. In the right light, he could resemble the Duke himself. In photos from his youth, he resembles Rock Hudson. The credits roll on a 20-minute teaser for The Jolson Story.
"Larry Parks!" Steve says. "William Demarest! Holy shit!"
"Ah, yes," Connelly says. "Jolson was incomparable. The Jazz Singer. Neil Diamond is Neil Diamond, but he's no Jolson. No sir, you ain't seen nothing yet."
Connelly is close to 60 and has always lived in a big city--Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. He used to have four requirements in life. He needed to be within walking distance of public transportation, a supermarket, at least two good saloons, and, most important, a movie theater. But those standards don't apply anymore, Connelly says, "because there's not many films I care about seeing. Besides, these chopped-up theaters are a pain in the ass--just show them at home. Video just can't compare. Video is television. It's the beam of light. That's what you need. It's the theater experience. Now, how's your drink doing? You need a little more bourbon?"
There's a portrait of Harry S. Truman in Connelly's living room; he's a lifelong Democrat, an affiliation that goes back to the 1940s, when he moved with his parents to Washington, D.C., because his father was hired as Truman's appointment secretary. Connelly was born Irish Catholic in Boston, but he grew up in a Jewish neighborhood with a Jewish godmother: "I had my own yarmulke--I went to so many bar mitzvahs." His family soon moved to New York City, where Connelly developed an interest in movies. He was an only child who spent a lot of time at Saturday matinees. His mother would patiently inform him that all the movies he was seeing put together couldn't equal one Douglas Fairbanks epic. When Connelly was nine, he was given a crank-operated Keystone projector, and for two dollars a pop he started buying 100-foot reels of film that included clips from cowboy movies and Charlie Chaplin shorts. "Once you start watching those," he says, "and once you feel that celluloid in your fingers and hold it up to the light--you're gone."
In the late 60s Connelly's passion for old movies was rekindled. He discovered that companies like Blackhawk Films and Milestone were distributing public-domain silent films, and he began snapping them up. Then he bought a machine that allowed him to attach magnetic sound strips to Super-8 silents. He began adding his own sound tracks, and his collection started to take off. It grew to include hundreds of American silents and talkies as well as cartoons and films by foreign directors. He indulged himself with Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, and Erich von Stroheim. He went mad for American comedians like Ben Turpin and Harold Lloyd. He was buying and selling movies by the dozen, and his hobby soon took over his basement. All his films, of course, remained available for viewing at any time.
Tonight's movies continue. Connelly shows a montage of gangster pictures from the old TV series Hollywood and the Stars. A vodka bottle started a little while ago is now only half full. Or half empty. It doesn't really matter which, because there's another in the cupboard.
"Last time Tom was here, we got him forshimmeled on Oliver Cromwells," Connelly says. "A drink of my own invention."
"It's diabolical," Tom says.
"Triple vodka with a white wine splasher."
"I call it the Oliver Cromwell because it does to your system what Cromwell did to Ireland."
Between reels Connelly brings out the "Silent Film 1910-1936" volume of the Motion Picture Guide, published by Cinebooks. He wrote every one of the book's 35,000 entries during a three-year period in the mid-80s. He dedicated his book to D.W. Griffith. "I used to stagger out of my bedroom, where I was writing it. I was like a maniac," he says. "I'd go to a saloon, order a shot and a beer, and it would get me through. I'm one of the world's leading experts on silent films, and I only saw about 20 percent of those movies. Probably 80 percent of them don't exist anymore."
He returns to the projector. "But we don't want to break the continuity of our presentation," he says. "We have many more movies to go."
He goes to fetch another round of beers--just in case. Then he brings out his scrapbook.
After the Truman years, Connelly moved back to New York, where he attended Fordham University and became involved in the Greenwich Village music scene. By the end of the 1950s he was leading his own Dixieland jazz group, "Irish" Bob Connelly and the Barrel House Five. He was also a rising folksinger, playing at such legendary venues as Basin Street East and the Village Gate and with such legendary figures as Coleman Hawkins and Odetta.
He toured the country as a singer and cornet player and recorded four albums with his own folk group, the New Wine Singers. The group settled in Chicago and eventually opened up its own Old Town nightclub, the Rising Moon, in 1961. For a year and a half, before it was mysteriously torched, the Rising Moon was a popular joint, and Connelly was a popular guy. The club featured such eccentric decorations as a 13th-century Welsh Catholic altar and the balcony from the storied House of All Nations, a once-renowned Chicago whorehouse. A newspaper feature described Connelly's cornet playing and the scene at the Rising Moon: "Connely's [sic] high and bleating notes drifted ever-upward with the haze of smoke, toward the darkened recesses of the ornate ceiling, hovering there, undying, like a living, breathing thing."
Connelly recorded a solo album with Folkways Records after being commissioned by Pete Seeger. It was called Yankee Go Home: Songs of Protest Against American Imperialism. He recorded it in one day, using a borrowed guitar. That same day, Seeger was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The next morning, Connelly was woken up by a call from Moses Asch, the head of Folkways.
"Mr. Connelly, Mo here," Asch said. "Have you heard the news or read the newspaper? I do not think the time is right to release an album about American imperialism."
"Darn right," Connelly said.
Later, in 1977, Connelly was digging through the folk racks at Rose Records when he came upon his album, which Folkways had released after all. It was the first time he'd ever seen it. "I had an album, and Jimmy Carter was president," he says. "I said to myself, 'Self'--that's Morey Amsterdam's thing--'things are looking better.'"
Connelly continued his music career after the Rising Moon's demise, and in 1964, thanks to a referral from actress Paula Prentiss, traveled to Hollywood for a screen test with MGM. He was paid $150 a week by MGM to not do much of anything. He gave guitar lessons to cast members of Dr. Kildare, worked on the sound crew for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., wrote an epic World War I-era screenplay called The Land Destroyer, and befriended the midgets who stood in for the children on Please Don't Eat the Daisies. "They were all from Chicago," he says, "back when Chicago was the midget capital of the world. All the sideshows and freak shows booked out of Chicago."
He also conceived a television pilot about a man who lived under the MGM lot in a basement, "kind of like The Phantom of the Opera." He thought Jonathan Winters would have been ideal for the part. The phantom was to be surrounded by a world of movies and through the magic of blue-screen technology, Connelly figures, could have been inserted into all the Hollywood classics. "He could be with Garbo, he could be with Gilbert, he could be with Chaney. He could be in every movie ever made." The pilot never aired.
Connelly has shown his press clippings, reviews, programs, and other assorted souvenirs. He has shown a poem written about him by John Logan, who once headed the English department at Notre Dame. He has shown pictures of friends, actors, jazzmen, folkies, artists, and just about everyone else. Lyric sheets and songbooks are scattered all over the basement; he has shown these as well. There's a scrap of paper sitting on his piano, over in the corner. It has some lyrics written on it:
A man was here and he's gone
A man was here and he's gone
We saw his smile for just a little while
A man was here and he's gone
Since his Hollywood days Connelly has made his living in a number of ways, including as an advertising copywriter, a booker for a portrait studio, and a video director for motivational speaker Earl Nightingale's television program. He is currently a part-time security guard at a bank, which he doesn't like to talk about. He is married to a woman named Linda, a schoolteacher whom he courted on and off during his club years.
He says he doesn't miss the show-business lifestyle. "All that's gone. Never come back. It's kind of a shame. But the only reason I'm still alive is because I'm not doing it anymore. There are very few people who played New Orleans-style or Chicago jazz or even modern jazz who didn't drink while they were working. You'd get into a nightclub, have a couple of belts, wake up with a hangover at three in the afternoon, and by the time you'd get to the club you have a few drinks to straighten you out. And when you perform, people are buying you drinks. And then when you're on the road, when you're off, what do you do? You go someplace to drink. It's tough. I don't need that anymore."
The evening continues on for hours. Linda prepares a platter of boiled hot dogs. The vodka and bourbon have more or less evaporated. Meanwhile, Connelly shows part of Orson Welles's The Lady From Shanghai. Then he puts on a bunch of cartoons: a Disney World War II propaganda film, starring Donald Duck; Betty Boop as Little Red Riding Hood; a couple of Tex Avery shorts.
"Oh, man," Steve says, "Tex Avery is my god. A comedic genius. A hundred years ahead of his time."
"Still is," Connelly says. "Nothing but geniuses here."
It's around 1 AM. Connelly wants to keep going, but his guests are beat.
"Leaving so soon? Can't I get you another beer?" Connelly says.
His guests wave him off; they want to get to their favorite bar before last call.
"I haven't kept time down here in years," Connelly says.
"It's late, Bob," says Steve.
"Mary Pickford said it best in her great silent film Stella Maris."
"Ah, Mary Pickford."
"When you enter this room, you have left reality."
"Wait a minute," Steve says. "She said it in a silent film?"
"You see," Connelly says, "that's what I mean. You have left reality."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Bob Connelly, and of some of his film reels, by Lloyd DeGrane.