The First Film You Remember Watching

30-Day Movie Challenge, Day 1: The First Film You Remember Watching

My earliest movie-related memory — hell, one of my earliest memories period — is of going with my mom and my great-grandmother to an old-fashioned, single-screen neighborhood movie house across the street from where Grandma lived to see The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.

If that title sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of the weekly television series that ran on NBC for two seasons from 1977-78. The series was spun off from the feature film of the same name, which believe it or not was one of the highest grossing films of 1974, despite being G-rated and starring a virtual unknown named Dan Haggerty, whose biggest role prior to that was a bit-part in Easy Rider. Grizzly Adams was an independent film made on a shoestring budget by a Utah-based production company, filmed on location around my home state and loosely based on a real 19th-century mountain man. I couldn’t find much information about the film online, so I can only guess its success was a quirk of its timing. Its story of a man wrongly accused of murder escaping into the wilderness and living in harmony with nature struck a chord in those days of anti-authoritarianism, back-to-the-land lifestyle experiments, and the nascent environmental movement. A film with a similar premise, Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson, had come out only two years prior, and the “Crying Indian” PSA and the related Keep America Beautiful campaign two years before that.

Now, I was all of five years old when Grizzly Adams was released, so I’m sure my memories of the film itself are conflated with the TV series that followed. But I do have a vivid impression of the experience of seeing it. I recall that the movie theater — the Murray, named after the city it was located in — was just a short walk from Grandma’s tidy little house with the Chinese red kitchen. This is the only time I remember going to the movies with her, and in my mind, I sat between her and my mom, feeling warm and safe and loved as I munched my popcorn.

I also recall having a bit of an obsession with the Grizzly Adams story for a while, which seems incongruous given my lifetime affection for science fiction. (I know I was already watching Star Trek by ’74, and the following year, Space: 1999 as well.) But something about Grizzly clicked with me… possibly the fact that I recognized the landscapes where it and the spinoff series were filmed. I remember having this weird notion that Grizzly and Little House on the Prairie — which I also watched during my wholesome Utah childhood —  were both taking place right now, er, that is, then, in the 1970s, contemporaneously with the shows’ airing. I knew they were only TV shows and that actors only pretended to do the things they did, but I also believed there were real analogs of the characters living in the mountains that I could see from my living-room window. That if I were to go up there somehow, I would run into Adams and his companion Ben the bear, and the town of Walnut Grove with all its inhabitants just the way they appeared on my screen every week. It probably didn’t help my confusion when a real-life mountain man came riding up the street in front of my house one summer, bound for Idaho where he intended to live off the grid, in communion with nature and by his own terms. He was on horseback with a pack horse following behind, and he was wearing a Bowie knife as long as my young arm on one hip and an honest-to-god six-gun on the other, just like those guys on TV… but that’s a story for another time.

As far as I can determine, the Life and Times of Grizzly Adams feature film has never been released on any home video format — the TV series is available on DVD — and I haven’t seen it, probably, since that day with Mom and Grandma. I know there’s a copy of it on YouTube, but I’m half afraid to look at it. Better perhaps that it remain a sweet memory unsullied by low-budget reality.

My great-grandmother died decades ago, in the late ’80s, I think, and her little house, along with its entire neighborhood, was demolished and replaced by an apartment complex where a friend of mine lived for a time in the ’90s. Weirdly enough, the Murray Theater is still standing, although no movies have been shown there in almost as long as Grandma has been gone…

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