I had the pleasure of meeting MatiasBombal, a passionate film historian who is also the host of“Classic Jazz and Swing” on public radio stations inSacramento, CA. He’s managed and/or renovated several movietheaters, been involved with the restoration of records and films, hadsome 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 vintagemicrophone, discussing everything from movies to technology tomemories.
In an age of advanced technology, what inspiresyou to devote your life to preserving old artifacts?
Well, thesethings 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 aspractical. Look at this 77 TX ribbon velocity microphone we’reusing - not only does it function as an outstanding microphone, butit’s really neat looking.
What is your overallview on modern technology?
We get so excited about technologythat we lose sight of the fact that the point of having it is to enjoylife, or make it less of a burden. We’re so enraptured by it thatit becomes a burden to learn new technology at times. But there aremarvelous items that make our movie-going and music-listeningeasier.
When restoring films and musical recordings,which is more involved?
I would say old films because of thedifferent elements necessary in releasing, printing, or seeing a film,at least in the photographic sense. Now we think of movies as somethingyou see on a DVD, but in the true sense of the word “film,”not just video or electronic media, is photographic.
There aremany elements: the camera negative, projection release prints, and theintermediate prints. Then there’s the soundtrack, which has to be“married” to the picture print. All those elementsin-between are where things can fall apart. So, I think it’s moreinvolved than audio-recording restoration.
You are alsoknown for restoring movie theaters. What were your initial thoughts onSacramento’s famous Crest Theatre when you discovered it at theage of 19?
I was fascinated by this theater. One day when I wasdowntown I went in because its iron gate was unlocked. I wandered intothis deep, cavernous space that was dimly lit, not the beautiful,restored theater that exists now. A projectionist was upstairs gettingready to run a Hollywood classic. I was fascinated and asked if I couldwatch. I became intensely interested in projection machines. He taughtme how to run them and it was a wonderfulexperience.
What is your greatest movie memory?
Myfirst movie memory was seeing Walt Disney’s“Fantasia.” I remember becoming fascinated by the light beamthat danced above me. When Chernabog was on top of the mountain in the“Night on Bald Mountain” sequence, I must have turned awaybecause I was scared, and when I did, I noticed what was on the screenwas 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 themagic happened. It was fabulous! Even at the age of three, I knew thatsomehow I had to be involved with movies or showbusiness.
What other movies have impacted you?
Thesilent “Ben-Hur,” which I presented at the Crest Theatre,introduced me to actor Ramon Navarro, whom I’ve always beenfascinated by. “Sunset Boulevard” is a favorite,“Singing in the Rain” is another ... there are many. And Ilove the wonderful pre-Code movies, because you don’t get to seethem often. Those movies are just fun, because before Hollywood startedits self-censorship with the Hays Code of 1934, movies reflected life asit really was, with all its ugliness and wonder. You saw things onscreen you’d never see today. Those films have a frankness that Iappreciate.
What was some of the music that you grew upon?
It was mostly classical music because my pop was a professorof Spanish literature and a very conservative, aristocratic Chileanfellow. My mother was a very liberal American. So it was an interestingenvironment to grow up in, with very diametrically opposed opinionsabout things, including my upbringing.
But what happened that wasso fascinating to me was when my mother’s mother brought me her 78records, and I started to learn about these personalities I’dnever heard before. They spoke so beautifully. The music was fun, youcould tap your toes to it. It wasn’t what my friends werelistening to, like the Funky Chicken and other artists who were popularon the radio at that time.
It was the disco era, let’sface it, and they’re listening to Gladys Knight or the Bee Geesand I was turning over records like this that my grandmother had givenme. [He puts on an old record. Joyous horns and percussion radiateacross the room before a gleeful voice intones, “Hi ho, everybody.This is Rudy Valli announcing and directing the recording of our radiogreeting. Hi ho, everybody, hi ho.” The music continues forawhile.] Music from this period was so fascinating that I had to learnmore about it, so that’s what I did.
How much didthis connection to music inspire you to become a DJ?
It was allbecause of Rudy Valli. I called him up when I was 13 - he was listed inthe phone book - and we talked for an hour. He sent me an autographedpicture, which I still cherish; it’s on the wall there with FrankSinatra, Peter Mintun, Jimmy Stewart, Alice Faye, and all these otherswhom I subsequently met.
I wanted to learn about this era andthese people. They were fascinating; they spoke so well, so cleanly,something you don’t hear today. They inspired me to use a clearand distinct voice in radio.
Of all the famous people youhave met, who was the most interesting?
I think one of the bestinterviews I ever did was with Eartha Kitt. She’s such a fabulouswoman, 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 strangeand wonderful. And still, even as a senior citizen, very sexy. I thinkthat was one of the better ones, although I had a very good interviewwith Rod Steiger, too. Kevin McCarthy was a good interview. There werefun interviews, but Eartha Kitt is up there, even more so than FrankSinatra. She was just neat.
You’re also a popularemcee. What exactly does that job require?
It requires quickthinking. You have to move with the flow of what’s happening andtry to join the units of a program together so there aren’t anydull spots. You have to be engaging, and the best part is setting thescene.
As an emcee you get people excited by sayingthey’re gonna have a great time, you bring the level ofexpectation up through the roof. And they walk away thinking they had agreat time because you conditioned them during the program. Of course,you have a show that’s up to that level of expectation, whetherit’s a movie, live show, or Edgar Winter and rock and roll. Youenthuse people with the fact that they’re there sharing thisexperience as a group. It’s very rewarding and people leave with asmile.
Are your radio and emcee personalitiesdifferent?
I don’t know if they’re different.I’m just me. But the “just me” that’s talking toyou now, and the “just me” when our interview’s over,and the ‘“just me” when I’m with friends ... Isuppose it’s different, more subdued. When I’m on the air,this microphone changes you psychologically. And it’s notsomething you really notice right away, but you think about whatyou’re saying more and focus on making the words reallygood.
Do you pick up mannerisms from old films andrecords?
No. When I was very young, I was influenced greatly bythe actor Robert Armstrong, who was Carl Denham in the 1933 “KingKong.” He had this great bravura and I wanted to talk like thatbecause you understood what he was saying, and he was so enthusiastic! Iwatched a lot of his movies and eventually realized I reallycouldn’t talk like him. I had to develop who I was. Over theyears, you find your own person.
What are some of yourfavorite recent films?
The movie I’ve been most excitedabout recently was “The Aviator,” which I just loved becauseof the attention to detail in recreating old Hollywood. The thing thatsent me through the roof was how they recreated the Coconut GroveBallroom perfectly. Something else that was done in that film was[director Martin] Scorsese choosing to have the color of the film changedrastically from beginning to end. Because he is such a film buff, hecares about minutia and those in the know appreciateit.
Your knowledge of the craftsmanship of films andmusic is incredibly in-depth. Do you enjoy educatingothers?
Absolutely, this is the whole point. When I have theopportunity to share any of these things, that’s the greatesthappiness. I have friends I have to drag kicking and screaming to atheater organ concert, but once they’re there, they thinkit’s fabulous. So if someone shows even a glimmer of interest, Ilatch on and say, “Come this way!”
Is therea message you have for this generation that’s so technologicallyinvolved?
Don’t be afraid of things because they’reold. Some things that are not in the forefront of popularity havefabulous value. You may find something marvelous in it that’sgratifying for you. And what more motivation do you need?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.