WASHINGTON — His trademark fedora casts a cool shade over the nation’s capital. His belly laugh echoes across Capitol Hill. And, if you look hard enough, you’ll find the remnants of his popcorn washing up on the banks of the Potomac.
Washington’s longtime cultural gatekeeper Arch Campbell celebrates his 70th birthday on Monday, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger fountain of D.C. movie knowledge. After winning eight Emmys over 40 years on TV from NBC-4 to ABC-7, he’s been dubbed both a “local legend” by The Washington Post and the reigning “Washingtonian of the Year” by Washingtonian Magazine.
“God, how did this happen?” Campbell told WTOP with his signature self-deprecating humor.
In true Arch form, the semiretired entertainment buff remains as humble and unpretentious as ever, preferring the word “movie” over”film” and the title “reviewer” instead of “critic.” So, for the entirety of this article, we shall forgo the formality of “Campbell” and refer to him simply as “Arch.”
“One of my favorite lines in the movies is from ‘Notorious,'” Arch said. “The mother tells Claude Rains, ‘We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity.’ My wife and I quote that to each other all the time. In my career, I was protected by the enormity of my stupidity. When I finally got the movie deal on Channel 4 … I figured the only way I could last was by taking the ‘average guy’ approach.”
It’s easy to take the “average guy” approach when you come from humble beginnings.
Born on April 25, 1946 to Meller and Martha Campbell, Arch grew up down south in San Antonio, Texas. His mother was initially a government worker who eventually became a first-grade teacher. His father was a salesman, whose greatest pitch was selling his son on the power of the movies.
“I grew to love the movies because of the time in which I grew up,” Arch said. “Those were the days when television first came in. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ would play on television, and my father who was a movie buff and who spent his depression years going to the movies because that’s what people did, would say, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is coming on and you need to watch that because it’s a good movie.”
It was the same time that Hollywood cut a deal with TV stations to only show pre-1948 movies.
“They were showing all of the classics, the Frank Capra movies: ‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,’ ‘Meet John Doe,’ ‘You Can’t Take it With You,’ ‘It Happened One Night.’ All of those were on television,” he said.
Some of his fondest childhood memories are watching old horror flicks on TV with his dad.
“Universal Pictures put together a package … ‘Shock Theater’ … first movie they showed was ‘Frankenstein.’ My father, my mother, we stayed up to watch ‘Frankenstein.’ The next week was ‘Dracula.’ The week after that was ‘The Invisible Man.’ Then ‘The Wolf Man,’ which is one of my favorite films … I just loved watching ’em, and that’s how I learned to love the movies.”
He even remembers the first flick he saw in theaters: a rerelease of Disney’s breakthrough animated classic “Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs” (1937).
“The Witch scared me. Then we joined a swimming pool on the campus of Incarnate Word University filled with nuns … and the first time I saw a nun in a black habit, I said, ‘Oh my god, it’s a witch!’ … [later] our church group went to see ‘Psycho’ at the Texas Theatre downtown in San Antonio.”
As he got older, he started going to the movies by himself — without his parents or church groups.
“In my neighborhood, we had the Woodlawn Theatre and I would actually bike up there,” Arch recalled. “We had a movie theatre in Downtown San Antonio that they have saved, The Majestic … the interior of it was this castle-like thing. It literally was a movie palace. Opened in 1929. The ceiling was fashioned to look like the sky … people in their memory thought it was an outdoor theatre.”
By the time he came of driving age, he went to many actual outdoor movies at various drive-ins.
“I remember going to drive-ins in high school to see ‘Goldfinger.’ Not only that, I saw ‘Goldfinger’ at a drive-in in a Nash Rambler, the kind where the seats reclined into a bed. So there were like six of us in this car. All the seats went all the way back and we had a double bed for six of us in this car,” he said.
Birth of a Career
While movie palaces and drive-ins drove his personal passion for the movies, the seeds of his professional career were planted when he took a speech class as a senior in high school.
“I had a driven drama teacher [Jean Longwith], who got a hold of me and said, ‘OK kid, I want you to emcee our talent show.’ … I’d never been on stage before, and it was the first time I was treated as an adult … I got carte blanche to do bad jokes between acts and it hooked me,” he said.
Arch was so hooked that he followed his mentor to a nearby junior college — San Antonio College.
“She was discriminated against as a woman. If she were alive today, I think she’d be running a studio or a network or something like that. She was that much of a dynamo,” Arch said. “What she did do was she left a legacy of a public radio station in San Antonio, KSYM, and it’s an alternative music station now. I stayed in touch with her my entire life. She got me interested in radio.”
Arch graduated from the University of Texas with a bachelor’s degree in radio/TV/film and a master’s degree in journalism. He then applied to WFAA Radio in Dallas and soon transitioned into TV.
“A well-known news guy named Bert Shipp — Bert Shipp’s camera is in the assassination museum because he covered the Kennedy assassination — Bert Shipp takes me aside and says, ‘Look, everybody in this newsroom can cover a wreck or a fire. If you can do a feature story, you can find a niche for yourself.’ So I became the feature reporter for the TV station on Channel 8 news in Dallas.”
It was here that Arch’s movie critic career was born.
“It was totally random … news director [Marty Haag] came in one day and said, ‘I want a movie reviewer! Who wants to do it?’ Nobody did, so I raised my hand and became the movie reviewer … As I think about it over the years, I think he knew I wanted to do it. … He opened the door for me.”
Arch says he’ll never forget his first review — a film that launched George Lucas to “Star Wars.”
“The very first movie I ever reviewed was ‘American Graffiti,'” Arch said. “It identified that period as something very important right before The Beatles and right before the Vietnam War. … Lucas got that that time was so important and that the music was so big. … It launched so many careers.”
Not only did it launch Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford as actors, it also launched Arch Campbell as a movie reviewer, who never looked back as he made his way to Washington.
Welcome to Washington
You might think it ironic that this Dallas movie reviewer found his way to Washington at a time when Tom Landry and George Allen were embroiled in a bitter rivalry for football’s crown. How did such a move happen? It’s all who you know — and in this case — it was someone tragically historic.
“I worked with another really great newsman named Don Harris … [who] died at the Jonestown massacre. I never laugh at the phrase, ‘Drink the Kool-Aid,’ because of my friend [who] went to KNBC in Los Angeles … and recommended me to a guy from L.A. who was coming to Channel 4 named Bruce MacDonald. That’s what got me on his radar. I sent him a tape and he hired me over the phone.”
Thus, Arch moved to DC in 1974, joining NBC-owned WRC-TV News as a feature reporter, including a piece with a singing pig that got him picked up nationally by ABC News. But it was a massive D.C. snowstorm on George Washington’s Birthday in 1979 that got him his next big break.
“Nobody wanted to do the morning cut-ins during the ‘Today’ show … it was a killer schedule, 12 hours a day. So I went in and said, ‘I wanna do the cut ins.’ … In 1979, it was before there was really state-of-the-art weather forecasting, and they didn’t know [the storm] was coming. So I got in at 5 a.m. … it starts snowing and snowing and snowing … and nobody could get to work,” Arch recalled.
Legendary weather forecaster Willard Scott couldn’t get in because he lived way out in Paris, Virginia. So, he called in live and went longer than usual, causing fellow weather forecaster Paul Anthony to quit on the spot. The next day, news director Dave Newell asked Arch to be the new weekend weather forecaster — and Arch jumped at the chance, despite his inexperience.
“He says, ‘Arch, have you ever done the weather?’ I had done it once, but I said, ‘Oh yeah, sure.’ He says, ‘Fine, you’re the weekend weather forecaster.’ I started doing weather … they started seeing me on camera, and at the end of the ’80s, Willard Scott left Channel 4 … Sue Simmons … she left. All the big names left and the station was basically in the position of starting over,” Arch said.
NBC-4: The TV Pinnacle
This turnover time allowed Arch to angle his way into the movie critic role, and for his first review for NBC-4, he reviewed “American Gigolo” (1980) in a piece that anchor Jim Vance enjoyed.
“Vance thought it was cool that we were gonna review movies … so Vance kind of supported me,” Arch said. “In 1980, as I started reviewing movies, they hired Bob Ryan … they hired George Michael … So suddenly me, Bob, George and Vance worked together on the 11 o’clock news for 26 years.”
The timing was perfect. How could anyone predict that sports legend George Michael and weather legend Bob Ryan would both be hired by NBC-4 the same exact year that movie legend Arch Campbell began reviewing movies in twice daily segments on the evening news in 1980?
“We had complete program flow. You had [Jim] Vance and Doreen [Gentzler] doing the news, then you had Bob Ryan doing the weather, then you had George Michael [doing sports], then you went to me, then you went into either Johnny Carson or Jay Leno. So the thing completely flowed from the hard-edge news to the weather and the sports, and I was sort of the punctuation mark at the end.”
Yes, for many D.C. folks, Arch was the last face they saw before Johnny Carson or Jay Leno. It was a magical time for local TV news, before the rise of cable television, the Internet and social media.
“I don’t think it’ll ever happen again, because I don’t think you’ll ever put together a team and that team will stay as long as we did. Now, things change, people move. … One of the secrets of Channel 4 was that we were all there so long. … Really, I was playing to those people, and when I would write a review, I would think: how am I gonna get this over to Vance? How am I gonna get this across to George Michael? How am I gonna keep their attention without them throwing things at me?”
Aside from the evening news, NBC also syndicated Arch’s movie reviews nationally. From 1985-1990, he hosted “The Arch Campbell Show,” a late-night comedy forum that aired after “Saturday Night Live” and won more than a dozen Emmy awards. In total, he worked at NBC-4 for 32 years.
ABC-7: A New Hope
On Dec. 21, 2006, Arch’s run at Channel 4 came to an end as the then 60-year-old Campbell accepted a buyout and told The Washington Post, “I’m in real deep denial” about leaving. Such is showbiz.
“It really broke my heart to leave, but I had to leave, and when people see me, some people think I’m still on there. … That sadness was amplified when George Michael died,” Arch remembers.
Arch was picked up by WJLA-TV in 2007, bringing his movie and theater reviews to Channel 7 and 8 the same year that he received the D.C. Mayor’s Arts Award for coverage of Washington culture.
“Channel 7 was nice enough to hire me, so they extended my time on TV another eight years … they gave me a little office and people came in to visit, and I kind of became the wise ‘oldest member.'”
In addition to his reviews on WJLA’s evening news, he created a new version of “The Arch Campbell Show” for sister station News Channel 8, which grew into the channel’s most watched program.
“I inherited an entertainment show at Channel 8, and I’d been reviewing movies for so long that I was kind of tired of being the reviewer. So I was able to take that show and bring other reviewers on, and then I was able to bring actors on, and I was sort of able to turn that forum over to other people and still get the information out. The show I did on Channel 8 also let me do a bit of comedy,” he said.
That comedy included jokes disguised as “fan mail,” often “sent” by Angus Lamond of Chevy Chase.
“He is a real guy. I would make up letters that they would bring in. That was probably the most fun I ever had … I liked the off-screen laughter. It made it more intimate. It looked like a cable access show. … The show I did the last three years I worked at 7 and 8 together was the most fun I ever had.”
The Wise Sage
In late 2014, Arch announced he was retiring from TV after Albritton Communications sold WJLA to Sinclair Broadcasting Co. Arch noted on his Facebook page, “The new owners of 7 and 8 have graciously asked me to let them know if and when I want to return. But right now I’m taking a break.”
These days, you can still find Arch at film screenings each week by the Washington Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), where he mines opinions for new reviews on his must-see website ArchCampbell.org. He says he finds a certain peace in the relaxed pace to his approach nowadays.
“All those years I was on Channel 4 especially, I was in a hurry. I’d sit in the back and as soon as the movie was over, I’d be out like a light to get back to the station, because I immediately went on the air. One of the things I really love doing now is sitting there watching the credits. Sometimes I will be the last to leave the theatre. Just let it sink in,” Arch said with a smile.
In his spare time, he serves on the board of the D.C. International Film Festival and advocates for the Avalon Theatre in Chevy Chase, not far from where he lives with his second wife, Gina.
“A friend gave us a wedding card and said, ‘Don’t cry for me Arch & Gina,” Arch joked.
It’s at his neighborhood Avalon that he’ll host the Hitchcock/Truffaut Festival on May 8, allowing him to screen the aforementioned “Notorious” (1946) and his other favorite Hitchcock flicks.
“The tapes of the interviews that Truffaut did with Hitchcock [that became] the Truffaut/Hitchcock book, that’s like The Bible. … He’ll start veering into what’s going on in Jimmy Stewart’s mind as Kim Novak is in the bathroom … and then Hitchcock says, ‘Turn off the tape recorder!’ And what I wanna know is: what did he say? … Many people believe (‘Vertigo’) is the greatest movie ever made.”
So what are some of Arch’s favorite movies? Many of them hail from the so-called Hollywood Renaissance period, roughly 1967-1980, from “The Graduate” (1967) to “Raging Bull” (1980).
“When you see the movies of the ’70s, they blow me away … ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They’ … the way it ends, they would not do that today! … I have a friend who works for the AARP who asked me and Ann Hornaday (The Washington Post) to pick the 10 Most Important Movies to Baby Boomers. Of course, we agreed on ‘The Graduate” … I picked ‘The Godfather’ and ‘American Graffiti.'”
We know his love for “Graffiti” as his first-ever review. But why does he love “The Godfather?”
“It is Shakespearean, and particularly it’s Macbeth,” Arch said. “‘Godfather 1 &2’ actually you can watch over and over and over again. Somebody was showing the ‘Godfather’ epic where they put 1, 2 and 3 together in chronological order, and they added a few scenes that were outtakes. It was nine hours worth and I loved it! I loved watching it. I could watch the whole nine hours.”
But his favorite films aren’t all from the ’70s. Many are from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
“I also love ‘Casablanca.’ I can watch that every time it’s on,” Arch said, before quoting Bogart, “‘I came here for the waters.’ ‘There are no waters in Casablanca.’ ‘I was misinformed.'”
Of course, Arch also loves a good comedy, as you can tell from his deep baritone belly laugh.
“I was looking at ‘Animal Crackers’ the other day. I love that opening scene where they all sing, and [Groucho] Marx comes out and sings, ‘Hello, I Must Be Going,’ and Margaret Dumont comes back, ‘But if you leave, you’ll spoil the party I’m throwing’ … ‘Duck Soup’ is relevant to today. There’s this little country [Freedonia] and they invade it … and the mirror scene with Groucho and Harpo.”
Among other genres, Arch loves film noir flicks like Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944).
“When I was in Los Angeles, I drove to Glendale to see the train station where he gets on the train in ‘Double Indemnity.’ God, that’s so good. And so against type for [Barbara Stanywck],” he said.
Among horror, he considers “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) one of his favorites, along with the aforementioned “Frankenstein” and “Wolf Man.” But which movie scared him the most?
“I have never been as frightened as I was after watching ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ and they never show you [anything], which is scarier … [Ruth Gordon] won the Oscar for that, and her speech was, ‘This is such an encouraging development,” Arch joked. “I think she was like 85 or something.”
At 70, Arch is not quite in Ruth Gordon territory, but he’s had many encouraging developments.
“Now that I don’t work all the time and now that the DVR is invented, I download a lot of films on Turner Classics. I love downloading some of the Orson Welles material, especially ‘Citizen Kane.’ About every six months, I look at ‘Citizen Kane’ again. Every time you look at it, you see something else. ‘Citizen Kane’ really does belong up toward the top [of the greatest movies],” he said.
Speaking of “Kane,” one of his favorite D.C. memories is meeting Frank Mankiewicz, the son of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, at a social event for Oliver Stone here in D.C.
“Frank’s wife was there. She says, ‘Arch, have you ever held an Oscar?’ I said, ‘Well, no I haven’t.’ She says, ‘Well come in here.’ She goes over to a shelf and says, ‘Frank’s father Herman won this Oscar for writing ‘Citizen Kane,’ and she hands me the Oscar! … for a while, the Oscar for the screenplay of ‘Citizen Kane’ was on a shelf in a beautiful condominium in Adam’s Morgan. Isn’t that great?”
It was also Welles who provided another classic Arch Campbell D.C. story.
“When I first came to Washington … the AFI had a theatre here in Kennedy Center. I would go to the AFI two or three nights a week to watch the classics. They’d have an Orson Welles festival. There is a famous night among film buffs involving the AFI in, I think, 1975. They had a showing of ‘The Lady from Shanghai.’ We walked in and they’re excited and they whisper, ‘We’ve got a nitrate print.'”
That’s when all hell broke loose at the Kennedy Center.
“The film goes to the last reel, so Rita Hayworth is driving a ’46 Lincoln Continental Mark One to the fun house to have her scene, and the film skips! Then the film melts from the inside! … The theatre goes dark and I turn around, and you see the top reel catch on fire! They sounded the fire alarm, they opened the doors and they evacuated the entire Kennedy Center,” Arch recalled.
Ironically, he missed the film’s famous final shootout.
“I went there ’cause I wanted to see the famous mirror shootout scene, didn’t get to see it!”
State of the Cinema
Today, films no longer need nitrate prints in the digital age. But while Arch celebrates the way technology has democratized indie filmmaking, he laments the approach of many blockbusters.
“I mourn the commercial nature of the majority of movies today. I mourn that they’re so safe. They’re marketing oriented, they’re focused grouped. A focus group can’t tell you what they’ll like. People can’t tell you what they’re gonna like until they see it! And yet, too many movies are being based on what they think people will like. I mourn that,” Arch said.
Because of this trend, he cherishes the vital role of the great movie critics.
“The Washington Post has brought so many talented people to those pages. Rita Kempley, I love. She had the humor of Dorothy Parker, a common touch, but she also had great depth of knowledge. Paul Attanasio went on to write screenplays … and Stephen Hunter is just one of the greatest writers I’ve ever read. Now, Ann Hornaday is the voice for movies in Washington. I think the world of her.”
Amid so many great intellectual print journalists, Arch always carved out his own layman’s path.
“Given that, I would need to occupy a different position. I wanted to sound like the guy who had just come out of the theater, and very often I was. I wanted to be the guy who said, ‘This is good. Go see it.’ That’s a different stance than someone writing a treatise of criticism. So I always thought I was a reviewer, and some of the people I admired the most were doing criticism.”
All these years later, Arch is still honing his craft, taking writing classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. Washingtonian magazine recently published his piece about the defunct Roma restaurant across from the Uptown Theatre in Cleveland Park. He is now debating becoming a playwright.
“I went back to San Antonio and my mother lived in the same house for 45 years,” Arch said. “The people who bought it have been there 20 years, and they invited me back to visit recently … I walked up to the guy and said, ‘I am the ghost of West Mistletoe Street,’ and he laughed.”
Suddenly, the offhand wisecrack got the creative wheels turning in Arch’s head.
“As I thought about it, I realized … I am one of the ghosts of West Mistletoe Street … I’m trying to make sense of that on the page … but I think my father and mother are still in that house.”
They’ve likely got a ghostly projector, screening 1946 classics from Arch’s birth year, films like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which it has certainly been for Arch. Back in his native Texas, he fittingly made a pilgrimage to Archer City, 325 miles from his San Antonio home, to visit the place where Peter Bogdanovich shot his nostalgic love note to classic cinema: “The Last Picture Show” (1971).
Arch is still far from his last picture show, just as Washington is far from Archer City, but when it comes to movie fans in the nation’s capital, one thing is certain: D.C. will always be Arch’s City.
Listen to the full interview with Arch Campbell below:
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