Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Repaying the Debt #1: Bill Rocz

Posts like this one may seem somewhat odd, but you’ll probably get used to it.

I know this seems an unlikely topic for a blog post, but I was working on an essay about the film Casablanca, and in it I wanted to explain that I first saw that classic movie in the early 80’s as part of a late night TV show hosted by Bill Rocz.  I’m sure many locals, and probably even some natives of the Phoenix area, either don’t know or have forgotten who Bill Rocz was.  But to a kid like me, growing up in Phoenix during the 70’s and 80’s, Bill played an important role in fostering my love of great movies.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I needed to stop and pay a small debt of gratitude to Bill, even belatedly as it is. 

The show was called “Hollywood Greats,” and it was on Channel 5 (KPHO) every Saturday night at 10 o’clock.   At the time, Channel 5 was an independent station and not a CBS affiliate, and that meant that they created much of their own programming.  The most famous example of this, of course, was “Wallace and Ladmo,” the great children’s show that ran throughout my childhood. But by the time I was fourteen or so, my favorite show on Channel 5 was “Hollywood Greats.”  The premise of the show was simple:  each week, Bill Rocz presented a different movie from the hallowed Hollywood canon, and he would talk about the movie in bit-sized pieces before, during, and at the end of the show.  This may not sound all that impressive, especially to those raised with Turner Classic Movies and a handful of other cable channels, which do essentially the same thing, all day, every day.  But the early 80’s was a vastly different era when it came to movies.

Looking back, I realize now just how difficult it was to be a film buff in Phoenix in the 70’s and 80’s.  As an example, let’s set the DeLorean for 1982:  no Blockbuster, no Netflix, no Redbox, no Turner Classic Movies, no internet streaming. Video stores were mom-and-pop operations, and rarely carried more than a few obligatory titles from Hollywood’s Golden Age.  Not all the great films even existed at the time in a home-viewable format such as LaserDiscs or VCR (VHS or Beta) tapes; and all of this was irrelevant if your family didn’t have the cutting-edge pieces of technology needed to play them (mine didn’t).  This was the age when The Big 3 Networks (CBS, NBC, ABC; Fox was not even a gleam in Rupert Murdoch’s eye yet) would pay astronomical sums of money for the rights to show the hit movies from two or three years ago (popular movies would often play in theaters for 6-12 months, sometimes longer), and they would hoard them, deigning to trot them out in all their commercial finery perhaps once each year.  For instance, when I was growing up, The Wizard of Oz appeared on CBS each year in the spring on a weekend evening during prime time, and was considered an event, not just in our family, but all over the country.  This was similarly true for a very small, select group of movies such as The Sound of Music, Gone with the Wind, and The Ten Commandments.  Pretty much anything else might appear tomorrow, or not appear on TV at all for several years at a time.  Many big cities had theaters that were devoted to playing classic films on the big screen. In Phoenix, unless you could get to Harkin’s Valley Art (by ASU in Tempe, which might as well be Show Low for a bike-pedaling west-sider like me), you were essentially doomed.  Compared with today, it was practically the primordial ooze.  Seen in that context, “Hollywood Greats” served as an absolutely vital connection, really a lifeline, to a wondrous universe of rich, powerful, life-shaping celluloid experiences, especially for an ardent young fan of films with such limited options. 

I’m sure many communities across the country had TV shows like “Hollywood Greats,” but what those communities didn’t have was Bill Rocz.  Bill was an affable, friendly host. He wore big glasses, dressed in brown suits, had neatly parted and styled hair; he looked like an accountant, or a little like a certain, locally well-known car dealer of the time (by the way, if you want to see or remember what Bill Rocz looked like, find the movie Raising Arizona (which is a fun, funny, great movie in its own right); Bill appears very briefly in the film (on TV, of course) as an anchorman delivering the news in one scene).  We would meet each week in his two-dimensional living room, where he would stand and confidently begin again to bring a legendary movie and a somewhat shy, but curious, viewer together.  He was a terrific host; forthright but sly, authoritative but never condescending.  It was obvious he knew his movies inside and out.  It was also obvious that he loved these movies, each one in its own right.  But he also seemed to take just as much delight in presenting all of the ancillary stories, trivia, and Hollywood gossip associated with each production.  This is what hooked me, and made Saturday nights my version of Sunday mornings. It was obvious to me that he dwelled in the minutiae of the movies, and as a burgeoning film fanatic, I recognized that he was where I wanted to be.  His mastery of movie history, movie making, and movie lore became the yardstick by which I measured the growth of my own cinematic expertise.  Of course, much of my knowledge came directly from him; he would slip me information along with the movie, and I would absorb it instantly and insatiably.  To me, he was nothing like an accountant or a car dealer; physical image aside, he was a world-class hunter leading me on safari through the wilds of the savannah in search of elusive, but majestic, game. Or, if you want to step up to a literary level of metaphor, he was a kind of Virgil to my Dante, guiding me sure-footedly to a greater appreciation and understanding of my passion for movies.  And because of him, I came to believe that maybe someday, God-willing, I could be that, too.

So, thanks, Bill Rocz, for being that person who could show me how to be passionate about something without having to be superior.  Thanks for affirming that my love of the movies was not misplaced, and that I wasn’t wrong for seeing something special in certain films that no one around me seemed to see.  Thanks for your wit, irony, and the occasional subtle sarcasm; none of it was lost on me. 
Thanks for everything.

P.S.  Bill Rocz died in 1996 of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  In checking some of my facts about him, I ran across a very interesting story in the New Times about the end of his life. 
Be warned, the article is obviously intended for an adult audience.

1 comment:

  1. I too loved watching Hollywood Greats! Back then, it was the only game in town for young auto chanllenged movie-goers. Back in my more "geeky" years (come on, we all have them), my friends and I used to hold impromptu movie parties. All attendees were contacted exactly two-hours before Hollywood Greats was scheduled to start and they would be required to attempt to dress up as a character from that night's movie. People generally took an hour to get their costumes together, arrive and settle in to watch Bill Rocz and the movie. Afterwards, the party raged on and slowly decended into a drunken melee - but that's another story. Thanks Bill for all of the great memories!