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The men behind movie munchies

The studio that made the catchy animated ditties for drive-ins says business is still good.

November 28, 2003|Robert K. Elder | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — "Let's all go to the lobby, let's all go to the laaah-bee ...."

For those who have been exposed to the dancing ice cream bars and hot dogs in Filmack Studios' concession stand commercials -- played endlessly at drive-ins and film houses since the 1950s -- the jingles can be hard to shake.

Then there's that suggestive sequence of a lion-trainer hot dog bun beckoning to an acrobatic frank. That little clip has become a staple of pop culture, even showing up during the drive-in sequence in "Grease."

What you might not know, however, is that those wily wienies and saucy sodas were born, or drawn at least, in Chicago's South Loop. Since 1919, three generations of the Mack family have produced trailers for movie theaters at Filmack Studios.

Beginning in the silent era of film, Filmack used black-and-white nitrate film to produce newsreels and theater promotions -- and even employed a young Walt Disney for a time in the 1920s.

Today, Filmack creates and duplicates the "Silence Is Golden" spots for AMC Theatres. It also produces coming attractions and policy openers nationwide for Carmike Cinemas and Century Theaters as well as for independent movie houses.

The nostalgic trailers, produced in the mid-1950s, no longer represent a large part of Filmack's business, but the demand for them remains steady, says owner Robbie Mack.

"I get e-mails all day long requesting them," Mack says, although he sells only to theaters and drive-ins. "I don't want 'em to be bootlegged. I just haven't put 'em out on DVD. Once you do, you're finished."

Film historian and TV's "Hot Ticket" critic Leonard Maltin calls Filmack "a name that looms large" for any film collector and the animated trailers "those immortal pieces of film."

"They were part of every American's moviegoing experience at a certain time," Maltin says. As for the production history of the shorts -- actually five-minute-long cartoons -- Mack is fuzzy on specifics. The 45-second "Let's All Go to the Lobby" reel, created separately from the dancing food pieces, "probably was produced around 1955." The famous hot dog and his dancing concession-stand brothers were animated by hand circa 1957, Mack estimates. They were produced by Mack's company-founding grandfather, Irving, and his team of animators. For 85 years, Filmack has dealt almost exclusively with rolling film stock, updating only in the last decade with the advent of digital technology. Mack and his employees regularly ship out thousands of hockey puck-size reels containing trailers to national chains.

Still, Filmack remains most famous for less than six minutes of film.

"But the hot dog is the most remembered one," Mack says. "The hot dog jumps into the bun, so it has little sexual overtones."

Not everyone agrees with his interpretation.

"I don't think that's truly the reason" people remember the hot dog piece, says John Scaletta, director of operations for F&F Management, which runs Chicago's Davis Theatre among others.

"As people got older, they put two and two together, but I don't think that's why people like it," Scaletta says. "They saw it when they were a child and innocent. Those are the trailers that we saw when our parents took us to the drive-in."

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