Native son recalls hand in ‘Golden Age’ of B movies
To hear Milt Moritz describe his Hollywood days is to be treated to life of a bygone era. “It was not sophistication, it was by the seat of your pants,” Moritz said recently of his time with American International Pictures (AIP), a B movie company that Vanity Fair once described as “revered by Film Snobs as a font of important kitsch.” Moritz, today the CEO and president of the National Association of Theatre Owners of California/Nevada, worked in the company’s PR department for 23 years, nearly all of the company’s 26-year run.
Moritz was born in Pittsburgh’s Hill District to Edith and Joe Moritz, and it would be fair to say that show business was in his blood from the start. His father owned The Olympic, a movie theater in nearby Verona. Moritz’s memories of life in Pittsburgh are vague, but he remembers standing with a crowd on Centre Avenue to watch Franklin Roosevelt drive by in the presidential motorcade. His parents once took him to Forbes Field too, he said, to watch the Gene Autry Rodeo. A fan of westerns, Moritz was enthralled, and even got a souvenir: a little toy whip.
When he was 8, Moritz fell ill with rheumatic fever, and his parents were advised that a warmer climate was the way to keep their son healthy. A cousin of Edith’s already lived in California, and so the Moritz family sold The Olympic, packed up and moved to the West Coast.
By the time he graduated high school, Moritz already owned one theater, and quickly acquired another. In 1955, he got married and was drafted into the Navy at the end of the year. With duty calling, he sold off the two theaters and headed into the service for the next two years.
Shortly before Moritz’s stint in the Navy began, his father made an investment choice that would affect not only his son’s career, but movie history. As television became the medium du jour, movie houses began to lose business in spades. Moritz remembered people standing outside department store windows to watch the wall of monitors, while theaters sat mostly empty. Movie companies like Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) and Monogram Pictures Corporation couldn’t stomach the loss of revenue and were forced to fold. Many theaters closed, leaving their personnel out of jobs.
Jim Nicholson had been a theater manager for Joe Moritz and took notice of the recent closures. PRC and Monogram had been largely responsible for the production of B movies, and Nicholson had a brain wave. Why not step into the vacuum and fill it? He asked Joe Moritz if he’d like to be a backer, and received $6,000 in capital to start the company. So began American International Pictures.
When Moritz returned from military service in 1957, he had an offer from the new company waiting for him. At first, there were “just a handful of people there, and you just did whatever came up in the moment,” he recalled. As the company grew and the number of films being produced expanded, people stepped into more solidified roles, with Moritz as head of PR and advertising.
This was no small job, considering that, on some films, “we actually started the ad campaign and then shot the movie.” Blood of Dracula and I Was A Teenage Frankenstein were pitched as a double feature to a movie circuit in Texas, which liked the titles so much that they agreed to show the films and booked them for Thanksgiving weekend. Only after the circuit had bought them, said Moritz, did they go into production, shooting the films “back to back” and having them in theaters just 90 days after they were pitched.
For AIP, this breakneck pace was typical, said Moritz. “We would turn things out in maybe 50 or 60 days.” The rate of turnaround was incredibly fast, with one film being shot in just nine days.
To stay relevant, new content needed to be released constantly, and all on or under budget. Samuel Arkoff, Nicholson’s co-founder, was so insistent about budgets that, Moritz said, if a film started to exceed the money allotted, “he just started x-ing out pages.”
Ad campaigns promoting the films often relied on what Moritz described as “stunts,” big promotions or events to draw the attention of the public and press. When promoting Tales of Terror, an adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe story, AIP advertised in local papers, directing viewers to bring black cats to the first day of filming for a contest. Moritz estimated that about 200 people showed up with their cats before they realized that “when you put two cats together, they go at each other. It was havoc.”
David Ehrenwerth, a Pittsburgh resident and Moritz’s cousin, got to dip into the movie business every time he was in California visiting. He remembered meeting Vincent Price at the Moritzes’, and their projector room where they could get any movie they wanted. Ehrenwerth said he “always used to applaud” when he saw the AIP logo pop up on the screen at the Plaza Theater in Duquesne, where he would spend long and lazy Sunday afternoons watching double features.
Some AIP posters still hang in the foyer outside of Ehrenwerth’s house, he said, and “everyone stops to look at them for 10 minutes, because they’re so campy I guess.”
Moritz also keeps AIP posters up on the walls, to remind him of what he “definitely” considers the Golden Age of B movies. And the show business bug that started with his father continues with his son Neal, a Hollywood producer who pulled the title of one of his biggest hits, The Fast and the Furious, straight from AIP’s first release in 1955. Looking back on AIP’s heyday, Moritz said that he feels a strong sense of nostalgia: “We did not take ourselves too seriously. It was probably the most fun I ever had.”
Masha Shollar can be reached at email@example.com.