BOB STEPHENS TRIBUTE
February 27 only
The Roxie takes a moment to remember S.F. Examiner’s longtime copy editor, dance and ballet critic, boxing & opera enthusiast and movie columnist Bob Stephens, who died December 28 at the 81 of pancreatic cancer. “He conceived and wrote what was among the first — and might have been THE first — home video column in a major newspaper, called “Lasermania,” which he started in the 1980s. His enthusiasm for movies — especially genre cinema — was infectious.”
There will be remembrances. There will be friends and colleagues. There will be screening of one of Bob’s very favorites, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.
This will be a free event, but donations will be collected for GIVE ME SHELTER Cat Rescue!, in memory of Bob’s doted-upon felines, Swee’Pea, Jelly Bean & Snugglebug (who is still with us).
First come. First Serve.
PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE
Edward D. Wood’s magnum opus returns to the big screen as part of our tribute to our departed friend, Bob Stephens! Bizarre doings around the local cemetery are linked to a mysterious interplanetary invasion! A veritable feast for the imagination, this film continues to confound, bewilder, and delight audiences around the world. The unearthly presence of Bela Lugosi, Vampira, Tor Johnson, and the rest of Wood’s amazing gallery of stars, remains one of cinema’s most eccentric collection of ghouls. The all-star cast also includes Gregory Walcott, Mona McKinnon, Duke Moore, Tom Keene, Dudley Manlove, Lyle Talbot, and Criswell. Written and directed by Edward D. Wood. In B&W. 79 mins. DIGITAL. 1959. – Elliot Lavine.
“There have been thousands of film critics, and sooner or later all of them have to weigh in on the classics.
Take “Vertigo.” Just when you think nothing new could be said about Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, along came Bob Stephens: “Hitchcock’s film is characterized by a Christian culture’s dread of a pantheistic, Druidic world, a fear of gods within nature, not the one beyond it,” he wrote as the 1958 film’s 40th anniversary approached. “Even the dreamlike beauty of Northern California is menacing: The landscapes of seashore and forest seem inhabited by ancient, melancholy spirits and the movie is haunted by the tenses of Time in references to past lives, enigmas of the present and prophetic hints of doom.”
And who but Stephens would appraise the iconic Humphrey Bogart this way: “Bogart wasn’t an ideal leading man in a moral sense because he specialized in frightening displays of hatred, uncontrolled violence and a bitterness toward the world that are remarkable for one who became such a beloved figure.”
Those takes came from Stephens’ groundbreaking column in the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner, “Lasermania,” which was among the first — and possibly could have been the first — major newspaper column covering home video releases. “Lasermania” retired in 2000 along with Stephens, but this column, usually called “Rep Picks,” will fly the “Lasermania” banner this week in remembrance of Stephens, who died Dec. 28 after a short bout with pancreatic cancer. He was 81.
Stephens also had stints as a ballet, dance and opera critic and was a boxing aficionado during a nearly four-decade career with the Examiner, which he began as a copy boy and wire attendant in an era when newspaper stories were banged out on typewriters, national and international stories rolled out of noisy teletype machines, newspaper pages were assembled in a backshop with paste and an X-Acto knife and the newsroom was an alcohol-fueled 24-hour operation, publishing several editions a day.
“I started in 1977, and I was the lone copy boy to Bob’s wire attendant during the evening shift,” recalled David Dayton, a former Chronicle assistant sports editor who was Stephens’ editor in the Examiner Style section in the 1980s and ’90s. “Bob would usually come back from the M&M (a corner bar, now The Chieftain) with two or three screwdrivers in Styrofoam cups. We would play dice games that were boxing matches. … It was just howling good fun.
“The most remarkable thing about Bob — I wouldn’t say he was without ego, but he didn’t have a jealous bone in his body. He was grateful for the opportunity to express his ideas. It was almost like getting his ideas out there was more important than getting his name out there.”
After more than 20 years at the Examiner, Stephens returned to his first love, movies. Science fiction films and B movies helped him get through his childhood during the 1940s and ’50s — he was born and raised in the Bakersfield area — and in the 1960s and ’70s in San Francisco he would spend the day hopping from one grindhouse cinema to another along Market Street.
When home video became a thing, “Lasermania” was born. Stephens was encouraged to write the column by then-Examiner movie critic Michael Sragow and publisher William Randolph Hearst III. It quickly became a Saturday staple in the Examiner, and led to friendships with film director William Friedkin, who shared Stephens’ love of opera and art, and science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, among others.
As the column gained a national reputation in the early days of home video releases, heads of studio film libraries would seek Stephens’ input on movies that he thought should be released.
“Whether in office conversation or in the semi-regular Chinese lunches we had with other Bay Area movie-lovers like Sam Hamm, Joe Mader and Gregg Rickman, (Stephens) expressed a contagious enthusiasm for outlandish movie art done ingeniously and on the cheap, on studio sets, by artists like producer Val Lewton, the 1940s maestro of suggestive horror,” said Sragow in an email. “Of course, Bob’s appreciation of the cinema transcended any one genre — he was just as much in love with the work of Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray.”
Stephens didn’t just write about home video releases. He also covered the extensive Bay Area art-house repertory scene, from the eclectic programs at the Roxie Theater and the Castro Theatre to the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, among others.
“What I think he’ll be best remembered for were his unbelievably insightful pieces he wrote for the Examiner,” former Roxie programmer Elliot Lavine said. “These are things nobody else was writing about. Who would write about ‘Beat Girl’?” (a.k.a. “Wild for Kicks,” a 1960 British B picture).
Lavine credited Stephens’ coverage for making a two-week revival of the 1947 noir masterpiece “Out of the Past,” by Stephens’ favorite director, Jacques Tourneur, one of the Roxie’s most successful revivals.
Lavine was working at Green Apple Books in San Francisco’s Richmond District in the late ’70s when Stephens was a frequent customer. They became close friends, he said, over “our mutual affection for disreputable poverty row cinema.” To that end, Lavine, now based in Vancouver, Wash., will travel back to the Bay Area to host a tribute to Stephens at the Roxie with a screening of the dirt-cheap 1944 Bela Lugosi horror film “Voodoo Man,” a Stephens favorite, on Feb. 27.
Another Roxie revival pushed by Stephens was Friedkin’s much-maligned “Cruising,” the controversial 1980 film about a cop (Al Pacino) passing as gay to stop a serial killer prowling New York City’s gay bars and clubs. Friedkin had major successes with “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” but his career went into a tailspin after his string of box-office failures, including “Cruising.” The film was protested by LGBTQ activists and savaged by critics as anti-gay, but 15 years later Stephens felt the film deserved another look.
” ‘Cruising’ is not only a hunt within a hunt, but a film that is obsessed with entrances and exits,” Stephens wrote. “It’s a movie with a vast undercurrent of restlessness, of people looking for a satiating experience, looking anywhere, everywhere. … For all the thematic darkness of Friedkin’s best works, they’ve been dramas of the human face, and this movie is no exception.”
Now the film’s reputation has been rehabilitated enough to screen as a retrospective at LGBTQ film festivals.
Stephens and Bradbury were pen pals — Stephens never had an email address or a cell phone — and the relationship led to a memorable profile in 1993 in which Bradbury talked almost exclusively about death and its effect on his work.
In 2000, when Hearst Communications bought The Chronicle and sold the Examiner, the two staffs combined under The Chronicle banner and “Lasermania’s” days were numbered. Stephens opted for early retirement but stayed active in the film community, writing for magazines and helping with projects he believed in.
Bob Stephens helped get the documentary “Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future” into a San Francisco theater in 2019. Bonestell is pictured above in the 1980s.
He wrote the introduction to the 2018 book “Where Monsters Walked: California Locations of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, 1925 – 1965,” written by Richmond authors Gail and Raymond Orwig. In 2019, he was instrumental in securing the sold-out San Francisco premiere of Douglass M. Stewart Jr.’s documentary “Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future,” about the San Francisco-born architect, science fiction film designer and artist, at the Roxie when the film was struggling to attract a distribution offer.
Stephens often said that he retired at the right time, and not just because he had never owned a computer. Although he still discovered modern favorites — Richard Kelly’s “Donnie Darko,” Tony Scott’s “Domino,” Terrence Malick’s “The New World,” David R. Ellis’ “Snakes on a Plane” — he felt genre cinema was losing its mojo.
In 1993, musing about 1953, the seminal film year in teenage Bob Stephens’ life, he wrote, “Today, horror and science-fiction films focus less on the destruction of the community, nation or the world and more on the threat to smaller groups or a single person. The movies from the ’50s were terrifying, but never sadistic. … Above all, beyond their expressions of universal dread, there was a reaffirming sense of wonder. … In our present society, far more nihilistic in its apprehensions, the random and hopeless victim is the individual.
“In 1953, there were at least traces of the marvelous in dark destinies.”
– G. Allen Johnson – S.F. Chronicle.
Donations will be collected for
GIVE ME SHELTER Cat Rescue!
ALL ARE WELCOME. FREE OF CHARGE. FIRST COME FIRST SERVE.
BOB STEPHENS TRIBUTE: Upcoming Showtimes