The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Mount Olympus, the Sanctuary of Poseidon at Sounion – the ancient Greeks believed that certain spots on earth were sacred places. I’ve often felt the same about certain movie theaters. I’m not sure what it is exactly about some theaters that separates them from the Mallplex experience, but for me it has something to do with the very personal discovery and rediscovery of the enormous seductive pleasures of the movies. In today’s post I’ll revisit a few of the movie theaters where those giant images up on the screen in the dark took over my imagination for a couple of hours.
Giuseppe Tornatore’s Oscar-winning 1988 film Cinema Paradiso explores the emotions I feel for these old moviehouses very well. This crowd-pleaser tells the story of a 40-something film director who seems to have it all – fame and a successful career, luscious mistress, elegant apartment in Rome. But he’s dissatisfied, haunted by memories of his boyhood Sicilian town and the days when he first fell in love, with both a girl and the movies. There’s more — Philippe Noiret has a star turn as the kid’s wise and kindly projectionist/mentor – but the appeal of Tornatore’s film lies in his mastery at capturing on screen that first magic feeling for the movies.
One of my earliest, preschool memories is walking home with my father from a double bill of cowboy flics on the cold, dark streets of our Philadelphia neighborhood, a ritual we seemed to perform every Saturday afternoon that winter. Chances are we’d seen Gene Autry in the feature and Lash LaRue in the short, a serial continued week to week. Or at least that’s what my memory wants to recall.
Westerns were huge for me then. An older woman I know, who was then our neighbor in the trailer park where we lived and whom I visited each afternoon for cookies and a dose of Howdy Doody on the TV, recently told me that as a five-year-old I had promised to return as a grown-up “riding a golden palomino” to marry her and ride away with her into the West.
There are more details for the next stop on the Moviehouses I Love Tour. It’s the Hickory Drive-In, small-town Pennsylvania, mid-1950s. My father has tuberculosis and has been sent to a sanitarium up in the mountains, a half-day’s drive away, a situation reminiscent of what happens to Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain. Almost every night that summer my mother, perhaps seeking to escape life with her in-laws and inject a little pleasure into what must have been a tough existence, takes my six-year-old sister and me to the local drive-in.
I remember the playground in front of the vast screen where we cavorted until it got dusky enough for the movie to begin, the smell of the wonderfully greasy fries and burgers you picked up at the white-washed cement-block refreshment stand, the tinny speakers you hooked up to your rolled down car window, a lot of Technicolor up there on the screen, and then often falling asleep in the back seat during the second feature of the night. I recall only a couple of the movies from that summer, though we must have seen a hundred.
While much of the fare must have been beyond my nine-year-old’s sensibility, it was the era of Hollywood’s Production Code and nothing too salacious popped up on screen. Still, the revelation for me, the unforgettable film of that summer, was The Seven Year Itch, starring the fabulous Marilyn Monroe and directed, I now discover, by the great Billy Wilder. This is the movie, based on a hit Broadway farce, in which a bumbling family man/executive (Tom Ewell) sends his wife and kids off on a summer vacation and then discovers that his new upstairs neighbor is you guessed it – Marilyn at her most Marilynesque.
The Scene, the one that imprinted instantly on my callow brain, is the iconic shot of Marilyn standing on a subway grate with a rush of air blowing her skirt up around her waist. I’m not sure I understood why Tom Ewell was so interested in Marilyn, but I certainly understood why I was.
Fade, and now the scene in my memory comes up on a beat-up old theater in another Pennsylvania small town, Etna (named after a volcano in Sicily, as the town’s historical marker had it). The Etna Theater was nothing special in a worldly sense, but it was walkable from my house, with the bonus of a good pizza joint on the way home, and I spent nearly every Saturday afternoon in my junior high school career here. For your $1.25, they offered you a full program at the Etna – a double feature with Bingo at the intermission, lots of Coming Attractions, a newsreel, and a cartoon.
I remember particularly an epic Hollywood Western called The Big Country starring Gregory Peck, the perfect vehicle for a big screen; quite a bit of Abbott and Costello in black and white; a Technicolor version of The Hound of the Baskervilles starring Basil Rathbone; and a truly creepy black-and-white version of Jack the Ripper in the London fog that dominated my nighttime subconscious for months afterward.
The Etna was also the site of my first date, in eighth grade, an event that required weeks of after-school phone conversations before I could work up the courage to actually suggest such a thing. My father chauffeured that night, and it was in the back row of the Etna that I managed, astonishingly, to work my arm around a warm girl for the first time in my life.
Ah romance, but the word counter is beeping me a message: “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? THOMAS MANN? HE WROTE NOVELS, NOT BLOG POSTS.” So further thoughts on other movie palaces of my memory will turn up in my next post.