THEE-ater. Pronounce it to yourself before you start; say it out loud. Not like the THEE in My Country ‘Tis . . ., but like you’d yell, “THIEF!!” when he was running off with your purse---only leave off the “f.” THEE-a-ter---now you’ve got it.
Ours was on “Main Street” and was a one-aisle little affair, with maybe a dozen rows down, six-on-each-side, with the far side chairs butted right up against the wall. When you got in a row, you were in. (The story of hitting-the-only-person-ever-in-my-life is probably a story for another time, but he was a bully and wouldn’t let us out, even the third or fourth time we asked. I suppose he was accustomed to the prissy little girls who would huff a little, or pout, or maybe even cry a bit, then go back and sit down, but when he put his foot up on the seatback ahead of him, grinning in the dark like the meanie he was, I drew back and smacked him one.
I was maybe ten, but there were no GIRLS in my neighborhood, and I’d had a lifetime of having only boys to play with---all those forward passes and times at bat and flinging my Sheena knife into ground, fencepost and tree---I had a right-arm swing that made his eyes roll back. I do regret it now, and have for quite some time, but then---my one lapse, and memorable).
The whole place seems narrow now, with the ticket-lady facing you through her big window just to the right in the lobby. She sat behind the glass with the round hole and the scallop in the bottom for our hands to make the exchanges. We slid in the dime, she tore a flimsy bit of numbered cardboard off a big spindled-roll, and slid it back through the gap.
If we’d been lucky, our parents would have parted with a quarter, and so the quarter-in, dime-and-nickel out was a wonderful exchange. An about-face took us a few steps to the bigger window, with its big glass pull-down, through which the crackly little slick bag of popcorn and cups of Co-Cola were passed. Another dime bought one of each, and with your hands full, you waited at the double-door for someone to pull the heavy handle.
And walking into that dim cave, that flickery, same-air-as-last-week darkness, with the sound blasting and the flitter of action on the screen---next to Heaven on a Saturday afternoon. If you held the door for a moment, perhaps with your hip, so others could pass, the upsurge of dust motes in the dark glittered in the glare-path of the sun. Goodness knows what we breathed in there---and at one theater in a nearby town, the smoke in the place practically obscured the screen before the last THE END. Sometimes we'd pick a lull in the action, count to three, and all BLOW with all our might, sending the swoops and ribbons of Camel and Lucky smoke into great billows like Mr. WestWind's breath, floating down toward the screen.
We settled down, chatter at a minimum (Mr Redding had a BIG flashlight, and when he said SHHH, from the back, you'd better, or you'd be picked out in the beam like a spotlight while everybody laughed). The usual Saturday rustle of fifty lively kids accompanied newsreel, serial, cartoon, previews, and whatever cowboy black-and-white was the choice of the week. We were on friendly terms with Roy and Dale and Trigger, with Hoppy and Gabby and Rex Allen (my, wasn’t he handsome, and could SING!!) and Whip and Lash and Johnny Mack Brown, as well as Gene Autry and Frog Milhouse and his alter-ego Smiley Burnette.
We cheered Tarzan and Boy and Sheena, booed the Leopard Woman and anybody who gave any indication of being an owlhoot, drygulcher or double-crossin’ double-dealin’ scallywag.
And that was just Saturday---Sunday afternoon was a technicolor singing, dancing free-for-all, of wonderful costumes and elaborate show numbers. There were the extravaganzas: The Ten Commandments and The Robe and The Silver Chalice, and anything featuring Charlton Heston, Richard Burton, or Anthony Quinn was usually a three-hour epic that left us breathless.
We’d stay all afternoon, as the huge square cone of light came magically out of that little window in the back, just going and going, with a smooth segue from newsreel to cartoon to serial to feature. Then we’d stagger out into the bright heat or the coming darkness, drunk with action and sound, our ears ringing from the audio assault and our chests swelled with great swashbuckling and riding and shooting ambitions that took us swaggering home and up trees and onto rooftops in all our young energy.
Those WERE the days; those days of free time and things to do and see and run after. We went home to our suppers around the family table, woke to churchbells and another small-town day.
Our modern generations are accustomed to the bright, garish-tiled new PLEXES with sixteen vast theaters, with the lights coming on between movies and the uniformed crew ready to man the little brooms to dispose of every grain of popcorn before another crowd is allowed into the empty, ventilated room.
I know they’ve all probably heard the phrase, but those generations who have never sat through a continuous run of a movie and all its attendant extras, welcome to stay on in their seats til the final lights went on to signal That's All Folks---I wonder how many of them know the real origin of, “This is where I came in.”