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Howard W. "Kroger" Babb (December 30, 1906 - January 28, 1980) was an American film and television producer. His marketing techniques were similar to a travelling salesman's, with roots in the medicine-show tradition. Self-described as "America's Fearless Young Showman," he is best known for his presentation of the 1945 exploitation film Mom and Dad, which was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2005.
Babb was involved in the production and marketing of many films and television shows, promoting each according to his favorite marketing motto: "You gotta tell 'em to sell 'em." His films ranged from sex education–style dramas to "documentaries" on foreign cultures, intended to titillate audiences rather than to educate them, maximizing profits via marketing gimmicks.
Babb was born in 1906 in Lees Creek, Ohio, USA (near Wilmington). He earned the nickname "Kroger" either from his childhood job at the grocer of the same name or from his father's preference for B. H. Kroger coffee. Babb held a number of jobs during his youth, gaining a mention in Ripley's Believe It Or Not for refereeing a record number of youth sports games. He started out with jobs in sportswriting and reporting at a local newspaper in his 20s, but first achieved success after his promotion to publicity manager for the Chakeres-Warners movie theaters, where he would create different kinds of stunts to lure audiences – for example, giving two bags of groceries to ticket holders in the theaters. These experiences led him to the exploitation film business.
In the early 1940s, Babb joined Cox and Underwood, a company that obtained the rights to poorly shot or unmarketable films of material that was potentially controversial or shocking. It would often remove entire sections of these films and add material such as medical reels that lent itself to sensational promotion. Babb went on the road with a Cox and Underwood concoction titled Dust to Dust, a reworking of High School Girl with a childbirth scene added to the end. Its profits allowed Cox and Underwood to retire from the business, leaving Babb to start his own company, Hygienic Productions. He opened it near his childhood home in Wilmington, Ohio, and hired booking agents and advance salesmen along with out-of-work actors and comedians to present repackaged films and new features.
- Further information: Mom and Dad
Babb is best known for his presentation of exploitation films, a term many in the business would embrace. According to The Hollywood Reporter, his success came from picking topics that would be easily sensationalized, such as religion and sex. His expenses were estimated at 5% for selling, and his distribution overhead near 7%, resulting in some of the largest per-dollar returns in the film industry.
Babb's biggest success was Mom and Dad, which he conceived and produced and which William Beaudine directed in six days. Babb headed the promotion of this film following its premiere in early 1945, often going on the road with it himself.
The film tells the story of a young girl, Joan Blake, who falls for a pilot and who after some sweet talk has sex with him. After the pilot is deployed, Joan requests "hygiene books" from her mother to help learn about what occurred, but her mother refuses because Joan is not married. Joan later learns that the pilot died in a crash, and tears up a letter she was writing to him, putting her head down as the film fades out. Following an intermission, the film resumes with Joan learning of her pregnancy and falling into despair. Only after she receives advice from a teacher fired for teaching about sex is she able to confront her mother, who is blamed by the teacher for being among those "neglect[ing] the sacred duty of telling their children the real truth." The film then presents medical reels and charts, including graphic images of the female anatomy and a live birth. (In some theatres, another film was shown with Mom and Dad, containing images of syphilis and venereal disease.) In many prints the story ends with stillbirth; in others it ends with the child born and put up for adoption. The film never uses the word "pregnant" or refers directly to the sexual relationship with the pilot, instead using terms such as going "all the way" and noting that Joan's clothes no longer fit.
The $62,000 production was presented via over 300 prints, and the presenter would stir up his own controversy in the weeks preceding the film's arrival by writing protest letters to local churches and newspapers and fabricating letters from the mayors of nearby cities about young women encouraged by it to discuss similar predicaments.
The third highest grossing film of its decade, Mom and Dad was claimed by Babb to have made $63,000 for every $1,000 the original investors contributed, and the Los Angeles Times estimated that it grossed anywhere between $40 million and $100 million. Its success spawned a number of imitations, such as Street Corner and The Story of Bob and Sally, that eventually flooded the market, but it was still being shown around the world decades later and ultimately was added to the National Film Registry in 2005.
The success of Mom and Dad was mostly due to Babb's marketing strategy of overwhelming a small town with ads and generating controversy. Eric Schaefer explains:
- Acknowledging that his films were unknown quantities, Babb advocated a "100% saturation campaign." In his sample situation — The Deadwood Theater in Movie-hater, Missouri, with a potential audience base of twenty-four thousand — Babb suggested sending tabloid heralds to all seven thousand homes in the area at a cost of $196, spending $65 for newspaper ads, $50 on radio, plus an additional $65 for three hundred window cards, hand-out teaser cards, pennants, and posters. The total came to almost $400, or the same amount the theater owner would normally spend on advertising in the course of an entire month. Babb always claimed that with his formula the profit would outweigh the investment...
The film became so ubiquitous that Time said its presentation "left only the livestock unaware of the chance to learn the facts of life." Babb also made sure that each showing of the film followed a similar format: adults-only screenings segregated by gender, and live lectures by "Fearless Hygiene Commentator Elliot Forbes" during an intermission. At any one time, hundreds of Elliot Forbeses would be giving a lecture at the same time in a variety of locations. (In some predominantly African-American areas, Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens appeared instead.) According to entertainer Card Mondor, an Elliot Forbes in the 1940s who later purchased the Australian and New Zealand rights for Mom and Dad, the Forbeses were "mostly local men (from Wilmington, Ohio) who were trained to give the lecture...[I]t was a cross-section of the male population, mostly clean-cut young guys. ...The whole concept would have never worked with a trashy look."
During the intermission and after the showing, books relevant to the subject of the film were sold. Mom and Dad's distributor Modern Film Distributors sold over forty-five thousand copies of Man and Boy and Woman and Girl, written by Babb's wife, netting an estimated $31,000. According to Babb, these cost about eight cents to produce, and were sold for $1 apiece. While Modern Film was able to sell forty-five thousand on its own, Babb estimates sales of 40 million, citing "IRS figures." This sort of companion selling would become common practice for Babb: with the religious film Prince of Peace, he would sell Bibles and other spiritual literature; and with his fidelity film Why Men Leave Home, books featuring beauty tips.
With other films, Babb would try different approaches. For "She Shoulda Said 'No'!", an anti-marijuana film of the 1950s, he highlighted the sexual scenes and arranged "one-time-only" midnight showings, claiming that his company was working with the United States Treasury Department to release the film "in as many towns and cities as possible in the shortest possible length of time" as a public service. David F. Friedman, another successful exploitation filmmaker of the era, has attributed "one-time-only" distribution to a quality so low that Babb wanted to cash in and move to his next stop as fast as possible. At each showing of a film, a singing of "The Star Spangled Banner" was also required.
As well as being at the forefront of the battles over censorship and the motion picture censorship system, the exploitation genre faced numerous challenges during the 1940s and 1950s. It was estimated that Babb was sued over 400 times just for Mom and Dad (Babb himself claimed 428). He would often use the supposed educational value of the films as a defense, also recommending it to theater owners; in his pressbook for Karamoja, he wrote, "When a stupid jerk tries to outsmart proven facts, he should be in an asylum, not a theater."
Despite the criticism that Babb drew for Mom and Dad, in 1951 he received the first annual Sid Grauman Showmanship Award, presented by the Hollywood Rotary Club in honor of his accomplishments over the years.
Following the success of Mom and Dad, Babb renamed his company Hallmark Productions, continuing the marketing approaches of Hygienic Productions while going beyond health and sex education films. He would later set up a larger distribution company, named Hallmark's Big-6.
Babb cheaply acquired the rights to what would become "She Shoulda Said 'No'!" shortly after Robert Mitchum and Lila Leeds were arrested for marijuana use. Its original producer had struggled to get it distributed as Wild Weed, and Babb quickly presented it as The Story of Lila Leeds and Her Exposé of the Marijuana Racket, hoping that the title would draw audiences. When it failed to stir up much interest, Babb instead focused on the one scene of female nudity, using a photo of Leeds in a showgirl outfit, and retitled it "She Shoulda Said 'No'!", with taglines such as "How Bad Can a Good Girl Get...without losing her virtue or respect???" According to Friedman, Babb's midnight presentation of the film twice a week made more money than any other film at the same theater would earn over a full run; Friedman proceeded to use the film in his own roadshow double features.
Babb's associates agreed with his belief that "Nothing's hopeless if it's advertised right", stating that he "could take any piece of junk and sell it." One film Babb presented in the 1950s was a passion play and the story behind putting it on, filmed in 1948 in Lawton, Oklahoma. Initially called The Lawton Story and filmed in Cinecolor, the quality of the film was considered so poor that telephone poles could be seen behind the crucifix and upon release, it was described as "the only film that had to be dubbed from English to English." He recut and redubbed this, retitling it as Prince of Peace; it was so successful that the New York Daily News called it "the Miracle of Broadway."
Another film, Karamoja, was marketed as a shocking portrayal of a tribe from Uganda who wore "only the wind and live[d] on blood and beer." Scenes included "the bleeding of cattle and drinking of the warm blood, and self-mutilation as a form of ornamentation," as well as a full-color circumcision scene. Karamoja proved less controversial than many of Babb's other films and grossed less.
Babb never repeated the overwhelming success of Mom and Dad, and he followed much of the exploitation industry in turning to burlesque features in an attempt to make more money. One notorious attempt was his acquisition of the American theatrical rights for Ingmar Bergman's Sommaren med Monika (Summer with Monika). About one third of the film was cut, and the remaining sixty-two minutes emphasized nudity by retaining a skinny-dipping scene; the result was titled Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl. Suggestive advertising art, including promotional postcards, portrayed the nude rear of Harriet Andersson.
Babb's final film was his presentation of a European version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin. This was described by Friedman as one of the most "unintentionally funny exploitation films ever made," filled with "second rate Italian actors who could barely speak English."
After the success of Mom and Dad, Babb talked of an "unrealized" project called Father Bingo, which he advertised in BoxOffice magazine as "An Expose of Gambling in the Parish Halls" and described as a comedy with an anti-gambling message about a corrupt priest who runs a "controlled" bingo night at his parish. Babb called it "the best 'snow-job' of my life," and it has been speculated that he never intended to make it, despite the trade ads that appeared for years.
On the strength of his past success, Babb joined John Miller's film production company, Miller-Consolidated Pictures, as vice president and general manager in 1959. Babb advocated the use of the hard-selling technique he had perfected as a presenter: "selling the sizzle instead of the steak", according to an interview. He wrote a column for BoxOffice at the same time. His personal anecdotes provided advice for selling films, such as writing off expenses as tax deductions, and using women's clubs to expand advertising and revenues cheaply. He noted that there were "over 30,000 women's clubs," and that "practically every women's club has a 16mm projector."
In 1963, Babb formed another distribution company, Studio 10,001. Operating in Beverly Hills (and claiming representation in Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand), it used similar roadshow techniques to market television programs such as The Ern Westmore Show. Babb also acted as a showman for hire, promoting others' films when not working on his own. Among them was a nudie-cutie picture titled Kipling's Women, a peep show, and Five Minutes to Love, a reworking of a Rue McClanahan film.
Babb began creating promotion kits in an attempt to teach his craft to would-be presenters. Marketing himself as "MR. PIHSNAMWOHS" ("showmanship" backwards), he advertised in BoxOffice. He also dabbled in other areas, writing tirades against pay television and creating a pyramid scheme titled "The Idea Factory." One of his schemes was the "Astounding Swedish Ice Cream Diet": overweight throughout his life, Babb claimed to have eaten ice cream three times a day, yet to have lost one hundred pounds in forty-five days.
Babb met Mildred Horn in 1944 during a showing of Dust to Dust in Indianapolis, where she was working as a movie critic; her review of the film called it a "cheap, mislabeled morality play," but the two struck up a conversation about it. They stayed together in a common-law marriage; Horn wrote a number of Babb's screenplays, including Mom and Dad, as well as companion books.
In November 1953, Babb was arrested on a drunk-driving charge after running a red traffic light and refusing a sobriety test. His $250 bail was continued, and he was not convicted, although this mishap to the recent creator of the anti-alcohol film One Too Many was widely covered in the press.
Babb had tax troubles in the years after his success with Mom and Dad. He suggested to the Press-Enterprise that his operation was so diffuse that sales of his one-dollar sex education pamphlets were too difficult to track accurately. Babb eventually sold the rights to Mom and Dad and his stake in Modern Film Distributors to Erwin Joseph and Floyd Lewis — former partners in Modern Film who would continue to showcase Mom and Dad across the United States.
Babb suffered from various ailments toward the end of his life, including a stroke. He retired in 1977, at 70, and died of heart failure (due to complications from diabetes) on January 29, 1980, in Palm Springs, California. He left his wife, a son, and five grandchildren. Babb is buried in Centerville, Ohio. His gravestone reads, "His many trips around and all over the world began in Centerville and end here in Lees Creek."
Babb worked in various areas of the entertainment industry, in both traditional and exploitation genres. He claimed to have made twenty films, and produced for television, radio, and even the stage. This is an incomplete collection of works owing to the nature of the exploitation genre. The titles are as they were finally presented by Babb, with earlier titles noted in parentheses.
As film producer
- Dust to Dust (previously Child Bride) (1938)
- Mom and Dad (previously A Family Story) (1945)
- The Prince of Peace (previously The Lawton Story) (1949)
- One Too Many (previously Mixed-Up Women, Killer With a Label, The Important Story of Alcoholism) (1950)
- Why Men Leave Home (previously Secrets of Beauty) (1951)
- Halfway to Hell (1954)
- Walk the Walk (1970)
As film writer
- One Too Many
As film distributor
- "She Shoulda Said 'No'!" (previously Marijuana, the Devil's Weed, The Devil's Weed, Wild Weed, The Story of Lila Leeds and Her Exposé of the Marijuana Racket) (1949)
- Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl (previously Sommaren med Monika) (1949)
- Delinquent Angels (1951)
- The Best is Yet to Come (1951)
- Halfway to Hell (1954)
- Karamoja (1954)
- Kipling's Women (1961)
- Kwaheri (1961)
- Five Minutes to Love (previously The Rotten Apple, also It Only Takes Five Minutes) (1963)
- Uncle Tom's Cabin (1970)
- Eric Schaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999; ISBN 0-8223-2374-5).
- David F. Friedman, A Youth in Babylon: Confessions of a Trash-Film King (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990; ISBN 0-87975-608-X).
- Kenneth Turan, "Kroger Babb: Superhuckster", Los Angeles Times; reprinted in The Washington Post, 11 November 1977, p.23.
- Joe Bob Briggs, Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History! (New York: Universe Publishing, 2003; ISBN 0-7893-0844-4).
- Hollywood Reporter, 20 August 1951.
- National Film Registry 2005 Press Release, Library of Congress (URL accessed 27 August 2006).
- Kroger Babb obituary, Variety, 30 January 1980.
- Dennis McDougal, "Filmmaker Babb let promotion offset low budgets," Press-Enterprise, date unknown.
- Card Mondor, letter to Michael Zengel, 5 February 1994 (available from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archives).
- John Windsor, "Shot in glorious sexploitation." The Guardian, 11 September 2005. URL accessed 11 January 2006.
- "Kroger Babb to Get Showmanship Award," The Hollywood Reporter, 31 January 1951.
- "Babb, 5 Others Form New Indie Distribution Outfit," Variety, 23 May issue, year unknown (c. 1960).
- John McCarty, The Sleaze Merchants: Adventures in Exploitation Filmmaking (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995; ISBN 0-312-11893-7).
- Father Bingo onesheet (Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Library).
- "$1 million Movie I.Q. Contest Tops MCP Exploitation Plan," BoxOffice, 9 November 1959, pp.28-29, 180.
- "Kroger Babb Forms New Distributing Co," BoxOffice, 24 July 1963.
- Variety and Daily Variety Television Reviews, vol. 18, 1993-1994 (New York: Garland, 1996; ISBN 0-8240-3797-9).
- Kroger Babb: Notes. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved on 29 October 2013.
- John Waters, "My Kind of Guy" (URL accessed 16 October 2006).
- "Producer of Film One Too Many Denies Being Tipsy," Los Angeles Examiner, 30 November 1953; "TV Producer Arrested in Drunk Driving Case," Los Angeles Times, 30 November 1953; "Producer Arrested on Drunk Charge," Citizen News, 30 November 1953.
- Mildred A. Babb, letter in Los Angeles Times, 4 May 1986.
- "Death: Kroger Babb," Hollywood Gazette, 30 January 1980.
- Photo from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Library.
- "Better Read That TV Script a Leetle Closer, Mr. Babb," Mirror, 30 November 1953.
- "Specialist", The New York Times, 18 March 1951.
- Copy of talk by Kroger Babb, introducing himself to Hollywood producers (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library).
- Kroger Babb: Credits. American Film Institute. Retrieved on 29 October 2013.
- "Kroger Babb to Handle Kwaheri in 11 States," BoxOffice, 26 April 1965.
- Frank Westmore and Muriel Davidson. The Westmores of Hollywood. J. B. Lippincott, New York City, 1976.