There is a time, sadly, when all great yet aging movie stars are faced with the grinding necessity of doing dinner theaters. Or a reasonable facsimile.
Even King Kong.
Remember that after Kong first romped with Fay Wray in 1933, he was virtually unemployed until Dino De Laurentiis picked up the hairy gauntlet in 1976--unemployed save for a few small-time film appearances. That's 43 years of intermittent work, nearly zilch in the last 10 years.
Thus, on Friday, when Universal Studios Tour opens its much-touted $6-million-plus King Kong attraction, the oversized gorilla gets his first regular job.
Kong returns as a 2-minute, 40-second attraction in the tour. And he commands more mega-adjectives than a new detergent.
GIANT--30 feet tall from his knees, visible above the river in which the mighty ape "stands."
VERSATILE--With 29 separate functions. He can even nod his 10-foot head and curl his oversized lips.
TECHNOLOGICAL--Computerized, everything automatic, including the crashing helicopter, the fires, the general terror of being stopped on a New York elevated train by a very cranky gorilla.
From mock-ups, an on-sight inspection of the vast cavern, the picture boards and the sound track, the ride looks swell.
Kong's also got a new movie in the works. Dino's starring him again in a reprise called "King Kong Lives!," in which Kong finally meets a lady gorilla--a sweetie whom he can't keep in the palm of his hand. Kong's crush takes the screen during the Christmas rush.
The Universal Studios tram, carrying you and your loved ones, goes into the dark sound stage and, suddenly, you are in New York, riding on an elevated train, watching the TV screens glimpsed through apartment windows and hearing well-known newscasters warn of Kong's approach.
Around the bend, sirens, screams, crashes. All swell stuff for the kids. And then, gee, it's Kong himself.
Theme-park junkies can hardly wait.
"I think it's a one-of-a-kind thing," said Peter Alexander, the producer of the King Kong Attraction. "The face and the creature itself is so lifelike. It defies the normal rule of animated figures."
And the rule of an animated figure? "You don't want to see him up too close."
Even Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland, Alexander said, an early and excellent piece of person animation, is better seen far away. Why? "You can tell the difference between a live person and the dead person." And that's not going to happen with Kong. At least that's Alexander's hypothesis, because "what we did with King Kong is we gave him facial expression."
Kong will be right there, three feet away, complete with "terrible banana breath" specially engineered for this ride. But before tram riders get to see the terrible ape, they will be "set up for the experience." First, warned of his approach via TV screens through apartment windows; then a time for worry as the tram passes through a cloud of steam from a blown-up boiler, and then "you are ready to believe King Kong in the third and final scene."
Wait a minute. Maybe it's too scary.
Ah no, said MCA/Universal President Sidney Sheinberg, not scary. "King Kong is a character that I think has always existed in history. I think the idea of large animals being scary goes back to prehistory. . . . The thing that distinguished King Kong from others was his personality and character and certain ability to have affection and dimension."
The issue is not "scary. We just want people to have fun," Sheinberg said.
The tour at the studio lot off the Hollywood Freeway has been an enormous success for Universal, even though when it began in 1964, "the idea of doing a tour was an extraordinarily unpopular idea in many quarters," Alexander said. "Some people thought that you were giving away the magic."
Only two other tour attractions--"Battlestar Gallactica" and the "Ice Tunnel"--take the actual tram into a movie sequence. And although the "magic" has worn well for older attractions, like "Jaws" steaming through the water and headed for the tram, or even the venerable collapsing bridge, Kong is going to cast a giant shadow on the rest of the tour.
The Kong part of the ride lasts less than three minutes, but Alexander promises that the "thrill" will be sufficient. Alexander, who has created the tour's "Conan," "A-Team" and "2010 Spacewalk" and before that worked developing Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland, said that time on a good ride means little. "The funny thing about time is that when things are happening to you, time is stretched out."
The advances in technology, Alexander said, mean that some staple attractions, like "Jaws," could be souped up, redone. The audience, now fed a diet of movies by the likes of George Lucas, want attractions that reflect that kind of sophistication, he said. Of course, when you are on a tram, there's no way to cut or edit, no post-production, "just what you can do with your bare eyes."
Unlike Disneyland or Magic Mountain, said a Universal spokesman, the tour draws most of its visitors from out-of-state. It is not high on a list of places that get repeat visits from people in the neighborhood, but still draws an amazing 3.5 million visitors a year.
Kong will no doubt increase the percentage of locals in the coming months. He contains that most special of theme-park traits--he interacts. He's right up there, taking a massive swipe at the tram, his other huge hand grabbing and pulling down the bridge. It is you, the person from Peoria or the Palisades, who bought the ticket and who is experiencing, not the ride, but Kong.
In a week, all signs of Kong being built, being created, will be gone. The Kong trailer will be closed down and construction and managerial people will be gone. There is no staff to operate the attraction. It is all computerized. Computer and, of course, the ape himself.
Gone will be the boxes marked "Kong Deliveries," and the only question to be really asked will be answered:
Will Kong deliver?