July 27, 3:00 am, awake and unable to get back to sleep, I try to think of something peaceful, or nothing at all, practice meditation, or remember a Bible verse. Finally, I get up and stealthily descend the stairs. Avoiding the creaking floorboards, I enter a world that is neither late nor early. Moments after the TV is on, I find escape, absorption and distraction. Before 9:00 am, I’d watched, Farewell My Concubine, Tender Mercies, and Fireflies in the Garden. I have been thoroughly entertained by a very eclectic combination, for sure. Movies. Just typing the word conjures up an earlier time, a time when going to the movies wasn’t such a passive activity; it required effort. It was a time of Friday night dates, Saturday afternoon matinees and the drive-in theater.
From the time I was old enough to understand human voices, I heard the stories of my mother’s girlhood and her unlimited access to motion pictures. Back in the day, both her mother and grandmother were “matrons” at the theaters situated in the tiny village of Onset. Those ladies were a dynamic duo. They’d clean the theater before and after the showings, walk the aisles keeping law and order, and even clean the bathrooms. I can’t tell you how many times my mother recounted scenes not from the movies she saw, but from the stories told to her by her Ma and Gramma. One of her favorites was that the hardworking matrons found women, without a doubt, dirtier than men. Of course, these opinions came from their restroom cleaning adventures, details of which you will be spared. This was the Depression Era. Women were scraping for any type of work to help feed their families, even work they found innately unpleasant. Not quite Dickensian, but close.
My mother was oftentimes allowed free admission by the manager, who took pity on the little girl waiting for her mother’s shift to end. Other times, her grandmother would slide a pass along from her perch inside the ticket booth. Either way, there wasn’t a movie running that my mother didn’t see numerous times.
There was the Temple Theater and the Onset. Imagine two large theaters in that tiny Victorian town. By the mid-1950s, both buildings were boarded up. The height of their glory years spanned between the 1920s and the 1940s. Their demise was twofold: more automobiles owned by more people, hence greater access to venues further from home; and the invention of television.
But for many, the memory of Saturday afternoon matinees brings back walking to “the show” with your pals, or hand-in-hand with your sweetheart to see iconic stars like Judy Garland, Jimmy Cagney, Mickey Rooney, Abbott and Costello, Buster Keaton, John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Betty Davis, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and the Lone Ranger. And who can forget Shirley Temple? (Not me – I even had a S.T. doll long before my first Barbie.)
By the time I started going to the movies, many of my present-day associates were already veterans of the fun.
“We used to get all the guys in the neighborhood, jump on our bikes and head to the movies. The show cost maybe 25 cents and you’d need a nickel for a bag of popcorn or a candy bar.” This gentleman went on to share that “New Bedford was loaded with motion picture shows. There was the Capitol, Center, Olympia, Empire, State, Rialto, Baylies Square, the original Zeiterion, and the Orpheum.” When asked what he liked to see the most, without hesitation he said, “Cowboys and Indians!”
“We only had radio back then, so the movies were the thing … After watching a Western, we’d put our ears to the railroad tracks near our house because we were Indian Scouts!” he added.
Another person of a particular age remembers his movie going this way: “The Criterion theatre in East Rockaway, N.Y., was our Saturday afternoon home away from home. John Wayne came along to bring our childhood war games to real life in Sands of Iwo Jima. Funny and confusing since, three years earlier, Mr. Wayne had also morphed into similar heroic acts against Native American Indians in Fort Apache. Back to 1951, Hollywood trended to the dark side with one of the scariest movies we could imagine: The Thing. Kids who had seen it the week before had warned us to do sneak peeks and not look during certain frightening scenes. I clearly remembered the queue at one point and put my jacket sleeve up to my eye (as if it were a periscope), reluctantly cheating on the previous friendly advice.”
A husband and wife team remember their years growing up in New York’s boroughs and bring us the following: “We went to the Pioneer Theater because our parents dropped us off there on Saturdays to get rid of us for a few hours!”
The wife went on to share, “It had holes in the roof, so on rainy days you might get wet, but we didn’t care.”
I love this slice of life that she finished her reminisces with: “Our neighborhood was small, yet we couldn’t go far because bad neighborhoods surrounded us and we didn’t have money for the bus or a car, so when someone got married at the local church, everyone went there to watch the ceremony. Life centered around the church and the theater.”
The husband said, “Movies were the escape, an adventure; even walking there was a big deal because you were leaving the few blocks that were your everyday world.”
Still another person whose vintage recollections add dimension and texture to those days: “I’m from Hartford, Conn., we had big theaters on Main Street.” He described the interiors as plush with painted frescos, chandeliers, grand resplendence as the screens came to life with the much loved line-up of “News of the Day,” cartoons and a double feature.
I didn’t go to the movie theater very often as a kid, but I do remember seeing an Elvis flick. The film had been colorized using new processes called Technicolor. Elvis’ hair was tar pit black, shirt iridescent red, and slacks shimmering blue. Oh, Elvis, he was such a vision for my pubescent eyes, even in unbelievable hues not available in the natural world.
The drive-in theaters were really my favorite. You got to wear your PJs outside the house, play on the swings and slides before the movies started, and eat deep fried foods, ice cream, and/or candy, while lounging on the hood of the car watching the show. Once the mosquitos got too aggressive, I’d scramble into the backseat and usually fall asleep to the tin can voices from the window speaker.
From the Smithsonian website we learn that in 1933, Richard Hollingshead opened the first drive-in in Camden, New Jersey. He was an auto-parts salesman who understood American’s love of the automobile. Pairing the activity of watching a movie while sitting inside one’s prize possession, the automobile, was genius on his part.
Hollingshead had to experiment for a few years before he could figure out the best way to position the cars in the lot for viewing pleasure. He came up with a graduated ramp system placing the cars at different heights. The concept of drive-in movies, however, didn’t really take off until the development of the in-car speakers in the early 1940s. Another reason that people gravitated to the open-air theaters was the flexibility. They could bring their babies, they could smoke, they could carry in their own snacks and drinks. By 1958, there were approximately 4,000 drive-in movie theaters in the U.S., while today there are about 400 that struggle to stay open. Interesting side note: China is suddenly becoming enthralled with drive-in theaters, as more and more Chinese own cars.
Another family member was an usher at the Wareham drive-in. Uncle John loved the movies and he loved his job at the drive-in. He’d walk between the rows with his flashlight making sure nothing bad was happening, like people drinking beer or making out. Years later, when he lived with my parents, he and my mother would stay up late at night watching all the old black and white films on TV with the lights out, as if they were in a movie theater or the drive-in.
The film industry’s financiers understood the mechanics of turning a profit: the movie needed to play frequently. In that regard, the drive-ins were a lost leader. The “A” movies were aired indoors numerous times per day before ever being released to the drive-ins. Hence,the drive-ins often got the “B” quality films while waiting for the better flicks. Alas, it is a sad fact that as drive-ins began to decline in popularity, the films they could get were also declining – many resorted to pornography to keep the business going. Today, I think the nearest outside theater is in Wellfleet, and they do air first-rate movies. It is a tribute to a time gone by.
The movies still leave lasting memories for us. My granddaughter fondly recalls her first real movie in a theater with her dad. They went to see Piglet’s Big Movie. Her father, my son, remembers Superman in the huge cinema in Long Beach, Calif., December 1978. I couldn’t afford the tickets and snacks, so I packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a thermos of milk, sneaking it inside in my giant handbag. For months afterward, I’d have to pin towels, aka capes, to my little boy’s shirts so he could “fly around” like Superman.
All of this came before we had concerns about being vulnerable in public places. But, I’ll tell you one thing: We won’t be scared into staying home. We are Americans! Our pastime activities help us survive our stressful busy lifestyles. It is true that going to the movies costs a great deal of money today, which is why we are probably much more selective on which ones we are willing to plank down the debit card for. But we love movies. Heck, there’s a movie out now that was partially filmed in Onset last summer! Making and watching films is part of our American culture. Long live the movies!
By Marilou Newell