Theater of the Completely Normal

On the ritual of Saturday afternoon matinees.

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In grade school we went to the Saturday afternoon movie matinees for the same reason a subscriber goes to a season’s performances of the orchestra: That’s just what we did.  While the program was not a matter of indifference, we’d go almost without regard to what was on the bill.  In my small town we had a choice of two theaters — “movies” we called them.

 

At least one of these theaters, as I remember, sometimes played a different movie for the Saturday matinee than for Saturday evening: a temporal mini-multiplex that anticipated the spatial multiplex we have today.

The recent restoration of an art deco theater in my hometown reminded me of my well-spent hours in the dark and startled me into an awareness of classic movie-house architecture. The ticket booth is in the center of the building, outside, thrust forward; the upper-half is glass on three sides and the whole thing is surrounded on three sides by sidewalk. (In some theaters, the booth is to the side, but still outside.) I’d never thought before about what that position suggests.

The arrangement simultaneously welcomes the movie-goer and announces that a ticket must be purchased before entering. Only the marquee protrudes further than the booth so that in addition to announcing the bill, the canopy of the marquee serves as a shelter for those waiting to purchase a ticket. Once you’ve paid, you go inside — other than the buying of food, the movie experience isn’t then sullied by the act of paying cash. It’s all fantasy.  You hand over a ticket as disconnected from money as chips at a casino.

As I consider that today tellers inside banks often work behind thick bulletproof glass, the external bubble structure seems vulnerable to my 21st-century eye.  And back then we didn’t give it a thought.

I don’t remember parents being at the Saturday afternoon matinees. If kids were too young to go to the movies by themselves, they didn’t go.

Even without parental supervision, we didn’t need posts and tape to form a snaking line when we queued for tickets. And though we didn’t form such a line, somehow we avoided chaos.

Inside, the candy counter held a strategic position opposite the front door. You couldn’t go into the theater without confronting the candy counter. Popcorn was available in a cardboard box — one standard size. During some matinees, especially the all-cartoon programs, a few boys flattened their emptied boxes and sailed them up into the air. The first launched box precipitated a volley that was soon quelled by ushers with waves of flashlight beams as powerful as any light saber.

I myself favored candy that would last through the movie.  Or that was my plan.  In spite of good intentions, I usually ran out.  My own confections of choice were the pastel chalky Necco Wafers, Jujubes, Mason Dots, Life Savers, and nonpareils.

Even in the dark I could tell when I scored one of the lovely chocolate Necco Wafers. Or I thought I could, which was just as good.

The Jujubes would last almost forever. Though they were orange, red, yellow, and green, their flavors were nearly indistinguishable — barely sweet, a hint of something fruity in the same way that Kool-Aid was fruity, identified more by color than taste. It was too dark in the movies to see what color they were, a spur to the imagination. The problem with Jujubes is that they’d stick to my teeth as a suction cup sticks to a wall, but with a stronger seal. I almost always got one stuck on my top front tooth. To get it off, I’d have to lick until it dissolved. Chew? They glued teeth together. These were the epoxy of candies.  And eaten one by one, they were the best bet to last through the show.

I devoured Dots when a friend gave me the best colors, but I never bought them myself because I thought I didn’t like licorice.  Isn’t that just the way?  You can waste years thinking you loathe something and then by chance you discover that, on the contrary, you like it quite a lot. One day I’ll probably lament not having watched more than five minutes of Monty Python.

As for Life Savers, this was before the age of tropical flavors. The hole in the middle played an essential role, hastening the process of dissolving the candy until it was a thin sheet that could be broken, either chewed or crushed between the tongue and palate.

Nonpareils were a tease.  I always thought they’d last longer than they did.  It didn’t help that I’d chew in spite of my intention to refrain.  The ideal was to melt the waxy chocolate and then suck the little white sugar beads until they dissolved.

Much of what we found at the matinee is on television now. And color TV? Not in the 1950s.

When I say I saw The Long, Long Trailer, I’m talking about the 1953 Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz movie, not the coming attractions. The trailer for Dracula, however, insinuated itself into my nightmares.

Usually, besides the coming attractions, we’d get a black-and-white newsreel, sometimes a serial such as King of the Rocket Men, and a single cartoon accompanying the feature film.   We didn’t have entire channels on TV devoted to animated cartoons, and an afternoon of cartoon after cartoon was giddy bliss.

At the other extreme was Disney’s The Living Desert with its charming presentation of the prairie dog village, absent any hint of diseases they might have carried. After all, vectors aren’t cute. But we weren’t at the movies to be educated or otherwise improved.

During the years I was going to all these matinees, at school we were learning to “duck and cover.” I’ve seen buildings that have a sign designating them as a place to go in the event of an air raid.  My school didn’t have such a yellow sign. Nevertheless we’d have drills during which we’d file down into the school basement and line up facing the wall:  arms over our heads, forearm against forearm creating a shield. Even then we intuited that facing the wall wouldn’t cut it in case of an attack, but we didn’t have even an inkling of how little help it would be if an atomic bomb exploded near our school.

Hundreds of us gathered for the matinees. We had planned to meet our friends, to sit and share candy, to figure out how to make candy last through the shorts and feature.  We laughed at the dancing hippos in Fantasia, laughed at Bugs Bunny tweaking Elmer Fudd, laughed at the misadventures of Lucy and Ricky, laughed at prairie dogs popping out of their burrows. All the while we sat facing the glowing EXIT signs that flanked the screen, we didn’t worry about fires or bombs. We knew we’d leave by the front door when the movie was over, spill out of the theater in a clamor and onto the sidewalk where we’d find our parents waiting to take us home.  And so we did, privileged to be unconscious of all the endings, happy and otherwise, yet to come. • 23 June 2010

Miriam N. Kotzin, associate professor of English at Drexel University, co-directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing and teaches creative writing and literature. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard and a founding editor of Per Contra. She is the author of A History of Drexel University (Drexel University, 1983), a collection of flash fiction, Just Desserts (Star Cloud Press, 2010), and two collections of poetry, Reclaiming the Dead (New American Press, 2008), Weights & Measures (Star Cloud Press, 2009), and Taking Stock. Her novel, Cutter’s Vision, is represented by Don Gastwirth.

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