In the 1970s, movie theaters one step ahead of demolition covered their crumbling marquees with titles like 18 Fatal Strikes and Shogun Assassin. It was the golden age of the Hong Kong kung fu flick, with its off-kilter dubbing, arm chops that sounded like whiffing golf clubs, and villains sporting shaggy Ron Wood hairdos. Every Saturday and Sunday, Grant Rogers and his little brother Simeon took their buck-fifty to the movies to watch Bruce Lee kick it with that week's horde of ninjas.
Kung fu was huge with black audiences, who could relate to the Chinese underdogs battling the Japanese and the Westerners. You had to cheer when Jackie Chan, who's so poor he has to scrub the floor of the dojo, gets schooled in the snake style of kung fu and beats up the round-eyed devil who stabbed his master. Fans often came to the theater in Chinese slippers, robes, and coolie hats. The day after WGN showed Five Deadly Venoms, half the guys at Kenwood Academy were trying to run up the walls like Kuo Chui, who starred as the Lizard.
"All the kung fu movies, they always had the theme of the little guy overcoming the bigger guy," Grant Rogers says. "The Chinese culture always felt inferior to the Japanese culture. We had films reflecting what we were going through in the 70s--the little guy takin' it to the man, gettin' his piece of the action."
By the mid-80s, all the kung fu palaces were closed, and Channel 66 had canceled Samurai Sunday. For most of the world, martial arts movies were a discarded fad, "like break dancing," but Rogers hunted down videos in Chinatown, building a collection so unruly it now fills towers of milk crates in his Rogers Park apartment. He says he's got 2,500 movies and watches one "every couple hours."
A few years ago, Rogers, who studies wing chun at Sheil Park, decided to share his martial arts archive by becoming the Roger Ebert of kung fu, if there's a black belt big enough for that title. Along with his friend Andre Dorsey, he started the TV show Martial Arts Madness: two guys lounging in front of some movie posters, raving about the most classic, most crucial, awesomest, ultimate moves in the history of Hong Kong cinema.
"I watch three or four a day," says Dorsey, a six-foot-plus nurse from Des Plaines with a red belt in tae kwon do. "I got a 70-inch TV. Don't even mess with me. I want to turn it all the way up and hear 'kuh, kuh, kuh.' I put one in before I sleep. I put it in at 12. I fall asleep and it'll watch me."
The hosts wanted a program with a hip-hop flavor, to appeal to the kids, who were introduced to kung fu through the special effects and flying wires of Jet Li and Chow Yun-fat but missed out on the acrobatics and athleticism of the original fu fighters. Simeon Rogers filmed the first shows at his loft, and episodes now air, irregularly, on public access Channel 19. At first, Grant Rogers and Dorsey tried to follow a script, but it was more fun to just bust out a review of a clip of a film they'd seen a dozen times. Here's an excerpt from their introduction to 18 Fatal Strikes.
Andre: "These kung fu movies right here, they came out in the 70s. That was my era. Oh, man. McVicker's, Roosevelt, Shanghai Theater, Chicago, the Wood, State & Lake, United Artists, 63rd Street. This is when even the young ladies was deep into kung fu movies."
Grant: "Young ladies still are."
Andre: "They still are, but they don't want to acknowledge that. You'd go out with a date then, you took your lady to the kung fu movie back then, it was the bomb."
Grant: "'Cause she got into it too."
Andre: "Did she not get into it? And you might just have a little fun after a kung fu movie, if y'all know what a brother talkin' about. But let me bring this to you. We're going to bring you this last segment, after the Shaolin monk has taught his student how to go against the eagle technique. This part is gonna be crucial."
Cut to the movie, dubbed into English, with Dutch subtitles. A kung fu warrior in a white gi and a ruffian in a blond wig and a long Sergeant Pepper jacket threaten each other by doing rain dances, then go on the attack with jerky arm chops later appropriated by Devo. A monk comes to the warrior's aid, but the bad guy pitches them both into the dirt.
Andre: "You did get a taste of the--"
Grant: "Cinematic Holy Grail. Something that emancipates, gravitates, other things that just make you want to break down."
After six episodes of Martial Arts Madness, Dorsey and the Rogers brothers decided to bring kung fu back to the big screen. In January they showed Shogun Assassin and Battle for Shaolin at Filmtown, 639 E. 75th. This Saturday, April 27, the same theater will host a 2 PM showing of 1979's Snake in the Monkey's Shadow, starring John Chang and Wilson Tong. Admission is $6; call 773-381-2710 for more details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez, Ben Utley.