Movies, or How we learned about life
When I was a child there was a form of entertainment that made a big difference in how I saw the world. Movies seen inside our local theater, many of which were cartoon, were an absolute delight to this preschooler. Nearly all the features I saw were fiction, of course, but they were always romantic to this growing boy. Whether it was cartoons, fairy tales, cowboys, war movies, or newsreels, for just a moment in my young life, they gave me a foundation in understanding this world. They also gave a platform or purpose to my imagination. The resulting daydreams ran through my mind day and night. Daydreams gave ideas and values that became building blocks for the future. The movies had purpose and morals.
The Garden Theater meant much to the townsfolk during the forties and fifties. Sometime after I left the town for military service the Garden closed. Part of that was that the economy for the old downtown was tanking, and part I’m sure related to the availability of television and then the internet that were cheap competition. I’ve read that the new owners Tim and Lelia Robinson has remodeled the old haunt to bring it back to its days of glory. How I would love to see that magical place again when I’m next in town.
Like the ‘picture shows’ in cities and towns across the nation, our local theater had a special place in our hearts. They brought world news to us in picture form, and then teased us with serials that were continued each week after apparently killing off the heroes. Of course, we see how they survived the following week only to be misled again. We saw California, the mountains of Utah, the everglades of Florida, and most of Europe, all without leaving our seats. In many cases the movies imitated what we saw everyday on the streets, but also showed us how the rich and famous lived. We saw fancy cars, airplanes and ships. We also saw war at its worst, or perhaps a moment of glory. The candy and popcorn fed our nervousness while our saucer-shaped eyes were glued on the big screen.
It was in the Garden Theater that we began to see and understand some of the complexities of life. Disillusionment of fairy-tales led us to see reality. I knew that Snow White may not have been real, but she was a pretty, sweet girl and even the wild animals loved her. Looking around I saw that we had our share of pretty little girls. With Mother’s Day upon us this week we are glad to have cornered one of those fairytale princesses with which to ‘live happy ever after.’
As we grew more sophisticated we saw movies that exposed us to role models that were far and away different than those we saw. With freshly opened eyes we matured and built up defenses against the naiveties of our youth. Either the aging process or the film industry had dragged us into the worries and insecurities of adulthood, albeit little by little. Movies, and then television opened our eyes and took away our innocence. I think a bit of maturation started very early for me with the death of Bambi’s mother. That was so traumatic that my mother had to carry me screaming out of the theater. Another lesson came when Pinocchio’s nose grew and sprouted leaves at the telling of lies. In parallel, over the years I came to understand the metaphor of kids turned into donkeys because of their hedonistic ways. Hollywood was 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’s adventures.
As mentioned, the venue we had was the Garden Theater. We spent many hours growing up there with our friends and classmates. The art deco exterior with the lighted marquee and framed pictures of the current attraction was no different than other theaters scattered around the nation, but to us, the Garden was our theater. Just inside the swinging doors were more framed pictures of coming attractions. They provoked our imaginations and wetted our pallet for coming back to see movies that pleased, entertained, or scared the wits out of us. The Garden was the playground for our growing minds.
In the lobby there was a small refreshment stand with a gigantic popcorn machine that spilled out beautiful white kernels and filled the air with an aroma that told us a fresh batch was just popping. The concessioner had a big scoop to pick up the corn and fill a red and white cardboard box. I always tried to have an extra dime for a box for eating during the main event. I learned to tear away one end flap to make a hole that I used to funnel the kernels into my mouth. That way I wouldn’t spill any nor be asked to share. Well, maybe that’s selfish, but it was what it was. It would be years before buttered popcorn in a bucket would be sold. That, my friends, was heaven to me.
I remember a few times when I saw the big Greyhound bus pull in and park in front of the Rexall Drug store. After the passengers disembarked, the driver unloaded several metal film canisters from the baggage compartment of the bus and laid them on the sidewalk. The projectionist rushed to meet the bus and trade some reel cans by giving the driver the used canisters and collecting the films to be shown the following week. I remember seeing the bus driver hand over a package of fresh ‘stills’ (pictures) to be posted in the lobby. The projectionist carried the new movies through the little side door that led to the balcony and the projection room. Over the years I watched this exchange several times. I learned that most movies had at least three reels and some had more. I have no idea how many it took to play “The Ten Commandments,” or “Cleopatra.” Those movies were so long they actually had an intermission! That was a great time to stock up on some more candy or popcorn.
It seemed like magic to me that reels changed so quickly that no one in the theater even noticed! That took real skill, at least in my mind. The projectionist once let me watch how to change reels. A little signal flash appeared on the screen that told him when to switch. Quickly, he took one projector off-line just as the other came on without a blink. Wow! The projectionist then rewound the used-up first reel and loaded the third and final reel for later. He showed me the ‘dots’ that flashed, but I fell silent in the presence of a master. I’m still not sure how all that worked. It had to be perfect timing. I saw the little spot that flashed on the screen, but for my untrained eye it was so subtle the projectionist had to know it was coming. No one watching the movie had any idea.
There were some great films in our era that were classics by anyone’s definition. Hollywood was at its zenith and had multiple studios competing for the 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.
To many of us, movies were lessons on personal character, good and bad. Hollywood did a decent job, 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 with morals, but instead focused on what was often to me as negative and ugly. The new ideals were more entertaining, but less worth emulating. What we lost in innocence, we gained in sophistication. Whether it has made us a happier people or not, is for you to judge. As for me, I always wanted to be happy as I walked home from the theater. I wanted to relive what I’d seen and know the world was basically good. It took time for me to figure out that life wasn’t always a bed of roses.
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 discovering various cultures without being threatened. The Garden Theater was important to the town and to the population, as likely were theaters across the nation. It gave us role models and ideals that became part of the fabric that influenced our behaviors and 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 while envisioning a Blue Bird on my Shoulder.
The theater was the best place for taking a date, seeing friends, and growing a bit in our understanding of life. Movies still provide for that for many, though they are far more sophisticated than they were in my day. I had enough negative stuff with dealing with the death of Bambi’s mom and the wicked witch and her poison apple. Those memories stick around, don’t they?