1960s · Movies

Matinee Memory, 1966

 

Grandpa and Grandma Keller

My siblings and I grew up at the picture show. Our grandpa J.C. Keller, Sr. had opened Eunice’s first movie theater in 1924 and once owned five theaters in town.  By the time our parents married, Grandpa had died and Grandma owned the Liberty Theater downtown. Uncle Jake and Aunt Rose ran the show for their mother.

Saturdays meant double feature matinees at the Liberty. The Saturday lineup was often westerns or comedies with Little Rascals and Looney Tunes in between. Since all of Grandma’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren got in free, I saw everything that played in town until 1968 when the ratings system (G, M, R, and X) censored my movie freedom. Matinees were my favorite: four hours of sitting in the third row, sharing popcorn and candy with my sisters, and letting the moving pictures and stereo sound take us to exotic places with high adventures.

This Saturday’s lineup was top-notch:  Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, nothing but music and comedy with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello! We pooled our dimes to share popcorn and candy since our parents only gave us each a dime. (We wondered why our parents were so stingy since we didn’t pay to get in the show).  

I sat in the middle and shook popcorn into Gayle and Kelly’s laps; Gayle doled out even amounts of Milk Duds. The thick velvet burgundy curtains opened and the pre-movie show started. The theater of kids got quiet.  

This reverent silence did not last. Today’s Daffy Duck cartoon and Spanky and Alfalfa’s adventure were reruns, so the audience talked and messed around. When tossed popcorn hit my middle sister’s head, Gayle stood up to yell at the silly kids behind us, but she made a quick about-face, sat down, and said, “Big Jim.”  Kelly stopped kicking the empty second row seat letting it push forward and pop back. I removed both feet from the seat’s arm rests in front of me. The three of us sat up straight as Slim Jims as the picture show’s usher and handyman lumbered down the aisle. Big Jim spent most of his work time on his usher’s throne in the lobby where he sat on the chair’s arm rests and had a good view of the screen. At random times he swayed up and down the aisles with a flashlight and threatened moviegoers with “Shhhhh!” or “Get your feet down!” During rowdy matinees he would add, “Don’t make me take off my belt!” to the most disobedient ones. The idea of seeing the entire length of Big Jim’s belt was enough to shush the sassiest rebel-rouser. 

My sisters and I were extra respectful of Big Jim’s power because he was close to the family. When Mom and Dad went out nights, the picture show became a free babysitter. If their grownup fun lasted longer than the movies did, Big Jim waited with the us until Dad drove up. Big Jim might change out movie posters or help Miss Pearl, the ticket seller, or one of the projectionists. If he still had more waiting time, he’d ask us about a movie or tease us about having boyfriends. I tried my best to balance respect and fear when interacting with Big Jim.  His sweaty face had him often repositioning his black-rimmed glasses on his face, and he must have bathed in Aqua Velva. (This overuse of cologne did not serve Big Jim well when he dressed as Santa Claus for Grandma’s family Christmas Eve parties). But we endured Big Jim’s attention and his good-bye hugs when Dad pulled in front of the Liberty to pick us up.  

I remember a Saturday night we girls were hanging out in front of the theater to wait for our folks when Claude Emile appeared and called Frankie and Johnny (one of our favorites)  “a stupid waste.”  

“You’re stupid,” said Gayle and Claude held up his special frog knuckles as a threat.  Kelly stuck out her tongue and skipped close to him and backed away.  

I said, “You don’t like Elvis cause you don’t like music.” His answer was yanking my head back by my ponytail and running inside to bother the projectionist. 

Coullion! Coullion!” said Kelly glad to be rid of the nuisance of a boy like Claude.  

I looked up and down the empty street wishing Mom and Dad would get there soon.  I needed to pee like a race horse, but I didn’t want to brave the show’s spooky basement bathroom located past the lobby’s water fountain and down an old staircase that ended at a musty bathroom that reeked of disinfectant. “Gayle, come with me to the bathroom,” I said.

“No way! It stinks down there!”

“Kelly?” I said.

“No! I call shotgun on the way home,” and she knew she had to be near the curb when Dad drove up to claim that spot.

Big Jim came outside with a box of red plastic letters. The projectionist followed him with a ladder and with Claude Emile in the rear.  

“Is the bathroom still open?”   I asked. 

As the guys started to change the show’s marquee, Big Jim said, “I think so.”  My full bladder forced me to chance it, and I went inside and smiled as I passed Miss Pearl counting the night’s ticket money.

The concession stand was dark except for the light on the popcorn machine. The lobby was dim, and the worn carpeted stairs down to the girls’ bathroom were nothing but darkness. At the top of the stairs I saw a weak beckoning light from the bathroom. I hugged the wall because the stairs were steep and I counted eight steps then six that turned left before I hurried to the first of two stalls. The overpowering sweetness of the round pink disinfectant tablets in the toilets made me hold my breath. I left the stall door open and focused on the sink. My pee came in a forceful stream, and I closed my eyes in relief for the final few seconds. I opened them and sighed just before the lights went out. “Shit! Shit!”  

urinal cake

The basement bathroom was as black as the inside of Dracula’s coffin. I heard the nearby scamper of what I felt sure was a rat as I fumbled for toilet paper to finish my business. I blinked hard in hopes my eyes would catch a spec of light, yet the picture show was devoid of any illumination beyond the lobby. I knew time would help my eyes adjust to the blackness so I waited and listened to my fast breaths and the scratching steps of the rat’s family. After seventeen seconds, I gained the confidence to face the dark. I straightened my useless glasses and used my good right hand to follow the wall until I reached the first set of stairs. I took the first steps slowly even though I imagined a bathroom zombie followed me in the darkness. When I reached the final few steps, a distant red Exit sign’s glow gave me confidence to move faster. From above I caught music from Miss Pearl’s transistor radio, and my head converted the muffled sound to zydeco…zydeco…zydeco.

I held my breath and jumped out of the striped plane.  I was free-falling and doing summersaults through a clear sky. Far below a crowd of surfers looked up at me and pointed. I pulled my parachute cord at the best time to land on the beach amid my bikini-clad best friends.  All cheered and clapped as I took off my red helmet and let my poofed-out brunette hair pop into place. Then I shed the jumpsuit and felt right at home in my sexy red one piece bathing suit.  A go-go song played from my boyfriend’s radio, and the crowd of teens shook, shimmied, and jerked to the beat.  A loud engine roar broke up the dance when Eric Von Zipper and his band of black leather hoodlums zoomed up on motorcycles. I grabbed Frankie’s hand and together we walked up to the Ratz gang. From his sidecar Von Zipper opened his mouth to say something ridiculous, but all I heard was –

“Ah ha! Got you!” as the lobby lights came on and Claude Emile pointed and laughed at me walking past Big Jim’s chair.  

“Shut up, you booger breath!” I said.   Then I heard Dad’s car horn outside. I ran out the theater, endured Big Jim’s hug, and joined my sisters in the gray Mercury.

Movies · Sisters

Front Row Seat

Front Row Seat – 1965

I slid into my front row seat and let the sounds and the seventeen-foot images envelope me.  My sisters had opted to sit fourteen rows behind because Kelly did not “wanna be close to the boogie man.” Gayle volunteered to sit with her, and I knew she shared Kelly’s nervousness.  

Sitting alone was not my first choice, but I could enjoy my Tootsie Roll uninterrupted.  I didn’t allow myself to open my candy before the feature began, so I focused on the ripple effect of  Big Jim’s rounds as kids started behaving as he swayed his 400 pounds left and right down towards the screen, walked past the front row, and resumed the left/right motion back up to the lobby and his usher’s chair near the lobby’s water fountain.  His flashlight jumped around as he discovered and corrected feet on the backs of seats, trash tossed to the floor, or unnecessary talking. 

As The Raven’s credits began, and the audience settled down for the Saturday matinee, I unwrapped my chocolate-flavored treat allowing myself one chunk of the taffy-like candy every ten minutes.  With ten sections in a roll, the candy should last for the whole movie.  But since I didn’t possess an accurate sense of time, I usually finished a Tootsie Roll half way into a movie.  

The only concession stand candy that could last a full feature was the hockey puck sized Giant Sweet Tart – a single hard Sweet Tart as thick as it was wide. (made in 1965-66).  My favorite was the grape one, and I first used my front teeth like a beaver.  If I later licked the endless amount of sour/sweet goodness when I tired of scraping off its powdery goodness, my candy lasted for the whole movie!  This Saturday afternoon I opted for a Tootsie Roll because my tongue and the insides of my cheeks were still healing after the Giant Tart I had last week.  (Mouth ulcers were an unfortunate downside to gnawing on 3.5 ounces of sugar for ninety minutes).  

Vincent Price’s voice recited the beginning stanzas of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” as I chewed my first section of Tootsie Roll.  “Once upon a midnight dreary as I pondered weak and weary” was familiar because Daddy liked to entertain us with the classic poem.  He knew the first two stanzas by heart but made up the rest of the poem adding original gruesome rhymes of his own. 

The Raven, 1965

On this Saturday afternoon, I enjoyed the poem’s opening lines, but the movie’s mood went from ominous to comical six minutes in.  After Vincent Price let the raven through his chamber door, the bird did not keep repeating, “Evermore,” but started asking for a glass of wine in a British accent.  Several minutes later, Vincent fixed a magic potion to return the bird to its human form.  Jaunty sound effects accompanied the scene as the bird directed Vincent to fill a bubbling cauldron with dead man’s hair and lizard’s tongue.  After drinking the brew, the raven transformed only partly.  A buggy-eyed man’s head replaced the bird head, yet the rest of his short, pudgy body was feathers and wings.  The easy audience laughed, but I wanted to be scared.  The poem Daddy recited to us had the sorrow and darkness of a man tortured by the death of his wife.  The raven was supposed to drive the man insane, not boss him around like a bratty wino.  

I was chomping on my third section of chocolate taffy when I heard a familiar scream.  (Not, of course, from the horror movie turned comedy).  

“I’m bleeding!” was followed by “Shhhhh! Wanna make Big Jim come over?”  

I recognized my little sisters’ voices and left my front row seat to check out the drama.  Kelly and Gayle sat in the middle of their row while folks nearby tried to shush Kelly.

“Blood!” said Kelly.  “Lookit!”

“Kelly, come here,” I told the five-year-old from my squat position in the aisle. 

“Ginger?” said Kelly as she passed both annoyed and interested kids on her way to me.  Gayle followed and we made our way to the lobby with me holding Kelly’s hand.  

Big Jim stood next to his usher chair and watched us walk toward the red lobby bench a few yards from him.  We knew Big Jim was a loyal employee of Grandma’s and he cared about our safety, but he still weighed 400 pounds and wore a very long belt.  

I heaved the whimpering Kelly onto the red lobby seat and checked out her injuries. I saw no blood.

“Lookit,” said Kelly, and she opened her mouth and simultaneously held out a small hand holding a tiny bloody tooth.  “Blood.”

I pulled a crumpled concession napkin from my shorts pocket and placed pressure on the place where the missing lower front tooth had been.  “Press down here,” I instructed.

“Ya’ll need help?” said Big Jim who moved closer to us.  Gayle climbed on the lobby bench to help Kelly stop the bleeding.

“We’re ok, Mr. Jim,” I said.

Gayle leaned in to put her hand over Kelly’s.  “Push real hard,” she said.

“Owwww!” said Kelly.

When Big Jim realized how minor our emergency was, he returned to his usher chair sitting on its arm rests and said, “OK, but ya’ll let me know if you do.”  

Big Jim almost knocked down a small boy who had followed us into the lobby.  For the kid the possibility of seeing real blood trumped the movie’s lack of anything remotely scary.  He held a cherry-flavored Giant Sweet Tart in a sticky fist and licked the candy as he stared at Kelly.  His bright red tongue made his mouth look bloodier than my sister’s.  He seemed too young for the black-rimmed glasses he wore, and his blond crewcut revealed a lumpy little head. After avoiding a Big Jim collision, the boy stepped closer to Kelly.  He still believed there would be blood.  This close I thought I saw blood on the boy’s tongue.

“What you want?” said Gayle to the gawker.

The kid blinked several times and licked his messy candy. My sisters did a stare-off with him.  I moved both of my sisters’ hands to discover Kelly’s mouth had stopped bleeding.  

“Let’s go get you a drink of water,” I said and put Kelly on my hip.  

All three of us crossed in front of Big Jim towards the water fountain.  I placed Kelly on the top step of the wooden block that acted as stairs to give short kids access to the coldest water they had ever tasted.  Kelly still had to get on her tippy toes for her mouth to kiss the metal spout.  I stood to the right of the water fountain and pushed the spring-loaded handle that started a trickle of water.  Kelly slurped several gulps before Gayle said, “Ok, my turn.”  Kelly kept slurping until Gayle nudged her back.  But just when Kelly decided she’d had enough and Gayle put her foot on the next step, the Sweet Tart boy cut in. He used his knotty head to butt his way in front of Gayle, and I had to pick Kelly up so she would not fall off the wooden step-up.  

“Hey!” said Gayle. “I’m next.”

But the boy had pocketed his cherry candy mess, stood on his toes, and turned the handle to produce the weakest dribble of water possible.  He made desperate slurping sounds and I could relate to the cool relief he must feel on his abused tongue.  Gayle, on the other hand, felt no empathy for someone who cut in front of her.

“It’s my turn!” she said as she shoved the kid off the wooden steps.  The boy toppled over, his glasses flew off, and he bit his swollen tongue during his fall. He tumbled his way to half a foot from Big Jim’s untied cheap shoes.   

“What are ya’ll up to?” said Big Jim.  He pulled the boy up by his right arm and blood bubbled from his lips. 

Big Jim stared straight at me and my sisters. He meant business, so Gayle forgot about her thirst and jumped off the water fountain step and hid behind me.  Kelly gave the usher a wide-eyed stare as if she imagined Jim’s extra long belt leaving its pants loops.  

Then the boy’s extreme scream changed Big Jim’s focus.  I couldn’t believe a puny child could create such a sound.  The initial, “WHAAAAA!” was high-pitched and steady like our town’s noon whistle.  But then he took a deep breath and spit out blood for a string of low toned “Heh! Heh! Heh!’s” that reminded me of Jerry Lewis’ sound effects. Big Jim let go of the little screamer’s arm, and the boy rolled down part of the slanted lobby floor.  

With the quick moves of an action hero, Gayle left her spot of safety and ran to stop the boy’s descent.  She stopped his rolling and sat down next to him on the faded carpet. Using the napkin that had stopped the bleeding in Kelly’s mouth, she slowed the blood flow from the boys’s mouth.  In seconds Gayle held a bloody paper mess. The kid looked up at Gayle’s blurry face.  Big Jim had gotten a cleaning rag from the concession stand and handed it to Gayle since he would not be joining the kids on the floor.  

Kelly pulled me towards the action where several curious theater goers had gathered, opting for the lobby drama over the lame horror flick.  I, understanding the importance of corrective eyewear,  picked up the boy’s glasses and handed them to Gayle who put them on the boy’s face with her right hand while she applied pressure to his already swelling mouth. The crowd of spectators kept a respectable distance due to the proximity of Big Jim.  

A gangly girl with stringy dark pigtails pushed through the kids.  “Booger!  What you doing now?” she said and frowned down on her little brother and Gayle.  The sister pulled him up and walked toward the bathroom stairs. When they passed, I noticed the boy’s jeans were held up by a large safety pin. The sister frowned down on her younger brother, saying,“Gotta get you cleaned up. Again,” and she shook her head as she dragged the boy away without so much as a “merci beaucoup” to anyone.  

“Get on back to your seats,” said Big Jim.  The kids obeyed and I watched Gayle return to the water fountain.  Kelly decided she needed another drink as well and followed.  

Wearing my new blue-framed glasses, I noticed a pink piece of candy on the floor near Big Jim’s chair.  The poor boy’s half-eaten Giant Sweet Tart had escaped his pants pocket during his accident.  I picked up the sticky mess, but I couldn’t make myself throw it away.  I put it in my pocket.  My heart was a tangle of pride and sadness, and I decided to sit with my sisters when they finished drinking and walked back into the dark theater.

Liberty Center in Eunice, Louisiana

Movies

Red Lobby Benches

Red Lobby Benches -1962 (The Magnificent 7)

Liberty 1
Liberty Theater now

Gayle and I slipped back and forth and up and down the long red plether lobby benches as we waited for the 8:00 pm showing of Music Man at the Liberty Theater. The line for tickets wound around the corner, but we had just waved to Miss Pearl as we strolled past the line and into the lobby.  Being grandkids of the owner of Eunice, Louisiana’s picture show had its perks.  Normally we watched the six p.m. feature, but this Saturday our parents had their annual “progressive supper” where five couples went to five houses for a multi-coursed dinner.  Two-year-old Kelly was staying with Grandma and Stella, so the picture show served as a babysitter for the older kids, with Big Jim and Miss Pearl as overseers.

We played in the crowded lobby as patrons waited for the early feature to “let out.”  Since the carpeted area right past the concession stand inclined up towards the entrance into the theater, the two long red lobby benches held interesting dimensions for games. The beginning of each bench was high above the carpeted floor, and at ages four and six  we struggled to climb up to the seats. As one bench got closer to the usher’s chair and the other ended at the theater entrance, the distance from floor to bench was shorter and no problem to climb up on. 

We had created the Swimming Across the Lobby game for the times we had to wait for the show to start.  The lobby’s carpet was the Calcasieu River; the lobby bench on the right side was the sand bar line while the left side bench represented tall pine woods. The mostly grown-up theater audience in the middle were alligators, and kids were snapping turtles. If you touched any of these, you drowned. On the sand bar side of the bench you could sit and plot how to cross the river.  On the tree-lined side, you had to stand and hold on to the walls or risk tumbling into the dangerous waters. You could not stay on either side longer than ten Mississippis. If you did, your sister was allowed to push you into the Calcasieu.

Since we had arrived twenty-six minutes before the eight o’clock feature, the lobby had few alligators to avoid.  We went across the lobby with big confident swimming strokes. Only once did Big Jim say, “No running,” (to G. of course).  Claude Emile sat on the tall end of the sand bar side reading a Superman comic. He pushed Gayle off the bench because she got too close to him, so she fell into the river and had to avoid four alligators that had just bought popcorn and sodas. 

I did not relish swimming across the lobby.  What I enjoyed was scooting up and down the long length of the red benches as I counted in my head.  I’d start at low end of the pine woods next to Big Jim where my toes reached the floor and then slide towards the concession stand and watch the floor get farther and farther away.  On a less crowded night the benches would be free of people and I would move up and down as fast as my uneven arms would allow. I could pretend I rode a horse clippity-clop up a mountain. My horse would be the world’s smartest and fastest animal, but he let only me ride him. We’d trot up the mountain to get a bag of gold as a reward for saving a baby from the outlaws who had kidnapped it.

I  had forgotten about my sister, who had left the tree side bench and was swimming over to force me into the river.

Ginger and Gayle 1961 or 1962
Me and Gayle, 1961

 

Black Beauty and I were halfway down the mountain when Gayle grabbed my right leg to climb up on shore. I kicked her like a reflex move and she fell backwards.  The four-year-old landed with a thud and startled an unsteady grandma and her toddler grandson.

“My lord, cher! Why you on the floor?” she said.

“Oh, yi, yi! I’m gonna die,” said Gayle as she struggled to stand up.

I jumped off the red bench and stood up her dramatic sister.

“Sorry, ma’am,” I said.

“Find your momma,” said the grandma and she led her grandson up past the theater’s entrance and into the Cry Room/ Smoking Area.

“You’re drownded,” said Gayle.

“Give me your nickel. I’ll get us some popcorn.”

“I want Dots.”

“You don’t have enough money. A nickel only can get you a Tootsie roll or Pixie Sticks.”

“Dots.”

“They cost two nickels,” I said as I led my sister to the concession line. “Let’s get popcorn with both our nickels; it lasts longer.”

“No. Dots.”

“I want popcorn.”

Gayle shook her pageboy bob back and forth. “Dots!”

“Let’s flip for it,” I said and took out my nickel and tried to hold it on my curved index finger and use my thumb to flick it in the air the way Dad did. The nickel plopped to the floor and rolled away. Gayle got on her hands and knees to follow the coin, but it rolled its way behind the glass candy display case. She stood and pushed a short wooden flap door that separated customers from concession workers and her from the nickel she needed to get Dots.

“Hold on, kid! You can’t come back here,” said a teenager with braces and over-sized glasses. Her brown eyes were magnified by her thick lenses.

“Dots,” said Gayle.

“Get in line,” said the teen.

“Nickel?” tried Gayle.

“Dots cost a dime.”

I grabbed my sister’s hand as the teen pushed her to her designated area, and said, “Sorry” for the second time.

“Ginger! I want Dots.”

“All we have money for now is a Tootsie Roll. Give me your nickel.”

“ No. Dots!” And she stomped away.

“Get back here,” I said and watched Gayle walk up toward the main lobby and get in everyone’s way. A man wearing overalls and a sweat-stained cap took a step backwards to make way for the black-haired, blue-eyed child who walked with both hands balled into tight fists. I stopped to sit on the red bench on the tree side. The lobby had filled with young couples and families and rowdy teens. The popcorn machine was overflowing with the hot, buttery kernels I craved. The popping sounds slowed and spaced out until I heard a staccato zydeco…zydeco…zydeco.

The steady clop of horses in a line through the brown world of mountains, sand, and scrub grass kept me confident.  The six gunfighters followed the man dressed in all black.  Their combined gun, knife, rifle, and tracking skills made them ready to defeat the outlaws that tormented the village of farmers all dressed in white.  Working together, we seven sharpshooters would be magnificent!  As the youngest gunslinger in the bunch, I brought up the rear. Being the only girl, I fought for acceptance with more action and less talk.  None of the other six men were blabbers. Their tight-fitting cowboy hats and their swift hands gave them taciturn demeanors and bold movements.  During that day’s siesta, I could sneak off to catch a few fish or snare some rabbits to add to their supper. I knew my six-shooter’s aim had improved after riding with these men. A sharp jab to my shooting arm startled me.

“Take care of Gayle,” said Claude and he pointed to a tall guy with his short date talking to the four-year-old.  The guy looked annoyed while his girlfriend was all smiles. I walked over to them.

“You shouldn’t kick strangers,” said the tall one to Gayle.

“ You’re lost, aren’t you, honey?” said his petite date who was not that much taller than me.  Gayle gave the teen the once over and caught sight of the box of Dots in her right hand.

“Dots!” said Gayle.

The girl laughed. “You like Dots?”

Gayle returned the laugh and nodded.

“I’ll give you some and then you tell us where your momma is, ok?”

Gayle cupped both hands and held them up to receive some of her favorite candy. I watched the generous girl fill both my sister’s hands.

I approached and said, “There you are, G. Let’s go find our seats.” I put my right hand on Gayle’s left shoulder to steer her away.

“Keep better watch of your sister,” said the tall guy and his date winked and waved at Gayle.

Gayle put most of the Dots in her pockets and popped two in her mouth. She then handed her nickel to me and said, “Tootsie Roll.”