I had the pleasure of meeting Matias Bombal, a passionate film historian who is also the host of "Classic Jazz and Swing" on public radio stations in Sacramento, CA. He's managed and/or renovated several movie theaters, been involved with the restoration of records and films, had some small film roles, and is also an emcee.
For this interview, we met at his cozy apartment which was filled with tokens from his past. True to his spirit, we conducted the interview with a vintage microphone, discussing everything from movies to technology to memories.
In an age of advanced technology, what inspires you to devote your life to preserving old artifacts?
Well, these things have a level of quality that so much in life today doesn't. The craftsmanship is outstanding, the highest quality in production, and, interestingly enough, these things are also aesthetic as well as practical. Look at this 77 TX ribbon velocity microphone we're using - not only does it function as an outstanding microphone, but it's really neat looking.
What is your overall view on modern technology?
We get so excited about technology that we lose sight of the fact that the point of having it is to enjoy life, or make it less of a burden. We're so enraptured by it that it becomes a burden to learn new technology at times. But there are marvelous items that make our movie-going and music-listening easier.
When restoring films and musical recordings, which is more involved?
I would say old films because of the different elements necessary in releasing, printing, or seeing a film, at least in the photographic sense. Now we think of movies as something you see on a DVD, but in the true sense of the word "film," not just video or electronic media, is photographic.
There are many elements: the camera negative, projection release prints, and the intermediate prints. Then there's the soundtrack, which has to be "married" to the picture print. All those elements in-between are where things can fall apart. So, I think it's more involved than audio-recording restoration.
You are also known for restoring movie theaters. What were your initial thoughts on Sacramento's famous Crest Theatre when you discovered it at the age of 19?
I was fascinated by this theater. One day when I was downtown I went in because its iron gate was unlocked. I wandered into this deep, cavernous space that was dimly lit, not the beautiful, restored theater that exists now. A projectionist was upstairs getting ready to run a Hollywood classic. I was fascinated and asked if I could watch. I became intensely interested in projection machines. He taught me how to run them and it was a wonderful experience.
What is your greatest movie memory?
My first movie memory was seeing Walt Disney's "Fantasia." I remember becoming fascinated by the light beam that danced above me. When Chernabog was on top of the mountain in the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence, I must have turned away because I was scared, and when I did, I noticed what was on the screen was because of this light beam. Following it to the back of the theater, I could see where it came from. It was this little square hole where the magic happened. It was fabulous! Even at the age of three, I knew that somehow I had to be involved with movies or show business.
What other movies have impacted you?
The silent "Ben-Hur," which I presented at the Crest Theatre, introduced me to actor Ramon Navarro, whom I've always been fascinated by. "Sunset Boulevard" is a favorite, "Singing in the Rain" is another ... there are many. And I love the wonderful pre-Code movies, because you don't get to see them often. Those movies are just fun, because before Hollywood started its self-censorship with the Hays Code of 1934, movies reflected life as it really was, with all its ugliness and wonder. You saw things on screen you'd never see today. Those films have a frankness that I appreciate.
What was some of the music that you grew up on?
It was mostly classical music because my pop was a professor of Spanish literature and a very conservative, aristocratic Chilean fellow. My mother was a very liberal American. So it was an interesting environment to grow up in, with very diametrically opposed opinions about things, including my upbringing.
But what happened that was so fascinating to me was when my mother's mother brought me her 78 records, and I started to learn about these personalities I'd never heard before. They spoke so beautifully. The music was fun, you could tap your toes to it. It wasn't what my friends were listening to, like the Funky Chicken and other artists who were popular on the radio at that time.
It was the disco era, let's face it, and they're listening to Gladys Knight or the Bee Gees and I was turning over records like this that my grandmother had given me. [He puts on an old record. Joyous horns and percussion radiate across the room before a gleeful voice intones, "Hi ho, everybody. This is Rudy Valli announcing and directing the recording of our radio greeting. Hi ho, everybody, hi ho." The music continues for awhile.] Music from this period was so fascinating that I had to learn more about it, so that's what I did.
How much did this connection to music inspire you to become a DJ?
It was all because of Rudy Valli. I called him up when I was 13 - he was listed in the phone book - and we talked for an hour. He sent me an autographed picture, which I still cherish; it's on the wall there with Frank Sinatra, Peter Mintun, Jimmy Stewart, Alice Faye, and all these others whom I subsequently met.
I wanted to learn about this era and these people. They were fascinating; they spoke so well, so cleanly, something you don't hear today. They inspired me to use a clear and distinct voice in radio.
Of all the famous people you have met, who was the most interesting?
I think one of the best interviews I ever did was with Eartha Kitt. She's such a fabulous woman, and she scared me because she has such a piercing look. It's Catwoman! She'd just sit there and look at you and [mimics her raspy voice] talk in that voice of hers, which is strange and wonderful. And still, even as a senior citizen, very sexy. I think that was one of the better ones, although I had a very good interview with Rod Steiger, too. Kevin McCarthy was a good interview. There were fun interviews, but Eartha Kitt is up there, even more so than Frank Sinatra. She was just neat.
You're also a popular emcee. What exactly does that job require?
It requires quick thinking. You have to move with the flow of what's happening and try to join the units of a program together so there aren't any dull spots. You have to be engaging, and the best part is setting the scene.
As an emcee you get people excited by saying they're gonna have a great time, you bring the level of expectation up through the roof. And they walk away thinking they had a great time because you conditioned them during the program. Of course, you have a show that's up to that level of expectation, whether it's a movie, live show, or Edgar Winter and rock and roll. You enthuse people with the fact that they're there sharing this experience as a group. It's very rewarding and people leave with a smile.
Are your radio and emcee personalities different?
I don't know if they're different. I'm just me. But the "just me" that's talking to you now, and the "just me" when our interview's over, and the '"just me" when I'm with friends ... I suppose it's different, more subdued. When I'm on the air, this microphone changes you psychologically. And it's not something you really notice right away, but you think about what you're saying more and focus on making the words really good.
Do you pick up mannerisms from old films and records?
No. When I was very young, I was influenced greatly by the actor Robert Armstrong, who was Carl Denham in the 1933 "King Kong." He had this great bravura and I wanted to talk like that because you understood what he was saying, and he was so enthusiastic! I watched a lot of his movies and eventually realized I really couldn't talk like him. I had to develop who I was. Over the years, you find your own person.
What are some of your favorite recent films?
The movie I've been most excited about recently was "The Aviator," which I just loved because of the attention to detail in recreating old Hollywood. The thing that sent me through the roof was how they recreated the Coconut Grove Ballroom perfectly. Something else that was done in that film was [director Martin] Scorsese choosing to have the color of the film change drastically from beginning to end. Because he is such a film buff, he cares about minutia and those in the know appreciate it.
Your knowledge of the craftsmanship of films and music is incredibly in-depth. Do you enjoy educating others?
Absolutely, this is the whole point. When I have the opportunity to share any of these things, that's the greatest happiness. I have friends I have to drag kicking and screaming to a theater organ concert, but once they're there, they think it's fabulous. So if someone shows even a glimmer of interest, I latch on and say, "Come this way!"
Is there a message you have for this generation that's so technologically involved?
Don't be afraid of things because they're old. Some things that are not in the forefront of popularity have fabulous value. You may find something marvelous in it that's gratifying for you. And what more motivation do you need?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.