Collection gone, but memories remain

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 14, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
This story is 10 or 20 years too late.
Mike Cline placed a huge Dumpster in his driveway this summer and spent several weeks filling it with the remnants of his 22-year career as a dealer/collector in entertainment.
Now, at 59, he considers himself retired ó happy he finally can fit a car in the garage.
There was a time when Cline was traveling to Hollywood three times a year and scavenging through warehouses in places such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, trying to put his hands on what had become outdated inventories of 16 mm film.
Television stations had converted to videotape, and people such as Cline realized a market would exist for the old movie, television and cartoon film prints they no longer needed.
He knew collectors would jump at the chance for film prints of complete television series, such as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “I Love Lucy.”
Cline also looked for comedy shorts starring the likes of the Little Rascals and Three Stooges and sought big-title features such as his favorite movie, “Gone With the Wind.”
And that only scratched the surface of what was available.
“I got my fair share,” Cline says. He filled his garage with shelves full of film canisters and meticulously categorized everything he acquired.
He called his mail-order business Thornhill Entertainment, named for Cary Grant’s character in Cline’s second favorite movie of all-time, “North by Northwest.”
As part of preparing his film prints for sale and shipment, Cline watched everything in his own screening room off the garage. It only added to his already considerable knowledge of movie and television history, especially from the 1950s and 1960s. Few people can rival Cline’s librarian-like knowledge of classic shows such as “Perry Mason,” “Lassie” and “Leave It to Beaver.”
Early this decade, while attending a film convention in Columbus, Ohio, Cline viewed Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” on a newfangled thing called DVD. The sharp image, small playing device and even smaller disc told Cline his dealer days were numbered.
He never bought a film print after that day and spent the next seven years selling his personal collection, knowing DVDs meant the end. “It was over,” he says.
Still, Cline’s house today remains a love letter to the glory days of movies and television.
The walls downstairs hold autographed publicity photographs and collector dishes of every character imaginable from his favorite shows. Giant, original posters reflect Cline’s love of movies such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Tarzan the Magnificent.”
He brings out scrapbooks of more celebrity photographs ó again, all of them signed to him. Every now and then, he pauses to tell a personal story about one of the stars pictured.
About the time he visited Jimmy Stewart at his Hollywood office. About the two days he spent chauffeuring Gordon Scott ó his favorite Tarzan from the 1950s ó around Burbank.
About giving actress Betty Lynn (Thelma Lou) from “The Andy Griffith Show” a ride home.
About meeting actor Pat Buttram, who played Mr. Haney on “Green Acres,” at a memorabilia store on Hollywood Boulevard. Using his spot-on Mr. Haney voice, Cline recalls that the actor was looking for a copy of the Elvis Presley movie “Girl Happy” in which he had a part.
Cline speaks of bumping into actors Robert Culp, Robert Vaughn and Robert Blake, “who couldn’t have been nicer.” He has saved the personal letter he received from Don Knotts, television’s Barney Fife.
His old screening room also includes a magazine stand filled with original-copy entertainment publications. He fans through all the old TV Guides that featured his actor friend Jon Provost (Timmy on “Lassie”) on the covers.
Cline’s living room is set up as a mini-theater with a huge screen for watching DVDs.
He and his wife, Julie, remain ardent movie fans. Mike keeps a monthly log of all the titles they watch. So far this year, they have viewed 133 movies, thanks mostly to Netflix.
Mike Cline comes by his passion for movies and television honestly.
Growing up in Statesville, he cherished a childhood in which his parents, aunt and uncle owned ó among several of their businesses ó two drive-in movie theaters. Cline spent most evenings of his first 10 years at the Villa Heights Drive-In on the city’s west side.
For a small boy with full run of a drive-in, “it was like a circus coming to town every day,” Cline says.
He played on its ornate merry-go-round or in the huge playground. He was constantly in and out of the ticket office, concession stand and projection room.
In a building with an all-glass front, customers could leave their cars and watch the movie in a more traditional theater setting. Cline usually ended the nights there, always marveling how he woke up in his own bed the next morning.
The family leased or sold both drive-ins by 1960, despite little Mike Cline’s pleas to his father and uncle to stay in the business. “They were right,” he says, “but to me, it really broke my heart.”
As a teen, Cline took a job at the Playhouse theater in downtown Statesville. He was a ticket-taker, worked the concession stand and learned how to run the projector, increasing his value ten-fold.
“It was the best job I ever had,” he says. A two-hour feature came in six reels, requiring a change-out every 20 minutes. Cline decided he never wanted to leave the business.
By 1971, he was assigned to Salisbury to run The Capitol. The company he worked for also owned the drive-in on U.S. 601 and the Terrace, both of which Cline would eventually manage. The 600-seat Terrace had a great run in the 1970s. Movies such as “The Godfather,” “The Poseidon Adventure” and “Benji” drew packed houses for weeks at a time.
But Cline grew tired of most aspects of managing the theater, except for the creative part of drawing up weekly ads for the Salisbury Post. He eventually left the theater job to become ad director for Roses at the Rowan Mall. Again, in that position, he was able to design ads for the newspaper. Later, he became a perishables manager for Food Lion stores until an on-job injury put him on the shelf.
He had been collecting posters, stills and 16 mm film prints as a hobby since 1973 and fell into the role of dealer at the exact right time. Years later, he would benefit greatly from the Internet and being able to sell everything he acquired on eBay.
Cline’s friends also know him for his passionate love of professional wrestling ó not today’s version, but those days when he was a kid watching Saturday afternoon matches on WBTV with his grandfather.
In addition, Cline has helped through the years in calling American Legion baseball games with WSTP Sports Director Howard Platt. Some years back, Mike and Julie also performed both together and separately in many Piedmont Players productions. They have two grown children, Matt and Casey.
Cline developed another pastime: Over the past three years, he visited the Rowan Public Library two to three times a week and looked at every issue of the Salisbury Post from 1920 to 1979.
He made notes of movies playing in every Rowan County venue over those six decades and has titled his research “Then Playing.” What form it will take and how he’ll make it available to the public is still a question.
The beauty of it, Cline says, is that the information translates to what was playing in movie houses and drive-ins across the country. There’s something uniquely American about this shared experience of going to the movies, whether you live in Salisbury or Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
It’s something Cline can’t help but know all about.
“I was literally born into the business,” he says.

Mike Clineís Top 10 TV Series:

1) Perry Mason
2) Adventures of Superman*
3) The Andy Griffith Show
4) I Love Lucy
5) Lassie
6) Leave it to Beaver
7) ER
8) 24
9) The Wire
10) Hawaii Five-O

*Cline says his 2-10 choices are interchangeable.

Mike Clineís Top 10 Movies:

1) Gone With the Wind
2) North by Northwest
3) To Kill a Mockingbird*
4) The Wizard of Oz
5) The Day the Earth Stood Still
6) Tarzanís Greatest Adventure
7) Thatís Entertainment
8) Singiní in the Rain
9) Them
10) Double Indemnity (1944)

* Cline says his 3-10 choices are interchangeable.