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.

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