By Tim Hayes
Kids today only know megaplex theaters – giant, multi-screen, mall-bound behemoths where patrons get force-fed cold, overpriced, gummy, sub-par popcorn on their way to darkened far-flung rooms, some of which (if not hosting a blockbuster feature) could double as indoctrination cells for prisoners of war.
It’s a sad, sorry business, if for no other reason than it deprives an entire generation of the full-bodied thrill of walking – yes, walking, with no vehicles required – to enjoy that week’s movie at a true neighborhood theater.
We had just such a bijou in the little borough where I spent my youth. Its proper name may have been “The Mt. Oliver Theater,” but we just called it “The Show.” As in, “You wanna go up The Show?” Or, “What are they showing up at The Show today?” Or, “I don’t have any money – you think we could sneak into The Show?”
The Show must have really been something in its heyday, long before my lunkhead friends and I would saunter up there to watch movies. It had a gilded, glass-fronted box office right out front along the sidewalk, where typically an older lady took your dough and pumped out your little red perforated ticket.
Every ticket looked the same, just like a raffle ticket. It didn’t have the name of the movie, or what “auditorium” it was playing in, or the time of day when purchased, or your zodiac sign, or any one of the 37 other stupid irrelevant details you get on movie tickets today.
Ticket in hand, you then pulled open the heavy glass doors and walked up the sloped foyer covered in plush red carpeting, through another set of glass doors into the main lobby.
Here’s where the advantages of having a neighborhood movie theater came to life. Chances were pretty good you knew one of the kids working the refreshment counter, so prices occasionally got curiously overlooked or somehow reduced by a wide percentage.
I had a friend from my homeroom at school who enabled and supported my Nibs habit for years. A favorite of mine, Nibs were thick chunks of sweet red licorice – sheer nirvana, trust me – and getting them for free from a fellow Catholic school co-conspirator? I would submit that life couldn’t possibly get any better. I think Mary Ann and I just added that sin to the list we told Father when our eighth-grade class got trooped up the hill to church for confession once a month.
Loaded down with free Nibs and an orange Creamsicle from the freezer vending machine – good God, maybe life actually COULD get better! – you walked through the heavy red curtains that hung from the doorway into the theater itself. And there, my friends, was when you good and truly got spoiled as a movie lover.
The Show probably held 300 patrons on the main floor, and another 100 in the rear balcony, each chair featuring a red velvet back and a well-worn leather seat. Down front highlighted two private boxes – long since out of use – overlooking what had been a stage during vaudeville days. Ornate paintings on the ceiling and around the proscenium – faded and chipped over time – gave the old girl a touch of class. And in front of the screen, an enormous, thick, crimson-with-gold-trim curtain that separated from the center – just like a real performance – when the projector began to click and the feature film of the day began.
There was nothing “corporate” about The Show, nothing impersonal or cold or off-putting. You went there and you felt welcomed. It was our theater, in our neighborhood, where our friends tore the tickets and shoveled the popcorn and ran the projector. From the annual Christmas party for kids — featuring such rich cinematic fare as “Snow White and the Three Stooges” and “A Man Called Flintstone” — to the special prepubescent joy of throwing pieces of Lemonhead candy at the back of other kids’ heads seated 10 rows ahead of you, and from offering a cool, air-conditioned respite from the heat and humidity of a sweltering summer’s day, to the luxury of walking home with your friends, talking about the movie the whole way, The Show helped make our little slice of the city something to look back on now with real appreciation.
The Show connected us as friends and neighbors, just as much as the church or the school or the library or the park or the swimming pool or the little business district did. That’s why I find it sad that very few people over the past 30 years or so have ever experienced that communal feeling when going to the movies. It truly was great. Special. Unforgettable.
I know it’s a long shot, but hey, Mary Ann, if you’re out there, can you sneak me a bag of Nibs for old time’s sake?
Copyright 2016 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting