Hollywood in the Garden
Last week I wrote about television as it evolved in my life and the livers of many others. There was another form of entertainment that came to make a difference in how we saw the world around us. Of course, it was mostly fiction but always romantic to this growing boy. Whether it was cartoons, fairy tales, cowboys, or war movies, for a moment they were real in our imaginations. Levisa Lazer reporter, Kayla Parsons has done her research and published articles on the Garden Theater which meant so much to us during the forties and fifties as we grew up. I’m excited to read that the current owners, Tim and Lelia Robinson are remodeling the old haunt to bring it back to its days of glory. Read those articles elsewhere on the front page.
Like other towns, the local theater had a special place in the heart of its growing children. The town, seen in our eyes as picture perfect with the well-maintained homes, clean streets, and so many exciting places put there for our discovery. It was there that we would begin to see a few of the complexities of life, as disillusionment of fairy-tales led the way to seeing reality. Little by little we were exposed to Hollywood’s portrayal of living models far and away different than those experienced in our homes. With open eyes we matured and built up defenses against the naiveties of our youth. The film industry dragged us into the worries and insecurities of adulthood. Movies, and then television opened our eyes and took away our innocence. It may have started for me with the death of Bambi’s mother, (so traumatic for me,) or it may have been when Pinocchio nose grew and sprouted leaves at the telling of lies by the wooden boy. I saw many more kids turned into donkeys because of their hedonistic ways. Hollywood was destined to become a big influence in my life and undoubtedly the lives of many others. Some of the lessons learned were useful to us as we maneuvered through life.
For us the venue for movies was called the Garden Theater. A recent article ran in the Lazer but it will take more than these writings to truly tell the story of that place of magic. We spent so many hours growing up there with our friends and classmates. The art deco exterior with the marquee and framed pictures of the current attraction was no different than theaters scattered about the nation, but to us, this was our theater. Just inside the swinging door were more framed pictures of coming future attractions. They would incite our imaginations and wet our pallet for more movies that would please, entertain, or scare the wits out of us. Those early days of marketing did its thing as we determined we would not miss this new movie. The lobby at the Garden became the playground for our growing minds.
More importantly to me there was a small refreshment stand with a gigantic popcorn machine that spilled out beautiful white kernels. The worker would scoop up the corn and pour it into a red and white box that was sold to those with an extra dime. I learned to tear away one end flap to make a hole that I would use to funnel the kernels into my mouth. That way I wouldn’t spill any and would not be asked to share. Well, maybe that’s selfish, but it was what it was.
I remember a few times when I watched the big greyhound bus pull in and park in front of the Rexall Drug store, the driver unloaded several metal film canisters from the baggage compartment. The man who ran the projector always met the bus and would trade the used canisters and deliver fresh ‘stills’ (pictures) for posting coming attractions. All were carried up through the little side door that led to the balcony and the projection room. Over the years I watched this exchange over and over. I learned that most movies had at least three reels and some had many more. I have no idea how many it took to play “The Ten Commandments,” or “Cleopatra.” These were so long they had an intermission! That was a great time to stock up on some more candy or popcorn.
It seemed like magic when reels changed so quickly that no one in the theater even noticed! That took real skill, at least in my mind. The projectionist let me into the projection room so I could watch how to change reels. A little signal flash would appear on the screen that told him when to switch. Quick, in a flash, one projector would go off-line just as the other came on with the same image. Wow! The projectionist would then rewind the used-up first reel and load the third and final reel for later. He showed me the ‘dots’ that flashed, but I’m still not sure how all that worked. I suspect it took good timing. Yes, there was a little spot that flashed on the screen, but for my untrained eye it wasn’t noticeable.
There were some great films in our era that were classics by any definition. Hollywood was at its zenith and had multiple studios competing for market share and fame. Some movies that come to mind reinforce the concept that Hollywood was raising the level of sophistication of America, and not merely entertaining us. Slowly, over time, we looked beyond those fairy-tale outcomes and amazing heroes. We had to face some of the ugly truths of life as we grew up. Movies, at first were careful to have morals. The recap at the end of some stories assured that the message was not lost.
The weekly serials also kept us on edge. Whether it was the ‘Invisible Man,’ ‘Rocketman,’ ‘Captain Marvel,’ ‘Superman,’ ‘Batman,’ ‘The Green Arrow,’ or ‘Flash Gordon,’ they kept us coming back to see how the hero avoided certain death.
In my early childhood I saw ‘Song of the South,’ ‘Bambi,’ ‘Fantasia,’ ‘Pinocchio,’ ‘Dumbo,’ and lots of ‘Mickey Mouse,’ ‘Donald Duck,’ and ‘Bugs Bunny’ cartoons. The main features were often cowboy pictures with stars like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Lash LaRue, John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Glen Ford, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart.
As I grew older I also saw some other classics including, ‘South Pacific’ with Mitzi Gaynor, a story about racism and war; ‘The Wizard of Oz’ with Judy Garland that gave a little girl hope and a faith in friends; ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ with Jimmy Stewart, was about the value of friendship over wealth; ‘A Miracle on 34th Street,’ with Natalie Wood, tells us that faith can have value; ‘Pride of the Yankees’ allowed the nation to mourn over a great role model played by Gary Cooper. Mister Cooper would also play ‘Sergeant York,’ a WWI hero and who again acted in ‘High Noon’ with Grace Kelly, another hero doing his duty against all odds; ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Bride of Frankestein,’ with Borris Carlof scared us silly; ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ with Vincent Price was a nightmare focusing on being buried alive; ‘Ben Hur’ and ‘The Ten Commandments’ with Charlton Heston were Biblical dramas that made Bible stories come alive. There was ‘Spartacus’ with Kirk Douglas bringing history and mythology to the screen; ‘Singing in the Rain’ with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Conner; ‘White Christmas’ with Bing Crosby brought entertaining musical love stories to us. The ‘On the Road’ shows with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were silly, but fun. ‘Gone with the Wind,’ with Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable was a film classic about the Civil War that broke the profanity barrier. This movie set Hollywood free to push the limits of innocence. We saw ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ with Cary Grant, who was to be a friend for years with his dry humor. Later he and Grace Kelly would ‘grace’ the screen in ‘To Catch a Thief,’ filmed in Monte Carlo. This brought big changes in her life when she married royalty and became a real princess.
Then came Elvis in ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ and ‘Love me Tender’; ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ with Pat Boone, and ‘Twenty-thousand Leagues under the Sea’ with Kirk Douglas and James Mason; ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ and ‘Elmer Gantry,’ both starring Burt Lancaster; ‘Cleopatra’ with Elizabeth Taylor, ‘Picnic’ with William Holden and Kim Novak, and maybe the best of Hollywood, ‘Citizen Kane,’ with Orson Wells and Joseph Cotton.
Who could forget the TV program, ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents?’ His movies were the scariest things to which the American public was ever subjected. The worst, or best, depending upon your outlook was ‘Psycho,’ followed by ‘Rear Window,’ ‘Vertigo,’ ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much,’ and ‘Birds.’ All of these came along after we’d been scared by ‘The Blob,’ and ‘The Monster from the Black Lagoon,’ and others of a similar nature which today we regard as silly.
All along we had Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire dancing throughout the era and Sonja Henning skating with her delightful smile. Esther Williams swam and swam just like the famous ‘little fishes’ in many movies. Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
Yes, our generation saw some great movies including ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ and ‘The Fighting 69th,’ both staring Jimmy Cagney. Then there was ‘The Public Enemy,’ and Edward G. Robinson in countless films like ‘Little Caesar.’ We saw Marilyn Monroe in ‘Some like it Hot,’ ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blonds,’ ‘Seven Year Itch,’ ‘Bus Stop’ and ‘Misfits.’ We had Humphrey Bogart in ‘Casablanca,’ and ‘The African Queen.’ We saw tons of war films like ‘12 O’clock High,’ but my favorite was Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in WWII, in his own story called ‘To Hell and Back.’ I had read his book before seeing the movie and this time Hollywood followed the script. After all, they had the guy who was there to give technical advice.
In our teens and early twenties we came to love stars like, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, James Cagney, Glen Ford, Gary Cooper, Kim Novak, Betty Gable, Grace Kelly, Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Richard Harrison, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, and many others who were our role models in life. To many of us, these examples were lessons on personal character, good and bad. Hollywood did a decent job with this but soon enough they were teaching us alternative values that thickened the soup. The differences between good and evil became less clear. Producers became less interested in uplifting movies but instead focused on what was often the negative and ugly. The new ideals were more entertaining, but less worth emulating. What we lost in innocence, we gained in sophistication.
How much did the Garden play into this growing up? Well, TV had not yet become of age, so the movies were the single source for experiencing various cultures without being threatening. The Garden Theater’s role was bigger than we might think. It gave us role models and ideals that in the end became part of the fabric that influenced our understanding of life. The movies I’ve mentioned were classic and foundational for us all. Even at my advanced years I can still remember the words to ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.’ I still find joy thinking about a Blue Bird on my Shoulder.
Yes, life has its wars, and temptations that would have their effects, but let us focus on good things that we, in turn, may reflect that which is good. firstname.lastname@example.org