Today, someone asked me, “What was the first movie you ever saw in a movie theater?” And long story short, that simple question gave me so much to think about, it brought me back to this blog to ramble once more. I’m old, and so by right of living as long as I have, I get to bitch about how things used to be. This will be one of those times.
I am a cinephile. I love going to the movies. Nowadays, however, I get filled with a sense of nostalgia when I think about why I love going to the movies, and nostalgia leads to depression, and depression leads to writing. So here I go.
I grew up in a small college town in Pennsylvania. It was a very, very small college town. In fact, it wasn’t even a town. Here’s some trivia for you: How many towns are there in Pennsylvania? Answer: One — Bloomsburg. Everything else is a township, a borough, or a city. Everything in between is often referred to as Pennsyltucky, and it consists of small, isolated clusters of houses controlled by a shotgun-wielding hillbilly who calls himself “the mayor.” I grew up in one of the three things that is not a town. But we still called it a town. There was the college on a hill, and the businesses that surrounded it like piglets around a sow. The town was kept alive by the money coming in from the college on the hill. The college was connected to the town by a road called College Avenue, and if you walked three blocks down that road from campus, you would be downtown. And in our downtown, we had a movie theater.
The movie theater was a single-show throwback to the 1940s. The lobby smelled of buttered popcorn. The floors were sticky. You bought your tickets to the show at the concession stand from the kindly old couple who owned the theater. The tickets were just little stubs of green paper that said “ADMIT ONE.”
When I was a child, going to the movies was an event. You planned your whole week around it. Not like today, where taking in a movie is almost an after-thought. You drive to a huge shopping center where the googelplex offers eight different titles on fifteen different screens, ranging from no-frills 2D to 3D to blow-your-head-off Imax 3D and even 4D, where the seats move and they sometimes spray you in the face with what appears to be old hotdog water.
Our little theater offered one movie every two weeks or so, and my sister and I would call the theater just to hear the recorded message say, “Showing this week…” and “Showtimes are at…”. The voice was that of the old gentleman who owned and operated the theater. During the week, they had one showing at 7:30 every weekday night. On the weekends, there would be three different showings: The 3:00 matinee, the 6:30 show, and the late-night 9:30 show.
When I was asked, “What was the first movie you ever saw in a movie theater?” I had to think about it. I’m not really sure what the movie was, but I am certain it was at this little local theater. You can’t talk about movies without dating yourself, so I will just tell you right now if you didn’t pick up on it earlier: I’m old. I probably went to see my first movie with my family when I was 5 years old. I am guessing it was either The Apple Dumpling Gang or the original Escape to Witch Mountain.
It was always so exciting to go to the movies. It was an event, as I’ve said, and the event usually went like this: My sister or I would spot the theater marquee at some point when we were in the car going past said marquee. This was no easy task, as the theater was set far back from the main road to allow for theater parking. The theater parking lot was dirt. How’s that for old? If the film title sounded interesting, we would call the theater to hear the recorded message for details. We would run into the house, each get on an extension, and dial — actually DIAL, on a damn rotary phone hanging on the wall — the number and wait for the ring. If the brief, recorded synopsis piqued our interest in the slightest, we went to mom. Luckily, our mom liked going to the movies, too. And we were generally well-behaved children, so she didn’t mind taking us along, even with the ridiculously high cost of movie tickets back then — $2. We’d usually catch the 7:30 showing on a Thursday night. Weekends in our house were usually set aside for family gatherings.
My family had moved to this small town just before my sixth birthday. I remember it clearly. I got a Red Flyer wagon for my birthday present that year. I know, right? Sounds like I grew up in a Rockwell painting. And I am happy to say, that’s not too far from the truth — at least, that’s how it seemed to me. My parents might have had slightly different recollections. My father had been a government man — military, CIA, U.S. Marshal. He had guarded Nixon during the Watergate hearings. He had been forced into retirement due to a field injury he sustained on a training exercise. We had moved to College Town, PA., because it was my mother’s hometown, and we lived with my grandparents for our first two years there. My grandparents owned a large house on a street adjacent to College Avenue, so it was a quick walk to downtown and the movie theater.
My father resented retirement, and being from Alabama, he hated living “up north.” He also hated spending two years living under his in-laws’ roof. So my mother didn’t mind getting the kids out of the house to enjoy the escape of the cinema once in a frequent while.
We would walk two houses over to College Avenue, then one block down to Main Street by the A&P, and cross over to the little theater my mother had probably frequented as a teenager. She’d buy our tickets, and we’d usually get a couple of sodas and popcorn to share. And then we would walk into the dim theater, our shoes making the tacky sound of sticking slightly to the layers of sugary treats spilled on the wooden floor over the years. We’d find some seats — it was always general admission — and watch the previews with just as much excitement as we would the main attraction.
Back then, there were no advertisements played before the movie, only three or four trailers for upcoming films. Their audio popped and sizzled like an old LP record when the needle drops, and that infamous Movie Voice would kick in and talk about the plot. I can’t tell you the anger I felt the first time I ever sat in a theater, some twenty years later, and saw ads for Mountain Dew and Nike sneakers on the big screen. To me, it was sacrilege.
After the movie, my sister and I would talk excitedly about the adventure we had just witnessed. Every sentence began with, “I liked the part when…”. When we got home, we’d be too wound up to sleep, so mom would let us watch a bit of late-night TV. Sometimes, my dad would be watching with my grandparents on the downstairs set, and my sister and I would lie on the floor in front of them and watch whatever was on. My mother might bring us some juice and a snack, and then it was bath time and bed time. Hmm… I wonder if she ever slipped something in that juice to put us out? She had been a nurse…
Sometimes, my mom would want to see a movie, and she would take my sister and I along because she knew we loved the cinema, and my father usually had no interest. Once she took us to see the musical Grease, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. My sister and I knew Travolta from his TV series, Welcome Back, Kotter, which we were allowed to watch with the family. Afterwards, my mom had decided that the film may have been too racy for my sister and I, but that didn’t stop us from getting the original Broadway cast recording — on 8-track — because we liked the songs. That summer, my sister, her friends, and I had dance contests on the back porch to that album. My father must have been horrified. He would be happy to know that I turned out relatively “normal” by 1970s male standards. I mean, I’m not married and I don’t have children, but I do like the ladies and I even watch football now! Lifestyle customs may have changed — I’m not a chain-smoking, family-ignoring, crime drama aficionado, but I’m not a professional dancer prancing and pirouetting in tights, either. So there’s a happy medium somewhere in there that I think he could live with.
Not to paint a totally loathsome picture of my father. He had had a hard life, I found out after he had died from his third heart attack. His mother had died when he and his brother were the age I was when I was taken to my first movie. Rather than take him to movies, his father had abandoned him and his brother with their maternal grandparents, poor Alabama dirt farmers who could barely feed themselves let alone two young boys. At around twelve years of age, he and his brother had run away from the orphanage they had been placed in and lived on the streets of New Orleans before lying about their ages to join the military. My father was distant, that’s for sure, and yes, he was a bit of a racist. He got mad if he saw me playing with black kids. And there was one in our town, too, and she lived right across the street from my grandparents! The horror. Imagine what he would think if he knew that that same black girl was also my partner in every parent’s nightmare, the dreaded First Sexual Experience. All we did was unzip our pants and dry-hump, but that’s still pretty damned exciting for a couple of curious ten-year-olds.
Aside from all of the negative things, my father had been a good parent. He never hit us, and he only raised his voice on the rare occasions that we had misbehaved terribly. Most of the time, he didn’t say much to us at all. When he did, though, he was usually a very funny guy. He made us laugh a lot. He could tell good jokes, talk in funny voices, and when he was in a good mood, the whole world seemed a joyful place. Sadly, his depression made those moments rare, and this is why they were so special. Let me come back to dear old dad, as there is a story coming up I need to tell first before I tell you about another memory with him.
Going to the movies was a memorable event for me growing up, and it still is. So much so that I sometimes wish I had had children of my own, just to take them out and introduce them to the cinema. But you can’t go home again, as Thomas Wolfe so famously wrote. That old theater is long gone. It burned down in what is a highly-suspected case of insurance-scam arson, but the local authorities let it slide because the old man that owned it had needed the money to watch his wife die of cancer. The town never replaced the theater. My old home town is now theater-less. Everyone just drives to the next town over, where their old theater is still up and running. Or they drive to the modern googelplexes in the larger population centers, a good 45 minute drive in either direction. Could you imagine going to college in a town that had no local movie theater? Sad days, indeed.
Let me bring the mood up a little bit with a delightful anecdote, one of my favorite childhood memories of our old local theater. Some may view it as a tragedy in today’s easily-offended, overly-concerned and opinionated climate, but when my sister and I look back on it, we laugh our asses off. Here’s what happened:
A couple of years after our last trip to the local theater with our mom, it was decided that my sister and I were old enough to go to the movies alone. It was a short one-and-a-half block walk, and it was the late 1970s in a very tiny Pennsylvania college town. Back then, we children were allowed to run like wild natives in the streets and yards until the curfew whistle (an old WWII-era air raid siren mounted atop the local municipal building) blew at quarter-to-ten, sending us all scurrying back into our homes. In such a climate of throw-back Americana, it didn’t seem like a risk to allow an eight-year-old girl and her best friend to take her little seven-year-old brother to the movies. My parents had issues to deal with, and a few hours without us in the house might be just the thing. The movie we went to see was apparently directed by an up-and-comer in the industry named Stephen Spielberg. The film? Jaws.
Years later, I wondered, “Back in 1975, was Jaws rated R?” I Googled this, and Google says, “DESPITE ALL THE BLOODY SHARK ATTACKS, THE MOVIE IS RATED PG. Jaws was initially rated R by the MPAA. … The poster for the film still reads that the movie ‘MAY BE TOO INTENSE FOR YOUNGER CHILDREN.’”
So off we youngsters went, me, my sister, and her best friend, Kelly, all of 8 years old, to see the 7:30 showing of Jaws with no P to provide the G. And we were allowed in, no questions asked. Kelly was so excited to see the big fish movie about a shark that she had brought along her stuffed plush shark toy. You know, to root for Jaws.
I can still remember, in very clear detail, that scene near the end of the film (spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen Jaws in the 40-odd years it’s been out) when Jaws leaps onto the boat and bites Quint in half. Blood spurts from Quint’s mouth as the shark thrashes about, ripping Quint through the guts before dragging the bloody, screaming body below the waves.
I remember looking over at my sister, her pale, wide-eyed face glowing in the darkness of the theater, he mouth hanging open in silent horror. And poor, poor Kelly, clutching her stuffed shark to her face, tears visible on her cheeks, just traumatized. Why, that shark hadn’t been friendly at all! I got mixed feelings from her when the shark was finally blown to bloody bits at the end of the film. Then Hooper and Chief Brody kicked their way back to shore, cracking jokes about not liking the ocean, and the lights came up. We walked home in silence. No one said, “I liked the part when…”, but I do think I heard Kelly say, “That was so gross!”
I think I did tell my dad about it, because when Jaws II came out, he took me to see it. My sister and my mother went to see Heaven Can Wait, but the men went to see Jaws II bite guys in half. It is one of the few memories I have with my dad. I can only really recall three or four memorable moments with him, and they were always awkward. As I am on a roll with my ramblings tonight, I am going to list them.
The first one was going to see Jaws II. We went to the Triplex theater in Elmira, New York to see it. It was a new thing, a “triplex,” so named because it had three cinemas. One theater was showing Heaven Can Wait, for my mother and sister, and one was showing Jaws II for my dad and me. I have no idea what the third theater was showing. My dad and I went in and we sat on the middle-end, about eight rows back from the screen. As we waited for the film to start, some friends of mine came down and said they were watching a few rows back. We chatted briefly, and then they went back to their seats. My father looked at me and said, “You can go back and sit with them if you want.” I wanted to say, “No way! I never get to do stuff with you. I’m staying right here.” All I said was, “Nah.”
Another memory with him was when I was in a school chorus performance, something about Winnie the Pooh. I was in elementary school. My dad was obligated, being the unemployed parent, to come down and see my class perform. After the performance (in which I screwed up my one solo line), we all mingled there in the gymnasium, parents, teachers, students. I went straight to my dad as he had nothing to say to the locals, really. I remember I had been under the mistaken impression that the performance was all we were doing in school that day, and that I could now go home with my father. It was the second grade, and I was already starting to dislike school. I brought my father back to our classroom to get my things, only to discover that none of the other kids had brought their parents to take them home. Everyone was in their seats, and our teacher was beginning the day’s math lesson. I could tell my father was a bit embarrassed to be the only dad that had followed his kid back to class. He said hello to our teacher, told me to take my seat, and off he went.
Another memory was of a trip we took to go looking for frogs and turtles. Being a young boy, I loved frogs and turtles. We often would drive to the end of the local bike trail, where there was a boating dock on a lazy river, and it seemed like the best place to look for said amphibians. One day, I wanted to go there but my mother was too busy, so my father offered to take me, just the two of us. We got into his car and off we went, and it was a long ride because I always found it difficult to talk to my father. To make things worse, when we got there, the river area was closed off due to flooding. My father must have sensed my disappointment, because he said, “I know a place where we can go look for frogs and turtles.” We got back in the car, and he drove. And drove. And drove. Just turning down side-streets, going up and down the rolling back hills… he obviously hadn’t had any other place in mind, but now we were on a quest to find a passable waterway that might have a toad or something similarly amphibious. We ended up two towns over, parked under a bridge, on a stony riverbank. There were obviously no critters around to capture, but he showed me how to skip rocks on the water.
And one final memory was of the two of us, sitting on the floor of our basement rec room, putting together a model train set I had gotten for my birthday. I remember my father seemed to know all about how to put it together, and he showed me the best way to arrange it, and we had it running in no time.
What was I talking about? Ah, yes. Movies. Movies in the theater. What an event they are. A movie anywhere, any how, any time, is always an event. They say movie theaters are disappearing, like the drive-ins did, giving way to better technology in the home theater market. I think that is a shame. Every child should have the experience of going to the local movie theater with their family and watching some cinematic entertainment, no matter how bad it may be. It gives you something to talk about.
About a year before my father died, they showed the Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein on network television. I laid on the shag carpeting of our living room floor and watched it on our big early 1980s TV set. Those things were big, heavy pieces of wooden furniture. My father sat behind me, in his favorite chair, and watched me watch the movie. When I laughed, he laughed, and at one point, he beamed down at me and said, “I don’t think I have ever seen you laugh this hard!” I just turned and grinned back at him, thinking, “I can remember every single time I’ve seen you laugh.”
Every. Single. Time.
I love movies.