Monday, November 11, 2013

FOUR GENERATIONS AT THE MOVIES


My oldest daughter and her husband have been introducing their children and foster children to old movies. The kids have seen Bringing Up Baby, Captain Blood, Errol Flynn's Robin Hood and a variety of other movies including Rear Window. The twelve and the nine-year old have been known to discuss whether Humphrey Bogart's best role was in The Maltese Falcon or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. They are getting a solid dose of cultural literacy. That makes me especially proud since I've always been a movie lover. That fascination with movies rubbed off on my girls though on some more than others. I remember one night when my youngest daughter was staying at my apartment. She was lying on the floor channel surfing at light speed with the remote suddenly she passes a film I recognized. I said, "Wait! Wait! Go back!" She was already several channels on. We finally got back to the station and there was Groucho Marx boarding the ocean liner for America in A Night at the Opera. "Let's watch this."

"But, Dad, it's on Old Guy movie! It's not even in color!"

"O.k. Let's just watch this scene and then you can change the channel."
What came next, of course, was the stateroom scene. By its end my daughter was literally rolling around on the floor she was laughing so hard.

"O.k. You can change the channel now."

She paused a little to catch her breath and then said, "It's o.k. We can watch this for a little longer."

We finished the movie.

Not too long afterward Vicky announced that she wanted to see Young Frankenstein. I told her that we definitely could but first she had to watch Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). She again objected that they were "Old Guy movies" and not in color but I told her that unless she watched those movies she wouldn't get all the in-jokes in Young Frankenstein. Vicky reluctantly agreed. We watched all three of the original Frankenstein movies and then Young Frankenstein. A couple of months later Vicky came home one night and announced that she'd been at a sleep-over at a friend's house over the last weekend. They rented Young Frankenstein.

"And, Dad," she said proudly, "I got to explain all the in-jokes."

The 1950s and 1960s were something of a golden age for old movies. The movie studios dumped their libraries on the nascent television industry wholesale. I lived on the outskirts of the broadcast area for the New York stations so I got not only the three main Connecticut stations, WTIC from Hartford, WHNB the UHF channel in New Britain and WNHC in New Haven. Additionally we could pull in WCBS, WNBC, WABC, WNEW, WOR, and WPIX from New York. On Friday and Saturday nights when I didn't need to be up for school I got to stay up late to watch The Late Show introduced by Leroy Anderson's The Syncopated Clock. And on Saturday nights there were old horror movies like those Frankenstein films hilariously hosted by Zacherley.
Besides those late movies there was other fare. In those early years of the 1950s WTIC particularly ran old movies during the mornings from about 9:00 to 11:00. Usually the movies for the week had a theme which might be comedies or westerns or something similar. One day during a week in which the station ran comedies I was ill. My mother let me lie on the sofa in the living room and watch television. I fell in love right then and there. I didn't know it until many years later but the movie was At the Circus with Groucho, Chico and Harpo saving a circus by utterly insane means. The image that has stayed with me to this day is of Harpo hacking away the moorings of the floating band shell and of the the symphony orchestra playing furiously while floating out to sea from Margaret Dumont's estate. Thereafter I often checked the TV Guide to see what movies were going to be on in the morning. If they were showing a Marx or Ritz Brothers film I might be sick that morning but able to go to school in the afternoon.

In Waterbury, Connecticut where I grew up we had two great movie palaces in the heart of the downtown shopping area, The Lowe's Palace on the south side of East Main Street and the State a block down East Main on the North side of the street. They usually ran double features of first run movies. We also had some lesser movie houses. There was The Hamilton several miles down East Main near the park of the same name and there was The Tower which took it's name from the tower on the railroad station about a mile away. The railroad station was designed by Charles McKim of the noted architectural firm of McKim, Meade and (Sanford) White as a red brick, utilitarian structure in the tradition of Henry Hobson Richardson and similar late 19th Century American architects. Unfortunately the president of of the New York, New Have and Hartford Railroad a century ago had sent his wife off on a grand tour of Europe and she was home and just too too enamored of the iconic campanile of Florence. She insisted that the railroad
 station in Waterbury must have a full scale replica. Charles McKIm disowned the project and the station got its tower.

Anyway, now that that digression is over The Tower Theatre sat on Watertown Avenue, a north-south road connecting Waterbury with the equally industrial Oakville and the more bucolic Watertown to the northwest. It ran beside the Naugatuck River which was mostly the open sewer for the brass and copper mills astride it and the rubber factories down stream in the cities closer to Long Island Sound. Starting about the time I was 5-years old I got dropped off at the entrance to The Tower on Saturdays with a dollar. The Tower ran second run films which meant that they'd made their money in the first run theatres and were now available on the cheap which is why that dollar covered my admission and some candy and/or popcorn for the movie. I don't remember all the movies I saw there but I do remember seeing the original Godzilla there. The only time that my mother refused to take me there was when there was a double bill of The Real Life of Jesse James and The Incredible Shrinking Man. For some reason I haven't fathomed really she objected to The Incredible Shrinking Man. Mom was brought up in a revivalist Methodist Church by her Republican mother and I suspect that she'd read some right-wing diatribe against the movie which ends on the lovely note of this man, adversely affected my radiation (in 1950s America there could be nothing wrong with nuclear bombs or energy) shrinking into a unity with the universe. Anyway, I know I saw other movies there and have a vague recollection of cartoons which preceded all movies in those days and at least one movie with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. But the Tower's location was its downfall. In August, 1956 when the Naugatuck Valley flooded wiping out the Waterman pen factory in Shelton, Connecticut, the waters also wiped out The Tower Theatre.

Thereafter, I spent my Saturdays and often Sunday afternoons at either the State or the Lowe's Palace. I saw Roger Corman and Hammer Films horror movies mostly at the State but I remember seeing Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder and Vertigo there too. I can't say that at 9-years old I got all of Vertigo but I vividly remembered the scene on the San Francisco street when James Stewart has just seen Kim Novak whom he'd thought dead and chases her down. And I remembered the final scene in the bell tower of the mission. In fact, it was so vivid to me that in 1960 when we did a cross-country road trip and found ourselves on an early summer evening at the very mission where the film was shot, I had to climb that bell tower though I wouldn't get close to the edge. I'm not even sure that I connected Vertigo with the Alfred Hitchcock I knew from his television show. But the next year when North by Northwest came out I certainly did connect. I sat through that movie at least twice one Saturday and went back again and watched it 2 or 3 times. In those days I could sit through multiple showings for the same admission price.
One of the oddities of the State Theatre was that the woman who sat in the ticket booth, a kiosk recessed about half way between the sidewalk and the theatre's multiple entrance doors, never believed that I was under 12 and, therefore, entitled to the child's admission price. Odder still because this woman was a member of the church we attended and knew that I was in Sunday School classes. Still, I was taller than most children my age. I took to carrying my birth certificate and sliding it along with my $1.25 through the arched slot in the window of her ticket booth every week. After months of this I decided one Saturday that she must know who I was and my age by now so I just slid in the money. She immediately berated me for trying to scam her by claiming that I was only 12-years old. I got out the birth certificate and slid it to her, got a nasty look and my child-price ticket and always took out my birth certificate thereafter. Until my 13th birthday at which point I slid in the adult admission of $2.50, said, "One adult, please," and left. I've never been sure whether she felt vindicated that her two or three years of harassment had finally made an honest customer out of me or that she accepted that I'd been entitled to that child's admission price all along.

The Hamilton survived quite a while. I remember seeing a couple episodes of a Lone Ranger and a Commando Cody serial there. In the mid-1960s it became an art movie house. I saw Marcello Mastroianni in both Divorce, Italian Style and Marriage, Italian Style there and later, Fellini's Juliette of the Spirits. The last I knew it had descended to running porn.

The State Theatre is gone now except for the plaque commemorating the fact that Waterbury native, Rosalind Russell, had the world premiere of her movie, Wonderful Town, there and just as much a ghost as The Tower Theatre whose location is now part of a highway on-ramp. The Lowe's remains and has been refurbished as a venue for concerts but downtown Waterbury is itself a ghost now. James Thurber's Walter Mitty fantasizing on the drive to Waterbury from his country home in the north part of Fairfield County would have no reason to go there, not even to the unsuccessful shopping mall that now occupies the site of the Scoville Brass Company complex that covered dozens of city blocks running for more than a mile along East Main Street about half a mile from the now-gone State.

What conjures up these memories is more than the movies my grandchildren are watching. It's continuity. Most people I converse with regardless of their ages have a limited view of the world. They exist in an ever-changing  present. If they have a sense of the past at all it's a past that starts sometime about the year they entered junior high school. There's a vague sense that the world existed before that but most people seem to feel that it has little relevance to them. In those cases where they acknowledge some connection to the past it's more often to a fictionalized, sanitized and simplified past that justifies and reinforces their views of the present. Their pasts are as flat and terse and uncomplicated as a bumper sticker.

My mother drew me into the world of her movies in which Clark Gable and Gary Cooper were gods and Bette Davis was an ideal. That led me into a world that deepened and widened for me as I saw that the directors, Hitchcock, John Houston, Billy Wilder, George Stevens, John Ford and later Fredweico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick and Richard Lester were the true gods. Now my grandchildren are being drawn into a culture that extends back beyond my lifetime with a context that will give them a sense of the past from which those movies emerged.
So that's why I rather like it that my grandchildren are getting something of the same experience though I wish they had a movie palace to attend and even a grumpy, angry ticket woman to deal with.

At some point in the future I'll write about drive-in movies something that has essentially ceased to exist.