Arts & Craft

Basil Rathbone, left, and Nigel Bruce, the movies' greatest Holmes and Watson ... saved from ruination by none other than Hef.

Say what you will about that inveterate hedonist Hugh Hefner, who has just left us for that big Playboy mansion in the sky or elsewhere.

Between tending his rabbits and accompanying gardens of earthly delights, Hef was famous among inveterate film nerds like us as a hugely committed fan and, above all, preservationist. 

No kidding.

Before we get specific about what Hef the Film Nerd means to us along those lines, we'll get the usual six-degrees-of-separation stuff we so dearly love here out of the way.

Hugh M. Hefner spent his higher education days not too far from here, at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, from 1949 to 1953, majoring in art and creative writing, and drawing regular cartoons for the campus newspaper, The Daily Illini.

Residing not too far from where Hef was doodling was future film critic and Playboy Mansion visitor Roger Ebert, still a young movie nerd living in town and a decade away from enrolling at the same alma mater.

Of course, Hef would leave campus for hometown Chicago, and the impending establishment of his Playboy empire.

A decade later, around 1966, Ebert would be forging his own legend, to the south of the Playboy Mansion in the Gold Coast: as film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times.

"I promised to myself that if I ever got a job in Chicago, I would get myself invited to the Mansion within six months. It didn't take that long," Ebert once wrote.

One of his earliest assignments was covering a party at the brick mansion at 1340 N. State Parkway.

It wasn't the last: Ebert says he returned for more parties and, as is pertinent to this column, Hef's infamous movie nights, where he screened his favorite Hollywood classics of yore. (Per info revealed in the Ebert bio-film "Life Happens," his Tribune counterpart, Gene Siskel, was the real Hefner party animal.)

Within five years, Ebert was collaborating with Hefner's cinema counterpart of the era, adult film director Russ Meyer, as co-author of 1970's X-rated cult classic, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls."

Ebert, of course, is now memorialized outside the Virginia Theater in Champaign, site of his annual film festival, with a sculpture by Bloomington artist Rick Harney, partially abetted by a fundraising effort from B-N's Beyond Normal Films group (who, sadly, have announced their impending dissolution after 21 years).

Is that six degrees?

We lost count.

Anyway, as mentioned, Hef has an even closer place in our hearts, if not libido, as the man who helped save Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

At least in terms of their most famous film incarnations. 

Our favorite film series of all time — the timelessly entertaining 14-title Holmes series made between 1939 and 1946, with the great Basil Rathbone as Holmes and the lovable Nigel Bruce as Watson — was on the brink of total deterioration.

For years, these films were staples on Saturday and Sunday afternoon TV, particularly via Hefner's hometown Chicago station, WGN, which ran the films over and over for decades (accessed here via cable).

Because the rights to them had passed from owner to owner over the years, their conditions had fallen into gross disrepair.

On TV, we saw battered, blurry 16mm syndication prints; on home video, things had gotten just as grim, with five of the 14 movies having slipped into the depths of public domain hell (copyrights were not renewed, opening the door to anyone being able to sell a copy).

Enter Hef, a huge Rathbone/Bruce fan himself.

Backed by his own funding earlier this century, each of the titles was restored, frame-by-frame, by the UCLA Film Archives in Los Angeles, and then reborn in gloriously spotless digital transfers ... first to DVD, then, eventually, Blu-ray.

For that rescue act — far afield of the sexual ones for which he is best known — we offer a tip of the deerstalker cap to, yes, Hugh M. Hefner. 

The week in arts

  • Tour de force: A quick head's-up for the annual upwardly mobile Tour de Metro, the architecturally-attuned odyssey through downtown Bloomington's upper-echelon living spaces in assorted lofts. This year's trek is 4 to 8 p.m. Oct. 6, during regular First Friday activities. Tickets are $15, via the Downtown Bloomington Association office and website (www.downtownbloomington.org). 
  • Fine-tuned: If you wonder where the voices are, at least Sunday afternoon at ISU, they'll be in the Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall on campus at 3 p.m. for the annual Fall Choral Showcase. That includes: Women's Choir, Concert Choir, Madrigal Singers, Belle Voix and Men's Glee. Holy harmony!
  • Shepard's 'Lie': One last chance, also at 3 p.m. Sunday, across the hall from the above event in ISU's CPA Theatre, to catch the school's production of the late Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind." Pantagraph theater reviewer Patricia Stiller calls it a "fitting, not to mention profound" chance to "bid farewell to the dark genius who so frequently caused audiences to squirm in their seats as he unmasked them, on one level or another." 
  • Gone hunting: Grab the kids and the maps and head off to the third annual Art Scavenger Hunt, 5 to 7:30 p.m. Friday in downtown Bloomington.

Dan Craft is Pantagraph entertainment editor. He can be reached at 309-829-9000, Ext. 259 or via email at dcraft@pantagraph.com 

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