Beginning in the early 1940s The Strand and the Lyric, both in Tupelo, were the places to be on Saturday afternoon.
It was there many a youngster would watch what were known as serials. A serial was a series of one story exhibited in consecutive order at one theater, generally advancing weekly, until the series was completed.
Normally, each chapter was screened at a movie theater for one week, and ended with a cliffhanger, in which characters found themselves in perilous situations with little apparent chance of escape.
Some of the popular genres included crime fiction, espionage, comic book or comic strip characters, science fiction, and jungle adventures.
One of those jungle adventures was Jungle Girl (1941) a15-chapter Republic Pictures serial starring Frances Gifford.
Those who own a copy of Jungle Girl on VHS, DVD or some other format, owe a debt of gratitude to a Tupelo man — the late Charlie Boren, known as “Amory's premiere radio personality.”
Charlie was the very first announcer at WELO in Tupelo, back when it started up in 1941. As an employee of WELO, Charlie was one of the master of ceremonies of a talent contest sponsored by the station in 1945 at the Tupelo Fairgrounds, in which a 10-year-old Elvis Presley participated. Elvis sang “Ol 'Shep” in the contest and came in 5th place.
Charlie became a master promoter working not just with Elvis, but also with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and others.
One of the announcer’s hobbies was collecting film, and especially serials.
Jimmy Buffett always says his writings are partly fact, partly fiction. The rest of this story is as factually accurate as possible but a lot of this obviously happened a long time ago — we’re talking when the aerosol spray can, the boxed cake mix and Silly Putty were invented.
Plus this information has passed through some of the most colorful characters to ever have called Mississippi home.
Many film serials (the original 16mm) were lost. One of the misplaced and forgotten was Jungle Girl.
It’s rumored it was found in a barn, perhaps in Britain, England —sometime in the early 1980s.
Thomas Nawrocki was a professor of printmaking and fiber arts-weaving at the Mississippi University of Women. He was an avid collector of all Republic Serials. Republic had all the big ones - The Lone Ranger, Zorro, Dick Tracy and Jungle Girl.
Somehow or another Thomas acquired that set from Britain. It’s believed to have been on 15 different reels, one for each week.
Thomas and Charlie were friends, and once Charlie found out about the find, he was relentless. He had to have this serial which featured Frances Gifford as Nyoka Meredith, the Jungle Girl.
Charlie finally got it. It became his “pride and joy.”
The DJ, promoter had what was called a Film Chain Projector, and with this contraption he transferred his cherished prize to VHS. This relates to the aforementioned statement Jungle Girl would have never seen the light of day if not for Charlie.
Of course, Charlie wasn’t doing this for the good of humanity, he was going to make some money.
He would go to film festivals across the south, set up a booth and sell copies of this good looking female escaping wild animals, Voodoo, poisonous darts, being trapped, etc. for $25 to $30.
According to my good friend, Terry Swindol, a historian and collector, there were film rooms at these events where Charlie would show the entire 15 shows, and hook his audience before the end of the showing. The room was always full of potential customers. If they stayed for the whole showing they’d be there for almost four hours.
As Charlie got older Glen Gower, another collector from Georgia, would help Charlie set up his booth and drive him to the events.
Charlie died Oct. 29, 1998 and was buried in Lee Memorial Park in Verona. He left most of his film collection, which we assume included that original Jungle Girl, to Glen.
That’s that part of the story, but there is more.
Terry owns a signed publicity shot from Frances Gifford, from her glory days when she starred beside Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan Triumphs. Frances had quite a life. Her success started when she got a role in James Stewart's break-out film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
Everything was going well for the Long Beach, California native until she was almost killed in a car accident on Dec. 31, 1947. She sustained a fractured and cut nose, which sidelined her career and she fell into a funk. During the 1950s, her mental and physical health declined to the point where she was placed into Camarillo State Mental Hospital in 1958. She spent almost the entire next 25 years in and out of various institutions.
Like the Jungle Girl serial, Frances seemed to disappear. Some thought her dead.
Nothing was heard from her or about her until 1983, when a writer for a film magazine found her in Pasadena. She had apparently fully overcome her physical and mental problems and was working for the city library.
It was then Jack Oakman, a friend of Terry’s, heard about the twist of fate. Jack collected autographes. Back in the day you could just write to a star, or who represented them anyway, and they’d send you a signed photo.
He’d heard of a fellow who worked for AT&T named Dick Finder, who had been visiting the librarian on a regular basis because he was a Frances Gifford fan.
Frances once said to Dick, “Why do people feel the way they do about movie stars — we are just ordinary people.”
So Dick got both Jack and Terry an autograph from the woman who once swang through the jungle. She didn’t actually do the swinging. Dave Sharpe only doubled for Frances in the vine-swinging scenes.
According to director William Witney, when Frances first saw Sharpe in her costume she commented that he looked prettier than she did. All of Gifford’s non-vine swinging stunts were performed by Helen Thurston.
Frances spent her final years in quiet obscurity and died of emphysema in a convalescent center in Pasadena and passed away, at the age of 73. Her cremains are interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.
Publisher’s note: a special thanks to my good friends Billy Boren, Bob Kenney and Terry Swindol for the help bringing this story back to life.