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Movie Buff Can Reel Off the Answers

<i> Baker is a Times staff writer</i>

I’m trying to write a story about the cops seizing tens of millions of dollars of real estate from some local cocaine kingpins and I’m thinking: I hate this. I hate crime. I’m tired of this. I need a break.

And I get one. I run into Dick Mason.

I run into Dick Mason because it turns out that one of the buildings the cops seized is supposed to have been a Warner Bros. theater downtown in the ‘40s. I want to mention this in the story, so I call around to confirm it, but nobody seems to remember back that far, and finally I’m told to call Mason at The Burbank Studios, which Warner Bros. and Columbia share.

I’m told that Dick Mason knows everything about the movies. That’s not true. For example, he’s not positive that the building was a Warner theater. After all, Dick Mason has only seen 23,000 films and television movies and he only remembers the cast and directors and producer and running time of most of them.

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Mason has a wonderful job. He sees about 375 movies a year. He’s not a film critic. He doesn’t have to go back to an office and produce anything. He just has to store what he sees inside his head and spit it out months or years later on demand.

He’s 49 years old, with the enthusiastic, youthful voice of a college sophomore. Can you blame him? He’s been having a ball his entire working life and the nice thing about him is that he’s grateful.

Mason is in charge of a VIP tour of The Burbank Studios, a service he created years ago for small groups willing to pay $20 a head to comb the studios’ 33 sound stages.

It’s a perfect environment for him to strengthen his reputation as one of Hollywood’s premier walking encyclopedias.

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Is there a history question on the lot? Call Dick Mason. Want to know the running time of “Ben Hur”? (“212 minutes,” he pops, correctly.) Want to know the title of that Roddy McDowall Western you saw in the late ‘60s? (“The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin,” he pops, correctly.) Want to know the cast of an unappreciated little classic like “The Wind and the Lion,” from 1975? (“Sean Connery, Candice Bergen, John Houston and Brian Keith as Teddy Roosevelt,” he pops, correctly.)

Dick Mason cannot remember family birthdays or grocery lists. But by a quirk of the human mind’s capacity to bulk up on factual fiber that the soul desires, he has a near-photographic memory when it comes to everything he’s seen since he became obsessed with movies as a kid.

He sees everything that comes out, not merely because it bolsters his standing as a film historian and lecturer but because he loves it. He loves the cataloguing. He has written in notebooks the details of every movie he has ever seen. He never goes to the same movie twice. He never walks in late. He never leaves early. He has no preferences. He will watch anything. He’s seen all six “Police Academy” movies, all seven “Friday the Thirteenths” and all the Elvis Presley movies.

Mason is not perfect. Throw “Barbarella,” Jane Fonda’s spacey 1968 movie, at him.

“Paramount release,” he says immediately. “Roger Vadim, director; Dino De Laurentiis, producer; principal cast: Jane Fonda and John Phillip Law. Running time, I give it a rough guess, 108 minutes.”

A rough guess?

“I can never guarantee totally. Ninety-eight to 108. I know there’s an 8 in there somewhere.”

There is. It’s 98. Look it up.

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Mason’s mom and dad were vaudeville performers. He fondly remembers being on the road with his parents.

“I remember Beulaville, North Carolina. I was 8. I’d call out from the audience in the middle of my dad’s act: ‘You call that dancing?’ He’d stop and challenge me if I could come up and do better, and I’d do a little four-minute routine.”

At 17, Mason found a $1.44-an-hour job in the mailing department of Warner Bros. He was in heaven, and he’s been there ever since in a wide variety of capacities--publicity, production office, now the tour.

“I love this,” he says. “I think I have great feeling for the industry. I want people to see the real way the movies work.”

There’s a 1984 movie in which father tells his son that the two most important things in the world are finding out what you’re good at and finding out what you like, and that if you’re really lucky the two will coincide.

That’s Dick Mason.

The movie? Sorry. It was “The Flamingo Kid.”

“Twentieth Century Fox,” Mason says. “Garry Marshall director. Starred Matt Dillon and Richard Crenna. . . . “

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