Vintage: Ballyhoo, Part 10

Posted in Vintage at 5:12 pm by Sam

My apologies for being so astronomically late with this. But here it is — the last post in the Ballyhoo series, wherein we look at advertising stunts used in the 1920s to advertise movies at your local cinema. As we learned in the previous entries in this series, advertising had a spicier, zanier character to it than it does now that the process has become corralled by laws. The most striking difference, though, is that the burden of advertising fell more on individual theaters than on the production studios, which, in today’s world of mass information dissemination, handle almost everything.


We start with the continuation of a stunt that I left dangling in Part 9. Essentially, this is a typing contest — who can type a given letter in the fastest time? It was surely a more exclusive contest in the 1920s, when typists were not nearly so universal as today. Today, the equivalent contest would be to see who could type a letter and actually spell all the words correctly?

The Money Bags stunt is fantastic — practically an invitation to break into the lobby after hours.

The Hand-Written [sic] Letter stunt invites trouble, too — not on the movie theater itself, but rather its prospective patrons! One imagines more than a few innocent husbands stammering out bewildered denials to angry wives.

Sale Tags — yes, even today, automobile owners get a big kick out of discovering advertising flyers in their cars. Incidentally, it’s interesting to me that the suggestion is to attach the cards to the steering wheels. In today’s world, if strangers get as far as the steering wheel, you call the cops. Under the wipers or nothing, ballyhoo boys.

The Blarney Stone. Of course, nobody would believe that your local movie theater would be mailing you a chunk of the real Blarney Stone. The idea is so absurd, that it scarcely makes sense to make the joke in the first place. But hey — free rock! In any case, I like the suggestion that a movie can bestow a measure of good luck. And judging by the unstoppability of chain letters, I have to wonder if this would work for movies as well. “Go see Charlie’s Angels III: The Angels Go To Hell with five of your friends tonight, and you will meet the love of your life tonight and live a long and happy life. Otherwise, you will burp soda up your nose and die a horrible death!”

The Tax Blank stunt is quite amusing. I can imagine questions like that at home in a vaudeville comedy sketch. But would such a thing work today? Advertising today is all about slamming you in the face with an image, a sound, a slogan…few people will take the time to read something they don’t have to. It’s unfortunate, but, then again, today’s world has so much information in it, and we can’t read everything.


I noted the One Cent Check stunt because, sometime in the mid-1990s, I received a one cent check from the phone company. I had overpaid my phone bill by a penny, and I was disconnecting the phone that month, so they couldn’t just carry the balance over. So I got a refund in the form of a check for one cent. Compared to a penny in the 1920s, it was probably only a fifteenth or twentieth of value.

But I totally cashed that sucker.

Lon Chaney was famous as “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” It was a moniker much like “The Master of Suspense” for Alfred Hitchcock, or “The ‘It’ Girl” for Clara Bow. He disappeared inside a great many diverse roles, unrecognizable behind makeup and his wild performances.

The Oil Painting Idea is another of those great advertising stunts that’s all about hiring people to wander the streets. The streets must have been overflowing with advertisers back in the 1920s. One wonders if ballyhoo street artists only ever managed to sell to each other. And again we see the flagrant disregard for the law. Can’t hang up posters anywhere? Hire kids to carry posters around! And not just posters — oil paintings! They’d be worth a fortune today, if any survive. I wonder if any of the kids got mugged, the paintings stolen, sold, and the money used to see the movie.

The Pole Decorations stunt is brilliant, with just one nagging exception — what connects the ribbons to the movie? I suppose if somebody saw enough ribbons, he might wonder what they were for, look around, see the movie theater, and figure it out. But it’s funnier to imagine that somebody spent tons of money on advertising and nobody knew what it was for.

The Correct Pronunciation stunt is wonderful. Not only is it advertising, it’s educational, too! But what movie titles are difficult to pronounce? Even “Road To Perdition,” which bravely uses an unmarketable word because it is the perfect word, is not difficult to pronounce.


The Free Taxi Ride is a neat idea, and it reminds me of an advertising stunt that one of Boston’s biggest furniture stores, Jordan’s, pulled a couple years back. Buy furniture at Jordan’s between these dates. Then, if the Boston Red Sox win the World Series (the open dates were before the baseball season started), Jordan’s would send everybody a full refund. Free furniture. The Red Sox didn’t win that year, but if they had, an insurance policy would have covered the bill, and that way — so the television commercial went — “we’ll be rooting for the Sox, too.”

The Stage Shadowbox sounds like a phenomenally annoying and ineffective idea. Distracting lights in theaters are…well, distracting. Even the EXIT signs bother me, though I understand that they’re important. But hey, if you can’t plug next week’s feature just about anywhere else, there’s a problem. Also, I hate television stations that run ad crawls for the next show during the current show. One of many reasons I don’t watch much TV anymore. DVDs are better, and without commercials you can watch an hour show in under 45 minutes.

And that’s the real problem with advertising. If you have too much of it, people start shutting it out, and their exposure to advertising drops far below what it would have been if there hadn’t been so much in the first place. Although there was a lot less visible advertising in the 1920s than today, still the pressure to compete and reach people was as high as ever — as evidenced by the craziness of stunts like these, each one conceived to make an impression on people that other advertising has not.

Mixing live performances with movies was a lot less strange in the 1920s. Many theaters exhibited combination shows, in which vaudeville performances would precede the feature film. But I still can’t think of a guy in a pirate suit plugging next week’s pirate movie as eliciting anything but eye rolls and shuffling in the seats.

But if a guy in a pirate suit fails, try…TELEMARKETING! Everybody just loves that.

Train Calling. Man. I don’t even know what to say about this. But hey, if Hog Calling contests are sweeping the land with rave and furor, and there’s a way to cash in on it, you might as well.

The Clock Sticker stunt is drop-dead hilarious just for the line “Place these on every available clock.” Yes, every available clock. Your neighboring businesses surely won’t mind if you put stickers on their clocks. To save time, tie “FOR SALE” signs to every available automobile on the same trip around town.

The Midnight Presentations stunt is a practical idea. But the real message is something few exhibitors, if any, quite heard. Multiplex! If choices sell tickets, give people choices! But the first multi-screen theater wouldn’t open until 1957. It had just two screens, and it must have been tremendously successful, because the owner later went on to open the Toronto Eaton Centre Cineplex: 18 screens, and the largest theater in the world for many years.

And last…to wrap things up, the very last and most outrageous advertising stunt of all……the press screening.


  1. LaZorra (60) said,

    February 18, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    “Blue Ribbon Letter” sounds like the granddaddy of all junk mail. I like how it says the seal will ensure the letter’s being read. Today, we probably wouldn’t even get as far as opening it.

    I sort of wish “Double Value For Heralds” just left out the explanation. My original thought that it was about actual heralds, with trumpets and royal colors, being invited to the theatre on a 2-for-1 deal is much more interesting.

    “Railroad Tickets. For railroad feature.” NO RLY? It does sort of make me wish we still travelled by train.

    Man, imagine the litigation you’d get into with Pepsi and Albertson’s if you tried the “Soft Drink Ad” today.

    “Names of Heralds” is a great idea, because having underage children collect names for your mailing database is completely ethical!

    It’s hard to misspell a misspelling, but “Misspelled Words” is a hard stunt. What the heck is a “house organ”?

    I think language has changed a bit since the 20’s. The “Election Day” trick says to “put up snipers and tack cars around town announcing your candidate.” SNIPERS??

    “Armistice Day” is surreal. World War II hadn’t happened yet. The end of the Great War was still widely celebrated.

    Now, there is only one known remaining World War I vet. It really was a different world back then.

    Speaking of different worlds, “Bargain Sale” reminds me that theatres haven’t always been Edwards Cinema multiplexes. Sounds like the most deluxe of them had “three changes of picture per week.”

    “Memory Contest” sounds like a game (”Kim’s Game”) we used to play in Scouts. Have a table full of items covered, uncover it and give people 15 seconds to look at it, and then have them write down everything they remember.

    “Stencil Ads” contains the first nod to laws that I’ve seen in any ballyhoos.

    “A bloodthirsty ‘Yo-ho-ho’”? Can “yo-ho-ho” BE bloodthirsty? O.o

    “Telephone Calls” sure caught on big. :-p Seriously, it’s weird to me how often these things specify the gender of the person to do the stunt. “Umbrella Stunt” specifies that boys are to escort patrons. “Veteran’s Day” specifies an usherette. And this one specifies a girl to do the calling. Is telephoning people just unmanly?

    “Train Calling” gave me serious giggles. But wait. Hog calling is meant to, you know, call the hogs in. Trains don’t come when you call them, so I’m left to wonder how exactly one calls a train.

    “Snow Pile Signs” shows that comma misuse transcends time and place. Also, it very unfairly biases itself against California. And Texas. And Arizona. And and and. But I like the fact that apparently you don’t have to pay to advertise in a spot if the spot is under snow. Maybe in the ’20s ad rates varied with the weather.

    “Midnight Presentations” must be using a different meaning for “transients” than we do today, because my first thought was that they were putting on shows for bums and hobos.

    My favorite part of “Planning Newspaper Show” is “…supply an orchestra.” I’ve been in newsrooms, and I have no idea just where an orchestra would fit.

    But it’s a shame journalists don’t get perks like in-house orchestras any more. I feel gypped.

  2. Nyperold (116) said,

    February 18, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    A soft drink named after a star, eh? I wonder what a “Daniel Craig” would taste like.

    “A house organ is magazine or periodical published by a company in order to promote that company’s products. This usage derives from the use of ‘organ’ as referring to a periodical for a special interest group.” - excerpted from Wikipedia

    That is a strange term, though.

    Wikipedia doesn’t clarify the use of “sniper”, and Answers.com is no help, either.

    Confidential Tip seems designed to arouse spousal suspicions.

    Hey, I wonder how many people knew how to pronounce Ratatouille before the movie of the same name came out.

    I wonder what they’d do for ninja pictures.

    Transient: One that is transient, especially a hotel guest or boarder who stays for only a brief time.

  3. wintermute (157) said,

    April 8, 2008 at 8:06 am

    I like how the taxi-ride stunt says that it only rains one evening in ten, so this is totally affordable! Because everyone knows that they only had cinemas in southern California, and not somewhere like Boston…

  4. ballyhoo (1) said,

    August 10, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    I’ve really enjoyed this series. I haven’t quite finished it yet but I was wondering if you could could tell me where you found the 1929 Film Daily Yearbook? I am interested in getting a complete copy of it for research purposes. Did you find it online or do you have copy of it that you might be willing to share? Thanks

  5. Sam (405) said,

    September 20, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    ballyhoo: Search eBay for “Film Daily Yearbook.” You might not find the 1929 edition readily, but last I checked I found a few volumes from various other years that might also suit your purposes. I have four volumes, the earliest being the 1928 volume and the latest from the early 50s, shortly after the introduction of widescreen. It’s neat to see how the industry saw itself back when these critical transitions were occurring.

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