ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 

FILMS OF THE 1980s

APRIL 2007

by Kelly

From the fall of 1978 until the spring of 1985 (grades K-6) I attended elementary school in a little town in upstate NY. During this time we, the students, were subjected to many, many assemblies and were forced to watch many, many films. The reasons for Film Assemblies ranged from The Educational (School Bus Safety) to the Non-Denominational Holiday Celebration (where we were encouraged to assemble, but did not speak of any actual holidays). In addition to film assemblies, the old reel-to-reel (or the television and gigantic top-loading VCR) was rolled out during our lunch breaks, when the weather was too rough to play outside. They had to do something to distract us and make us shut up and keep still. The following is a list, in no particular order, of the films I remember watching the most during these exciting events.

The first film I remember watching roughly 27,000 times is, oddly enough, Puff The Magic Dragon. I say "oddly enough" because of the marijuana reference controversy attached to the song - not something you'd normally push onto children. But the 80s was a vastly different time (and oh how I miss it!). I could have sworn this was a film combo of live action and animation, a sentiment seconded by Ham - but we couldn't find anything online to confirm this. Apparently it was a series of three 30 minute short films produced in 1978 by Burgess Meredith, who was also the voice of Puff. And even though it was shown roughly 27,000 times, we never actually got to the end of any of these 30 minute films (I guess this is how I never realized it wasn't one long film...?). I remember being peeved off because we always had to get up and leave just when I was getting into it. This was one of our "weather is too nasty/plunk the kids in front of the tube so we don't have to entertain them" films. Want to see it yourself? Check the YouTube clip below and then buy it here: Puff the Magic Dragon

Another film vivid in my memory is the school bus safety classic And Then It Happened. To put it simply, this film completely traumatized me. I saw this film in about 4th or 5th grade at an assembly in our "cluster" (an area made from a set of four classrooms around the perimeter of a circular wing of the school - the actual "cluster" being the open space in the center) where they often showed us films on a moderate-sized television that stood on a tall TV cart. This is where we were usually herded when the weather was too stormy or cold to play outside. But this film was shown as an Educational Experience. And Then It Happened is one horrific film and although part I is bad enough, and the statistics it spews are overwhelmingly bad, part II is the most vivid for me. It explores a terrifying chain of events (including a drug overdose complete with a seizure) during a ride home on the school bus, that culminates with an unfortunate incident involving a mouse that leads to the bus driver's death and the maiming and bleeding of every teenager on the bus. I kid you not, after this film I thanked my lucky stars daily that my home was in walking distance of the school. I still remember sitting in the cluster with my hands over my eyes, fingers splayed out so I could peek, while dozens of other kids shrieked in horror around me. When the film was over you could hear a pin drop. That's how shocking it was to us. I don't think this film had the intended effect of making us behave on the bus, though I cannot know for sure as I was not a bus-rider. Instead of making me want to behave on the bus, it simply made me terrified of buses. And teenagers in mid-seventies clothing. And I vowed to never, ever bring a mouse onto a bus - even if the mouse was in a box tied shut with string. Even in junior high a few years later I was still afraid of performing the school bus safety drill we had to perform twice a year in gym class (granted, I was a small kid and jumping off the back of the bus was daunting, but I digress...)! I just watched this film again, and while it isn't quite as bad as the gory legend I had built in my mind, I still consider it pretty extreme to be showing a roomful of elementary school kids!

I now present to you And Then It Happened:

Another film we were subjected to an obscene number of times was the classic canine movie Benji. We were shown this both at holiday assemblies, and in pieces on rainy days. It was really the school's "go to" thing to do with us. And what wasn't to love about this adorable little pooch? I always liked Benji because he looked a little like my own dog at the time, Buffy. Buffy was not a stray, but little Benji was, and his favorite playmates were two children who fed and played with him against their parents' wishes. When they are kidnapped (of course), everyone is at a loss except Benji. Can Benji find them in time? Well, what do YOU think? I cannot find a clip anywhere for this movie, but here's a picture, buy it here: Benji!


 

Another thing the school leaders liked to plunk us down in front of was Escape To Witch Mountain. We usually got to watch this one from start to finish on a holiday. Good god damn did we love this movie. It was one of the first films I can recall having memorized in any way ("Tony...can you hear the dogs...?"). Escape To Witch Mountain is a 1975 Disney film about two orphaned children who have extraordinary psychic powers...and there could be more to their powers than simply being "extraordinary." Their names, Tony and Tia, will be forever burned into my memory banks. Tony and Tia are being harassed by a scheming millionaire with a henchman posing as their uncle that wants to exploit their powers. A helpful man played by Eddie Albert helps them "escape to Witch Mountain," which is their only hope of getting away from this scenario. I can't really remember the ending except that I thought it was pretty cool back then. I should get this sometime and watch it again. In researching this I was reminded that we were also subjected to the sequel, Return From Witch Mountain, several hundred times. In Return, Tony and Tia are teenagers and I don't recall the film being as good as the first.

I think every girl in school had a crush on Ike Eisenmann, who played Tony. I am tickled to find out he is alive and well and, among many other things he's done in his career, in 2002 he directed and co-wrote The Blair Witch Mountain Project, a "mockumentary" short film which is exactly what it sounds like: Escape To Witch Mountain meets The Blair Witch Project. I know... I'm a geek. 

Once again, no clips to be found, but here's where you can buy the DVDs: Escape to Witch Mountain / Return From Witch Mountain. And here's a picture of Tony and Tia:

 

In music class circa 6th grade (1984/1985) we were repeatedly subjected to The Making of We Are The World. So much so that my friends and I had large chunks of the show memorized. For some reason, Nicole and I lived and breathed for the Huey Lewis part to show up. I'm not sure if were trying to be ironic or if we actually liked Huey Lewis. By the end of 6th grade, Norah and I were so familiar with We Are The World we could sing the entire song using the appropriate singers' voices. I remember we attempted this again sometime in high school and were still able to do it at that time. The next time I see her we will have to try again.

I found something that might be at least similar to our beloved Making of film over at Amazon: We Are the World - The Story Behind the Song (20th Anniversary Special Edition). Here is a clip of Michael Jackson in the Making Of... documentary, and on the right is the We Are The World video in its entirety:   

 

Finally, our most-watched movie, to my recollection, was the original Star Wars film, which was another we watched from beginning to end on holidays. The number of times I have seen this film is quite literally uncountable. This is not unusual for a person of the Gen X generation, but how many of us got to see it this many times in school? In retrospect, that was pretty freaking cool of my school (I'm a poet!). My mother used to find it highly amusing that at seven or eight years old (1980-1982) I could recite any given Star Wars scene almost verbatim and in its entirety. My favorite was the Princess Leia holographic plea for help through R2D2 to Obi Wan Kenobi. Of course, I don't have any of this memorized anymore (for all of my Star Wars quote needs I simply go to Ham). I cannot find a suitable sample clip of something I had memorized for your enjoyment, so here I present to you the original trailer for Star Wars, instead:

 

 

And here's where you can buy the movie: Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope (2-discs with Full Screen enhanced and original theatrical versions)

If you went to elementary school in the USA during the years 1978 - 1985 and you remember other films you were forced to watch repeatedly, or if you have the answer to the Puff The Magic Dragon film confusion outlined above, please leave a comment in the blog linked below!

(Posted 04/02/2007)

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