AMC'S Bob Dorian gets paid to watch the movies he loves The Reel Deal


Does Bob Dorian have the greatest job in the world? He thinks so, and more than a few people would agree.

For 10 years, Mr. Dorian has been leading the life of Riley, provided Riley was a movie nut. He watches movies and talks about them -- not as a critic, but as a fan. He travels from city to city, watching films in old, grandiose movie houses. He reads about movies incessantly, coming up with little yarns he can spin about the movies he's introducing.

Tough life.

"I really do have a great job," Mr. Dorian says from the fourth row of Baltimore's Senator Theatre -- one of many cinematic ports-of-call he's visited during his decade as host of American Movie Classics, the cable channel that spotlights films from the '30s, '40s and '50s. "I have a job involving everything I've ever wanted to do or be since I was a boy."

He pauses for a moment, letting the immenseness of his good fortune sink in, then adds, "Most people don't have that."

Today, the Senator, the venerable grande dame of Baltimore's operating movie houses, will be featured on AMC's "Movie Palace Memories" -- an afternoon-long lineup of movies, cartoons, serials and newsreels, interspersed with spots filmed at old-time movie houses scattered throughout the country.

The day begins at 11:30 a.m. with a Laurel and Hardy's "The Chimp" and "Our Wife." At 1 p.m., Chapter 14 of the original Batman and Robin movie serial screens, followed at 2 p.m. by the feature -- 1942's "Orchestra Wives," with George Montgomery, Ann Rutherford and Glenn Miller.

Although he's visited movie showcases far more grandiose than the Senator, Mr. Dorian had plenty of kind words for the theater -- and especially for its owner, Tom Kiefaber.

"He's changed this place very little from the time it went up in 1939," Mr. Dorian says as a crew from AMC prepares to film the spots he'll use to introduce "Movie Palace Memories." "That's one of the things that makes this place special. He has put in Surroundsound, 70-millimeter and all those things, but you can't see those changes. So it has the look of that old house. It's not as ornate and it's not as opulent, but that's OK, because the art deco really fits."

Mr. Dorian has visited dozens of movie palaces in his role as AMC's resident film buff, everything from the venerable Castro in San Francisco to the lavishly renovated El Capitan in Los Angeles to his personal favorite, the Tampa in Tampa, Fla., with its revolving planetarium-like ceiling.

It was in theaters like these that Mr. Dorian, a stage actor by training and occasional guest star in the early days of television, developed the love of movies that landed him at AMC. He speaks reverently of the childhood afternoons he spent in darkened movie theaters, watching "King Kong" until his eyes grew bleary.

Movies, Mr. Dorian remembers, were it, as far as he was concerned.

"I've been into the movies since I was 7 or 8 years old. As soon as I could go by myself, I would imitate the people. I thought I was Cary Grant, I thought I was Jack Benny or whoever it was. When I was 9, I went for my first suit. I wanted a black suit and my father said, 'Why do you want a black suit?' I said: "It looks like a tuxedo. I'll look like Fred Astaire.' "

Seven days a week, each movie that runs on AMC is introduced by Mr. Dorian or fellow host Nick Clooney. Largely avoiding critical evaluation, the introductions are usually anecdotes about the film itself, or perhaps tales about its stars or director.

For "There's No Business Like Show Business," Mr. Dorian notes that Marilyn Monroe agreed to do the film only because the studio, in return, promised her the starring role in "The Seven-Year Itch." For "The Sign of the Cross," he talks about how Claudette Colbert lobbied for the role of the Roman queen; for King Kong, he relates the tale of the lost footage -- later restored -- of a puzzled Kong peeling away Fay Wray's costume.

His uncritical approach to the movies is by design, Mr. Dorian says.

"I bring a different perspective into this mix, because I'm not a historian, I'm not an expert. I like the films, and I grew up with them. That's what my stories are about. I'm not ready to teach a class at grade school, much less college level. I'm not professorial. I'm just an actor who likes movies, that's all."

When AMC began in 1984, he says, its planners had something else in mind.

"People on television are never very original, so they were thinking Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. They said: 'We need two guys, one of them has to be fat, one of them has to be skinny.' "

Mr. Dorian, who is less rotund than Roger but has more hair than Gene, was ill-equipped to play either part. Paired at first with a critic who never hesitated to pan a movie that deserved panning, he felt uncomfortable -- a feeling he shared, apparently, with his boss.

"He said, 'I got a problem with this, because this guy [the critic], he comes down on some of these movies,' " Mr. Dorian remembers with a laugh. " 'The interesting thing about Dorian is, he likes everything. So what do we need the other guy for? We've got some movies here that might be less than "Casablanca," and Dorian will love them.'

"And that's how I got the job," he explains proudly.

So Bob Dorian continues on his merry way, like the proverbial kid in a candy store. Sure, not all the movies are stellar -- for every "Citizen Kane," there's a "Gorilla at Large." But they all share a common bond. They're movies. And that's good enough for him.

"There's this wonderful period of time that I think AMC really expresses in movies of the '30s and '40s. Yeah, it's naive, it's a little Pollyanna in a way. But secretly, I think, inside every one of us, every time we see 'It's a Wonderful Life,' we say, 'Gee, wouldn't it be great if it could be like that?' Well, maybe it can.

"I'm talking about a time," he explains. "I'm talking about the texture of Hollywood's Golden Age. It's imagined. It was never anything like that. It's as fake as this screen is fake. But it's real to me, because that was my life."

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