HE called himself "America's Fearless Young Showman" and he wasn't kidding. A positive thinking supersalesman, he made dozens of millions of dollars promoting some of the worst films imaginable into box-office champions. The Legion of Decency regularly condemned his work, but crowds literally rioted if they couldn't get in. He was a classic figure in America's cultural netherwould, but today he is just about unknown. The name is Kroger Babb, and when it's mentioned to the chosen few who knew him, they just smile.
They smile because in the modern would of puny publicity men it is difficult to do justice to a man like Babb, a kind of native American genius who 30 years ago turned sex, religion and almost anything else into ready money. "He was the greatest showman this country ever saw," says one still awed associate. "People talk about Mike Todd, but Todd needed an expensive item to promote. Krog could take any piece of junk and sell it."Imagine for instance a 1948 filmed passion play out of Lawton, Okla., where telephone poles were visible behind the Cross and the were so thick, on the order of "When're y'll gonna betray me?" that it became known as "the only film that had to be dubbed from English into English."
That picture, you couldn't giveit away, but I said "Nothing's hopeless if it's advertised right,'" Babb remembers now. "I told them to give me a bottle of gin and let me see what I could come up with overnight."
After retitling the film "The prince of Peace" and creating an ad campaign with lines like "Be Brave bring your troubles and your family to history's most sublime event" and "You'll find God - right in there. Babb ended up with a movie that had crowds ilined up even in sinful New York, where The Daily News bannered its success as "The Miracle of Broadway." "We killed 'em." Babb says with satisfaction. "The thing took off like a turpentined pup."
Babb today is in his 70th year, a heavy-set man with slicked-back white hair and still sharp, hooded eyes peering out of a beefy face. he is semi-retired and recovering from a stroke - "Doing nothing the hardest job I ever had in my life - but neither his living in Palm Springs nor his 3.8-carat diamond ring in a gold and platinum seting particularly denote current wealth. "Money never worried me," he says with enviable simplicity. "I could always make it."
Born in the hamlet of Lees Creek, Ohio, Babb still likes to refer to himself, with artful modesty, as "just a country boy with a shoeshine." Called Kroger as a nickname because of his father's fondness for the B.H. Kroger brand of coffee, Babb had that wild variety of jobs that characterizes so many American entrepreneurs. Among things he refereed enough football and basketball games to make Ripley's Believe It Or Not, and staged Depression-era stunts like burying alive one Digger O'Dell right in the center of Wilmington, Ohio.
Understanding Babb's accomplishments involves unearthing one of the most fascinating and least remembered of film eras, the heyday of the traveling exploitation show. In the 1920s, '30s and into the '40s a group of men calling themselves "the 40 thieves" canvassed the American heartland, showing up in small towns with a film of a theoretically risque or sex educational nature, personally showing it for a night or two, and leaving with profits in hand. It was to be Babb's triumph to perfect this genre by producing and distributing the film the sun never set on, "Mom and Dad."
It started one night in 1943 when Babb attended a town meeting in tiny Burkburnett, Tex., called because local high school girls were being impregnated in large numbers by men from a nearby Army Air Corps base. "It was a hell of a meeting, you had all these old biddies squabbling and roasting everybody, they wanted to declare the whole Air Corps off limits," Babb remembers. "Then the idea hit me, that would make a hell of a movie."
Of course, the idea was not totally original, because Babb was then traveling with something called "Dust to Dust," an earlier "birth of a baby" film, so-called because its prime attraction was documentary footage of a baby (what else?) being born. So naturally, when he suggested his new improved version to Hollywood, "Boy, they threw me out as fast as I walked in."
Undaunted, Babb made the film for his own Hygenic Productions company for a bargain-basement $62,000 invested by 20 individuals. Each investor, Babb claims, made back $63,000 for each thousand put in, except for one fellow who pulled out before the film was made and ended up a suicide. Such was the power of "Mom and Dad." Its international grosses have been estimated at anywhere from $40 to $100 million, and even Time Magazine claimed in 1949 that one out of 10 people in the world had seen it.
"Mom and Dad" did not flourish because of its birth footage, featuring normal, breech birth and cesarean section, or because of its puerile plot, which Babb himself disparages as dealing with "this dumb high school girl, very beautiful, who wanted to know more about her body, about sex, but every time she asked her mother a question, the mother said, 'Tut, tut, you're too young to know.' So then she went to a party, danced with a good-looking stranger, and she got pregnant."
The success flowed, rather, from Babb's extraordinary promotional abilities. Working from the premise that "You've got to tell 'em to sell 'em." Babb would simply overwhelm a town with exploitation material, even pioneering the use of direct mail advertising, sending four-color heralds to every mailbox in town.
"Krog would spend more money on promotion than the theater would normally gross, but our returns would be sensational," remembers K. Gordon "Cagey" Murray, a former Babb associate. "Sometimes we'd find some old wino somewhere, dress him up to look like a streetcorner preacher and stand him on a corner talking about the terrible evils of this movie. People would grab the handbills and head for the theater," where separate shows for men and women, to avoid unsightly embarrassment, were the rule. The result, wrote Time, "left no one but the livestock unware of the chance to learn the facts of life." Even today, Babb's eyes glisten when he says, "We packed 'em!"
The piece de resistance here were Babb's newspaper ads, still stirring models of enticement. "It Happens Somewhere Every Night!" roared the copy. "One mistake . . . can ruin an entire lifetime of happiness. So bold - it's shocking! So human - you'll both laugh and cry! So wonderful - you'll be lucky to get in!" And the real clincher, "You May Faint But You'll Learn Facts!"
Patrons of "Mom and Dad" got more than a movie, they got "Two Nurses in Attendance" plus a lecture by "Elliot Forbes, Fearless Hygiene Commentator," strategically placed midway in the film. The purpose of the lecture was to sell books, either "Father and Son" or "Mother and Daughter," depending on the audience, antediluvian sex manuals that cost next to nothing to print but a whole dollar to buy. "They made you feel you had to buy this thing or you were the most ignorant person in the world," remembers one spectator.
And this didn't happen in just one city at a time, oh no. In his salad days Babb had 300 units on the road at the same time, each complete with its own nurses and its own lecturer, and to this day he continues to run into men who tell him. "You don't know me Mr. Babb, but my name was Elliot Forbes."
In today's carefree, enlightened times, when films like Mom" and Dad" could probably be shown on television - "Oh, it'd be nothing, very tame, it'd be a Sunday school picture," Babb himself says - it is hard to imagine what a fuss its showing stirred up in the late 1940s.
Yet grown men were known to faint at the "clap opera" sections, medical reels exhibiting the aftereffects of venereal disease - "In Minneapolis, we had 'em laying there by the dozens on marble benches in the lobby, like slabs in a morgue" - and by Babb's own count the film was taken either to court or before local censorship boards 428 times.
"Oh, my God, you don't have any idea of the vigor with which opponents pursued this film, it was absolutely fierce," remembers Henry Fox of Arent, Fox, Kintner, Plotkin and Kahn, Washington's second-largest law firm, who supervised some of "Mom and Dads" litigation. "Its almost incredible as you thing back, but censors called it salacious, obscene, they swore they'd die before they'd show the thing."
This combination of outraged decency and lusty curiosity led to startling crowd scenes for "Mom and Dad," scenes which Babb cannily photographed and used to stimulate further throngs. And while riots were not exactly commonplace, things did tend to happen.
"In Hamilton, Ohio, they came like a stampede of wild animals," Babb remembers. "They took the box office right off its foundation, they moved it clear through the glass doors into the lobby, and the girl inside with it." And in Phoenix, "They had to bring the fire department and flush men out the front of the theater because the cashier had gone berserk, berserk, and had sold 2,000 tickets for a theater that had 800 seats." But most astonishing of all was what happened in New Orleans.
"The first time we played there, the priests from the various parishes came down early that morning and put themselves in a chain by locking arms, they put a complete chain around the front of the theater and no one could get through, it was like a football line," Babb says, still sort of amused.
"Well, various women said they weren't Catholics and went up to the line of priests and demanded to get through. When they refused some woman hauled off and slapped one of the priests and it started a real fist fight. It was a sort of knock-down, drag-out situation and the priests finally yielded."
Or so it seemed until the next time "Mom and Dad" showed up in town and Babb got a call from his theater manager. "He said we can't open and I said "Why" and he said. 'We have no street in front of the theater.' 'No street, what do you mean no street?' Well, during the night they had come in there with bulldozers and they had scooped up the entire street, the sidewalk, everything, right up to the building's edge and there was like a 6.8, 10-foot drop there in front of the theater," Babb, ever undaunted, built a quickie box office in the alley behind the theater, sent people in through the exits and ended up playing to capacity for "I don't know how many weeks."
Babb never quite duplicated his success with "Mom and Dad" with the other films he promoted, but he did create a group of splendid ad lines that even today have a touch of poetry about them. "Karimoja," an African documentary, was advertised as "They wear nothing but the wind," while "Kipling's Women" was hailed as "He had a way with woman: the only way."
And then there was a film "by this foreign director, he became famous, I can't think of the fellow's name," that Babb was called on to promote. The director was Ingmar Bergman, who saw "Monika" become his first American success after Babb tagged it with one of his immortal lines, "The Story of a Bad Girl."
Yet though films whose campaigns he worked on still turn up at an occasional theater, Babb has pretty much taken himself out of the movie business. "The pictures just got so bad, so filthy, they call 'em sexy but that's what I call 'em," says the man who once outraged America, shaking his head, "I just didn't have any taste for 'em."
What Kroger Babb does retain, however, is his absolute, almost religious faith in the all-conquering powers of salesmanship. "He had a theory," explains attorney Henry Fox, "That if there was a crowd of at least three people standing around, you ought to be selling them something. It was an absolute sin if you didn't."