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My Dinner With Leonard

by larrydachslager on September 30th, 2013

I love asking and being asked hypothetical questions like the following:

“If you could have been present on any movie set, which would it be?”

“If you could take any famous person’s voice (speaking or singing) as your own, whose would you want?”

“If you could have dinner with any famous living person, whom would you choose?”

I get asked such questions far more often than you might imagine.  When faced with them, I usually don’t have to think for very long.

A- Rear Window (or Munchkinland from The Wizard of Oz)

B- Speaking: Spencer Tracy…Singing: Fred Astaire

C- Leonard Maltin

Every time I give the third answer, I get the same response.   “Really?  Are you serious?”

Frankly, I don’t see why it’s so unthinkable that I would choose Leonard Maltin as a dinner companion over any other living celebrity.  Then again, nobody knows better than I what an enormous impact Mr. Maltin had on my life at a crucial time.

As has been well established in prior posts, I became a fan of old movies as a young child in the early seventies.  As luck would have it at that time, classic films and their actors and directors were enjoying a popularity resurgence, so a great many books came out covering every aspect of retro cinema.   Unfortunately for me, however, none of these books were written with pre-teen readers in mind.  Regardless, I tried.  The Meyer Branch Library was walking distance from my childhood home and they had a small selection of movie-related books.  I can still remember the exact shelf where they were located.  I loved reading and probably checked out every one of their film books at one time or another, but when I got them home, I invariably found that their written content went way over my head.  As it happens, I was not a strong student and made generally poor grades, so not being able to fully understand these books just added to my intellectual frustration and struggling self-esteem.

Enter Leonard Maltin!

Across the street from the Meyer Branch Library was a now-defunct place that only long-time Houstonians will remember called Westbury Square, a shopping center designed to look like a quaint European square of yesteryear.   It was a very popular spot during the 60s and 70s and was host to some eccentric “shoppes” including a candle maker, an apothecary, and a cheesemonger.


Also part of Westbury Square was a tiny bookstore where I spent much of my time and allowance.  One life-changing summer, my family was about to go on a road trip to visit relatives in Maryland, so the night before we were to leave, I went to the bookstore with the sole purpose of buying something to occupy me on the trip.  The book I chose was called Movie Comedy Teams, which I purchased because Laurel and Hardy were prominent on the cover and there were photos scattered throughout.  The book was written by… you guessed it… Leonard Maltin.

Comedy teams

Then, as now, I have never been able to read in a moving vehicle without getting carsick.   However, once I started reading Movie Comedy Teams, I was immediately overjoyed by the fact that Maltin’s writing was completely accessible and I easily understood its contents.  This is not to suggest that his writing style was simplistic or condescending or that his target audience was young kids.  For instance, in the chapter on the somewhat obscure team of Clark and McCullough, Maltin’s description of McCullough’s suicide was graphic and disturbing – but I comprehended it!   Nausea be damned, I sat in the “way back” of our station wagon and read the book all the way to Maryland.  I was not aware at the time that when the book was published, Maltin was only twenty years old.

While reading his next book, The Great Movie Shorts, I saw that Leonard Maltin was a described as a “Film Historian,” a job title I found intriguing.  In his introduction to his The Disney Films, Maltin shared that part of his preparation in writing the book was to screen all of the company’s feature animated and life-action movies made during Walt Disney’s lifetime.  Remember, this was before the days of home video.  I marveled at the fact that Maltin could gain access to these films (some of which I still haven’t been able to see) and could screen them at his will.  It was then that I decided that I wanted to be a film historian as well.   Little did I know that I wouldn’t get to actively pursue that professional dream for another forty years.  But better late than never.

I had read most of Maltin’s books before I even knew what he looked like.   I felt a strong kinship with Leonard because it seemed that his books all focused on topics that I was most interested in.  Disney, comedians, old radio shows, animated cartoons, Our Gang, and short subjects from Hollywood’s golden age.   Further, his opinions and tastes jibed almost completely with mine.  Even though I’d never met him, I truly felt I had a kindred spirit in Leonard Maltin.

I don’t know what I expected him to look like, but when I first started seeing him on TV and then hosting the Our Gang videos and Disney Treasures DVDs, I was somehow not surprised at how, in appearance and manner, he comes across as what can only be described as… rabbinical.

Leonard Maltin + TCM Classic Film Festival 2013 + red carpet

I love his enthusiasm when he talks about aspects of film that casual mainstream movie fans would find mundane.  Ever the sage, if a film has some historical interest, he finds it exciting, even if its content or execution isn’t the greatest.   Only Leonard Maltin can provide an introduction for a Disney-produced wartime army training film called “Four Methods of Flush Riveting” and make it sound like something worth watching and even (pun intended) riveting!

My move to Columbia College Chicago at age fifty to begin my Film Historian career has afforded me many great opportunities.  Last year, The Music Box Theater, an amazing rep house, screened South Pacific, sponsored by Turner Classic Movies, with an appearance by its star Mitzi Gaynor.   I have very little use for that movie, but imagine my excitement when I read that Leonard Maltin would be accompanying, introducing, and interviewing Ms. Gaynor.  For the first time, I had the opportunity to see Maltin in person!  I went with a friend and former student who is also a fan of Hollywood history.  One reason I wanted someone to go with me was that I was genuinely afraid that I might do or say something embarrassing.  Has anyone in the history of Hollywood ever seen Leonard Maltin in person and swooned?  I didn’t want to be the first.

In person, not surprisingly, he looks and sounds very much like he does on TV.  His rapport with Gaynor was delightful and he was gentleman enough to refrain from giving his opinion of the movie which, according to his capsule review, and despite its generous two-and-a-half star rating, is very similar to mine.   Blech!

I debated on whether or not to speak to him.  But I have a very bad track record when it comes to talking to famous people I admire.  I was just so afraid I would freeze up and say something like, “I loved you in Gremlins 2!!”  (see below)

Please don’t get the idea that I’m some sort of weirdo who stalks Leonard Maltin.  While I have read everything he’s written, I don’t religiously follow his website, twitter account, and podcast, but only visit them if the topic or guest interests me. Generally, I’m more interested in what Maltin has to say as an historian rather than a movie critic. (I don’t really follow any movie critics.) And I don’t know any more about his personal life than what is written on the dust jackets of his books or what he’s said in personal interviews.  (Though I must admit, I’m not too shabby at the “Leonard Maltin Game.”)

But yes… I would like to have dinner with Leonard Maltin someday. In part, to thank him for the role he played in inspiring and indirectly encouraging a young kid with unorthodox tastes in pop culture. After all, if not Leonard, who else can I have an in-depth discussion of which entry in the Penny Singleton Blondie series is the best, or which film contains the greatest performance by Ned Sparks?



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