My first serial was a 1943 Columbia product "The Phantom" based on a newspaper comic strip. The serial played at the Bond, which was just across Main Street from our North Cherry St. apartment. Since I walked almost the same route every day to Mary Allen West School, I was allowed to go alone to the theater; and I used that as a wedge to talk my parents into letting me go alone to the Colonial and West on South Prairie, too.
When our family moved to Blaine Avenue, it was a longer walk and more dangerous (especially crossing the Burlington tracks) but on Blaine I went with buddies so I was allowed to continue to attend every Saturday.
Sometimes the theater we chose depended as much on the serial as the feature. If we did miss a chapter, there was always a catch-up on the plot along about episode 8 which rehashed some of the best action sequences while retelling the story of what had happened so far.
Thanks to the studios habit of re-running their better serials every few years, I got to see some of the older classics like "Flash Gordon," "Darkest Africa" (with animal trainer Clyde Beatty) and "Undersea Kingdom" (with Crash Corrigan).
However, I developed some favorites of my own like "The Tiger Woman" with my favorite movie hero Allan Lane and luscious Linda Stirling, "The Purple Monster Strikes" (with Roy Barcroft as the Martian) and "King of the Rocket Men" (which was so successful that its best action footage was recycled at least three times in other similar films. Remember Commando Cody?)
My absolute all-time favorite was "The Crimson Ghost" whose master villain wore a skull-like mask and sought control of a world-dominating device called the Cyclotrode. (Master villains were always seeking and using such gadgets!) This action-packed serial featured as one of its secondary villains an actor who went back and forth from hero to heavy with amazing ease. His name was Clayton Moore, and he is best known for his TV portrayal of The Lone Ranger.
Few serial actors graduated to better things. The best they usually could hope for was B-movie parts. There were notable exceptions, of course, like John Wayne, George Brent, Bruce Bennett and Lloyd Bridges. Gene Autry got his first movie stardom in a serial called "Phantom Empire," and Milburn Stone was a serial regular before he became "Gunsmokes" Doc Adams. On the female side, Ruth Roman and Jennifer Jones went on to much better parts in movies while Phyllis Coates and Noel Neill became early TV leading ladies.
Famous athletes were sometimes featured in serials. Olympic swimmer Buster Crabbe became a chapter play regular as Tarzan, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. He was the lead in nine different serials, most of any actor. Gridiron great Red Grange of Illinois starred appropriately enough as "The Galloping Ghost" in a 1931 Mascot serial. "Slingin Sammy" Baugh of the Washington Redskins starred for Republic in 1941 as "King of the Texas Rangers." Neither of the latter pair was very good and never appeared again.
Todays trend of turning comic book heroes into feature movies was anticipated by serials. Superman and Batman were serial heroes. So were Tarzan, the Phantom, and Captain Marvel. Characters from the Chicago Sunday comics also turned up in chapter plays: Dick Tracy, Smilin Jack, Brenda Starr, Buck Rogers, Tailspin Tommy, and Don Winslow of the Navy.
Radio was represented by "Gang Busters," the Shadow, the Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet, Fu Manchu, Hop Harrigan, Captain Midnight and Jack Armstrong. Spy Smasher and Secret Agent X-9 were popular during World War II. Even television was represented in a 1951 serial: "Captain Video." Of course, it was television which killed the serial--just as it finished the B-movie western. Sound serials were made only from 1929-1956. (There were silent serials, of course, but the Golden Age is generally considered to be the 30s and 40s.)
Some old-time serials continue to survive on video tape and DVDs. The experience is not the same, however. The serial was part of a Saturday afternoon adolescent ritual; and theres really no way to recreate it in your livingroom. Or anywhere else these days.