Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Junior Mints (1956)

The Wooster Schine Theater was a classic example of an art deco movie palace. The ticket booth was a smooth chrome curve extending from the wall, and a ramp lined with movie posters of features and attractions led up to the two sets of bronzed double doors. They opened into a lobby of sky-blue walls, burgundy velvet curtains, and gold starburst chandeliers. There was a long glass candy counter and a brass machine for popcorn. Off to the left, stairs led up to the balcony, while on the main level two aisles led down to a real stage, where occasionally there was live entertainment (my father remembers for his senior prom night that they had entertainment and movies until 2 or 3 am. I thought group fun on prom night to keep kids out of trouble was a modern thing).

When the curtains opened, the movie began. On Saturdays, for a quarter they ran trailers of what would be showing a few weeks out, a cartoon, a lesser picture (a B film or something shorter) and then the feature. My father remembers, “When you went to the movies, you spent your Saturday there. It would start at one and you wouldn’t get out until four or five in the afternoon.” Most of the time the movie was a quarter, but for some of the big releases the price was a dollar. Ben-Hur was one such film. He thought that was nothing short of robbery. I asked him if he paid the dollar. He says he doesn’t remember, but he knows he saw Ben-Hur.



The interior of the Wooster Theater in the 1930s. Note the organ next to the stage. More images here.
I wondered if he ever really thought about or noticed the theater itself. While he knew that it was “nice,” it never struck him as anything particularly special. “Really Mar, I was there for the movies.” The Wooster Theater had ushers – always men, never women – that wore burgundy jackets and carried little flashlights to help you find a seat. “Why no ladies?” I asked. “Don’t really know, but they were definitely always men, college age or a little older. How else are you gonna get a bunch of high school kids to quiet down?” To me, growing up as I did in an age of twelve screen megaplexes, the concept of sitting in a balcony to watch a movie sounded romantic and sophisticated. “They only opened the balcony when they had a guy [usher] to watch it. You couldn’t have twenty kids running around up there with nobody to watch them.” So much for sophistication.

My father was like his mother in that if it was a movie, he liked it. Some of the earliest films he can remember seeing at the Wooster Theater are The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Man from the Alamo (1953). His most vivid memories are of movies like White Christmas (1954), Bambi (1942, probably the ‘57 re-release) and Singing in the Rain (1952) -- big, colorful films with music and wide screen cinematography.

He remembers a lot of hype leading up to the premiere of Forbidden Planet (1956). Quaker Oats Puffed Wheat sponsored a national contest for kids to name the robot. But in searching for this contest, for the kid who won or runner-up robot names, I can only find a Quaker Oats promo to give away free tickets to see Forever, Darling and Forbidden Planet. What could my father be remembering? Or misremembering? I’m not sure I want to tell him that this memory he has is false; if memory is better than reality, what difference does it make after fifty years? What is absolutely true is that Robbie the Robot inspired Spielberg, Lucas, and my father with a lifetime love of sci-fi thrillers, and I am pleased to see that Robbie, like Trigger has his own IMDB page.

Talking to my father made me remember something from my own childhood. “Hey Dad – you know that story you told us, about that thing you did with the washers and the rubber band on the seats of the theater?” “Oh… That.” Yeah Dad, that. I couldn’t get him to confess how old he was when he did it (which means he was old enough to know better) but at some point he and his friends, utilizing the same principles as the motor of a rubber-band airplane, created a gizmo to make a sound like “stinkies” (his word). Apparently against the corduroy seats it sounded amazingly realistic. I’m not sure if they did this to embarrass unsuspecting others (probably) or purely for their own amusement (undoubtedly), but it has always reminded me that my father is not all that he seems.

Once my father started high school he began seeing movies with large groups of friends (for all I know this is when the “stinkies" gizmo was at its most humorous). “It was nothing for just my brother and I to start out and end up with a group of ten or twenty kids. We’d fill up an entire row of seats.” He watched Psycho (1960) with one such group. According to my father they were deathly silent during the film, right up until Vera Mills found Mrs. Bates. Apparently he was not the only one who let out a yelp.

It occurred to me that maybe he and his friends were the reason that they needed male ushers. Did he ever get into trouble? “Oh, we’d get a ‘If I hear one more thing, this row is out of here!’ Other kids got thrown out, but I never did. Besides, we were only noisy during the previews. We wanted to see the movie.” I suspect that my father was probably as rowdy as anybody else, but he’s probably telling the truth. Getting thrown out would have embarrassed him profoundly, so I’m sure he never crossed the line -- or more to the point, never got caught.

My father may not have been particular about the movies he saw, but he was very discriminating regarding his refreshment choices. Grandma usually gave my father and his younger brother 30 or 35 cents apiece, which left them with a nickel or dime for candy. My father didn’t buy candy in the theater, though – too expensive. Just next to the theater there was a candy store. “It was tiny, maybe the size of a small room. One wall was all glass jars filled with penny candy, but I didn’t care about that. The counter with the cash register was a glass case that had pre-packaged candy – Snickers bars and stuff like that.” My father bought a box of junior mints for a nickel.

Junior mints, introduced in 1949 by the Welch Company, makers of Milk Duds and Sugar Babies.
For as long as I can remember, chocolate mint is a flavor I associate with my father. In the summertime there was a stash of small peppermint patties in the freezer. Junior mints, however, were something I had only at Halloween.

“How come I only remember peppermint patties growing up? Did you ever get peppermint patties at the movies?”

“No, not usually. I preferred junior mints. They melt in your mouth better. They also came in a cardboard box, so you didn’t have to eat them all at once. Peppermint patties do not survive well in pockets.” Ever the chemist, he then explained that junior mints, depending on how they’re shipped and stored, will develop a grainy texture in hot weather. The hydrophilic nature of sugar and its properties of re-crystallization aside, peppermint patties just travel better. Once again we are reminded by our elders that candy was a whole lot better in their day.

Or maybe not. My first memory of junior mints comes from when I was five years old. I was in the hospital and had to stay overnight, alone for the first time. Just before my parents left, my father put a box of junior mints in the top drawer. He made sure I saw him do it. “There are junior mints right in there, Mar, so if you want a snack, go right ahead and have some.” I’m sure he did not know that each night they tied a net (they called it a “canopy,” but I was not fooled) over every crib so we couldn’t wander around in the middle of the night. Needless to say I couldn’t get to the junior mints, but I remembered that I had them – a talisman against loneliness, a gift from my father to me.

Details matter. It’s just not always the details that you’d expect.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

King of the Bullwhip

Back in March the folks at The Bijou Blog posted “Literary Depictions of the Movie Matinee Experience,” wherein Rich Mendoza pondered the lack of literary descriptions of the early twentieth century bijou experience. There was a contest for readers to send in whatever passages they could find describing the simple act of going to the movies. My mind went immediately to Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and the chapter where Vivi and her friends enter the Shirley Temple look-alike contest. (You can read my entry here) And whaddya know? Little ol’ me won, and Bijou Bob sent along one of the original Matinee at the Bijou press kits circa 1982, filled with nifty goodies. (My detractors will be quick to point out that I was also the only person who actually sent anything in, but leave us not dwell upon mere technicalities.)

However, even as I wrote up my entry it occurred to me that my father was an untapped source of afternoon theater experiences. So I called my father one Saturday afternoon, and I tapped him. We talked for well over an hour, and I asked about all of it -- how old he was, what he saw, if he remembered the d├ęcor of the buildings or what he thought about the movies.

Oh what I found out.

As a matter of fact, I learned so many interesting things about his experiences that I have to divide what he told me into chapters. This is the first of three.

*****

Glamorous art-deco theaters have been well documented and photographed, but I don’t think people realize the importance of the little second run theaters in introducing classic films to a new generation. After World War II, the movies had to compete with a new form of entertainment – television. It took a long time for Hollywood to take the challenge of TV seriously and embrace the medium as a new venue for their films. In fact, Metro Goldwyn Mayer was one studio that refused to allow its stable of actors to even appear on television. Eventually there were local, then national programs which showed old movies, but when my father began seeing films in the late ‘40s, the only way to see The Wizard of Oz or Mutiny on the Bounty was through second-run releases.

The Wayne Theater was narrow, with only one aisle down the middle and no balcony. It was so small that it didn’t even have the means to pop popcorn. “They had imported popcorn,” my father recalled, “In big bags behind a counter.” The Wayne Theater did not show first run movies, only B films, second run films, and serials. My father recalls seeing a lot of film noir there as well. (“When you were eight years old?” “Yeah.” “Did you understand any of it?” “No, but who cares? It was the movies.”) However, what really attracted my father to the Wayne Theater was The Cowboys.

Just listing their names conjures fabulous images: actors like Wild Bill Elliot and Rocky Lane, Whip Wilson and Big Boy Williams, and characters named Red Ryder, the Cisco Kid, the Durango Kid and Chico Rafferty. (“Excuse me?” I said to that last one. “You heard right. His mother was Mexican and his Father was Irish.” In a genre fraught with nasty racial stereotyping, there’s a bit of early diversity for you.) But the name that stood out most in my father’s mind, one I could tell from his voice held special memories, was Lash LaRue.

I had never heard of Lash La Rue.

“Sure! Guy with a whip, always wore black. Looked a lot like Humphrey Bogart. You know, Song of Old Wyoming? Eddie Dean and Jennifer Holt were in it. You remember Jennifer Holt; she was Tim Holt’s sister.” (Discussing the actors in Cowboys with my father is like an eerie family reunion where I have a feeling I should know these people and I don’t.) I don’t know how my father can rattle off all these facts, but he’s been watching Cowboys for sixty years and I take him at his word. Lash La Rue? I needed to investigate this.

LaRue as the 'Cheyenne Kid' in SONG OF OLD WYOMING (PRC, 1945)(From Minard Coons)

As the photo shows, La Rue did indeed look a lot like Bogart. For his role in Song of Old Wyoming (1945) La Rue chose a black outfit with white piping, which became the look he had throughout his career. No one could mistake La Rue for a singing cowboy, and that was his intention. He made many B films at PRC Studios in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and as his name suggests, his trademark was his use of a bullwhip to bring down his foes. There is an unsubstantiated Internet rumor that Lash La Rue coached Harrison Ford to use the bullwhip for his role as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (I don’t believe it, but I like the continuity of the image). What is absolutely certain is that Steven Spielberg had Lash La Rue in mind while he created the Indiana Jones character, and Anthony De Longis, the man who coached Ford for his role in the 2008 movie, was inspired by La Rue and the whip-wielding characters who came after him.

(If you want to learn more about Lash La Rue, go where I went: The Old Corral at www.b-westerns.com. I could summarize more, but this site is the best. Chuck Anderson has rounded up information on scores of the cowboys, villains, stuntmen, and those little-known players essential to the B-Western genre. And if you need live action thrills, go to YouTube and look up “Lash La Rue.” If you haven’t seen Lash fight El Azote in King of the Bullwhip (1950), then you ain’t seen a cowboy film.)

After careful research and viewing of archival footage (i.e. – YouTube) I can only say that… those films were bad. Low budget. Thin plots. Footage constantly reused, both from earlier in the movie and other films from the studio.

And yet…

Those aren’t the things you care about when you’re eight years old. You only care that you’re out of the house and off on your own, you’ve got a whole afternoon of movies with cowboys and bad guys, horses and chases and action. Even at that age you can feel that being in a darkened theater is a place apart. Cliff-hanging serials and Lash’s whip action weren’t about reality; they were about possibility. For whole afternoons, those possibilities were my father’s only reality, and he, like so many others of his generation, never forgot how that felt.

I think the reason my father was such a fan of Matinee at the Bijou was because their format was how he grew up seeing movies. In the early ‘80s home video was only just beginning. There was the late movie or the Sunday movie, and the local UHF stations might have a movie host or two, so you could see High Noon or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon on occasion. But nobody showed serials. The first time he saw that MATB was showing serials, he was gone.

“All right fans!” he shouted. “They’ve got Crash Corrigan!”

“They’ve got what?”

“Not ‘what,’ ‘who.’” My father gripped the arms of his Lazy-Boy, eyes widened with disbelief that a child of his should have lived so long without knowing Mr. Corrigan’s fine body of work. “Sit down, Mar. Pay attention. This is educational.” And it was. (You’ve got to have a cool name like “Crash” in order to carry off what amounts to argyle socks and scaly BVDs. Trust me.)

From my father I learned that some really great cinema comes in small segments, and that sometimes something can be so bad that it can actually be kind of good. I learned that the improbability of a cliff-hanging ending makes it that much more fun to watch, that much more engrossing. The more impossible the premise, the more you are transported to a different world. More importantly, I learned it doesn’t matter if the film is a classic or B list, if the theater is an architectural landmark so small they have “imported popcorn” or your own darkened living room – what matters most about viewing films is your own willingness to suspend disbelief.

Details matter. It’s just not always the details that you’d expect.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Update: Science

Well, MP's hair seems to trump feline urinary practices -- SO FAR. Clearly MP can only refresh the deterrent on a limited, 3 week basis.

And yes, the cats have changed their location, but at least it's not the front walkway anymore.