Schenectady vs. The Flying Saucers!
I’m big on tradition. Baseball games on the radio during the summer and candles on the fireplace mantle during the winter are among my seasonal habits.
For fall, around Halloween, I like to watch an allegedly scary movie. Now a skeleton emerging from a vat of acid — and speaking in Vincent Price’s voice — doesn’t spook me the way it might have in 1960. But it’s kind of fun to sample the horror and science-fiction genres when pumpkins are carved and lighted on the front porch.
A few weeks ago, I tuned in the 1956 semi-classic “Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers,” remembered and respected for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects that probably had audiences of the saucer-paranoid era saying, “How did they do that?” Ray found convincing ways to crash spinning spacecraft into the Washington Monument, Union Station and the U.S. Capitol building.
The story is simple to explain — so simple, it’s all in the movie title. Saucers from beyond pick a fight with Earth, and there are explosions galore. Seems like everyone who points a gun or rifle at the sinister starmen gets toasted. They glow and fade away.
As usual, there’s an egghead scientist figuring out a plan to beat the invaders. This time it’s Dr. Russ Marvin, played by the great Hugh Marlowe. Helping out is his new wife, Carol, played by the equally great Joan Taylor. It’s never something easy, like hosing down the ships with Pine Sol or mustard. Doc figures high-powered sound, coupled with an electric field, stops the saucers’ propulsion systems.
That’s the great moment of discovery in the film. And Marvin knows he’s going to need a bigger speaker and power system to save the Earth. He knows where he has to go for help.
“Call Schenectady and tell them we’re going to need the biggest generator they’ve got,” says old, dramatic Hugh, really chewing the scenery.
Schenectady comes through. In a few minutes worth of celluloid, big rigs are loaded on Army trucks and sound beams are playing bitter music for the aliens. Earth wins, with a major assist from the city that once lit and hauled the world.
It’s always kind of a kick to hear a local city or place mentioned in movies or television shows. I wrote a story about such name-dropping in television, movies and books in 2004.
One of my favorites is from “The Honeymooners,” Jackie Gleason’s take on city life in New York City during the mid-1950s. Early in the “Trapped” episode, Art Carney’s Ed Norton barges into a pool room and greets pal Ralph Kramden. Norton is smoking a cigar — Haggerty, one of Norton’s fellow sewer workers, has had a blessed event.
A baby, Kramden figures. No, Norton answers: “His mother-in-law moved back to Schenectady.” It’s just a one-liner: The real story is Kramden witnessing a bank robbery and later dealing with two criminals when they follow him home.
But the all-time best Schenectady reference came in 1945, in the World War II movie “Objective, Burma!” Even the old Gazette got a reference.
There’s some pretty neat dialogue between a young soldier and a war correspondent named Mark Williams, played by Henry Hull.
Here it is, and just in time for Veterans Day:
Williams: If you could be someplace else right now, Charlie, where would it be?
Charlie: I don’t know. A football game. How about you?
Williams: If I had my choice I’d be sitting on a nice, soft stool… in the National Press Club in Washington, D. C., surrounding a tall, cold bourbon and soda.
Charlie: What? I didn’t know newspapermen drank.
Williams: How about you?
Charlie: A place you probably never heard of. Cannonball Island in Central Park.
Williams: Really? New York?
Charlie: Yeah, Schenectady, New York. They have a Central Park, too, with this island in the middle. Sort of take your girl there if you’re real friendly.
Williams: Sounds all right. I have a lot of friends in Schenectady.
Charlie: No kidding.
Williams: Yeah. My column is syndicated there, The Gazette. Your folks live there?
Charlie: My father has a grocery store on Crane Street, by the locomotive works.
Williams: Really? Where’d you go to school?
Charlie: Union College. I’m supposed to be a schoolteacher. After the war I have an appointment. History teacher in Pleasant Valley High School.
Williams: That’s fine. Your folks will get quite a kick out of reading about you.
Charlie: You mean all that stuff will be in the Schenectady paper?
Williams: Sure. You don’t mind, do you?
Charlie: Heck no. What do you know. It’s a small world, isn’t it?
Williams: Yes, and it’s getting smaller. If only more folks back home would realize… Crane Street, Schenectady runs all the way to Burma… this would be the last war.
The Schenectady bit didn’t happen just because somebody picked the city out of the World Atlas. Ranald MacDougall, who wrote the screenplay, was born in Schenectady.
I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open for other Schenectady references. Who knows —maybe Greenwich and Niskayuna will pop up someplace.
But I don’t think we’ll see Mechanicville.