Movie-goers seem to take in stride all the annoyances that accompany going out to see a show. The youngest generations have no inkling (since inklings are much costlier these days), that going to movies used to be a wholly different experience.
The neighborhood theater where I grew up in Portland was (and still is) a single screen, 675- seat cinema that opened in 1926. For 78 years, it’s kept the same name—the Moreland Theater. Technically there is no “Moreland” in Portland. The theater was located near two neighborhoods: Eastmoreland and Westmoreland. Residents of both areas stoutly claimed theirs was the best. Eastmoreland’s claim to fame was Reed College; the palatial homes; and lush Eastmoreland Golf Course. Westmoreland extolled their Duck Pond, the Rexall Drug Store, and Wilhelm’s Funeral Home. The Moreland Theater’s original owner, no doubt fearing urban warfare, was savvy enough to lop off “East” and “West” from the theater’s name. Apparently there were still some residual hard feelings: “Reedies” rarely went to the Moreland. Neither did the ducks.
By the time I was old enough to attend movies, the Moreland was a “second-run theater,” showing films that were first shown exclusively in downtown Portland. Since the Moreland lacked the panache of a first-run theater, it charged less. Both the first run and second run theaters showed two films to the audience. “Starting times” weren’t honored as they are today: we’d often arrive in the middle of one of the movies, finish watching that film, then watch the second film. When the first film replayed, we’d have to wait until we saw the portion we’d previously missed, and once caught up to the story, we’d leave.
Sometimes we weren’t able to sit through the part we’d missed, but only watched part of the part we missed. This partial-viewing of the first half of the film leaves a gap in the story that can have serious consequences. One can go through an entire life wondering why, for example, at the beginning of Some Like it Hot, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are men, but in the second half of the film the two are now women, running around in hosiery and high heels. Were they closet transvestites? And why in Peter Pan, the British children Wendy, John and Michael are at home in their beds at the beginning of the film, but in the second half they’re flying in their nightgowns and pajamas over a strange island and a PIRATE SHIP? What happened in the missed part? Is this really a science fiction film? How can they fly? Was this an off-shore English island? What are Indians doing in Britain?
Since partial viewing of a film and making it up later was the accepted pattern, it meant the 1950s and early 1960s audiences were a lot more in motion than today’s and more tolerant of strangers frequently blocking their view. Because of this repeated phenomena, I still am uncertain whether Messala or Ben-Hur won the chariot race in Ben-Hur. I presume it was Messala since the name is currently the 409,462th most popular name in the U.S., shared by two people in Pennsylvania. I do not know any Ben-Hurs. (I did know a Ben Hurson, so perhaps in a Naturalization First, his immigrant parents lengthened rather than shortened the original name.)
[Pretend there is a transition sentence here.] When you entered the Moreland you immediately selected your candy and soft drink, the real reason to go to the movies. Always standing next to the candy counter was a smiling, middle-aged, slightly stout woman holding a leash that led to an exceptionally gigantic German Shepherd. The woman was Mrs. Cockerline who owned the theater and ran it smoothly with the assistance of her German Shepherd “Rommel” and her sister—–Mrs. Cockerline’s sister, not the dog, although possibly he cashiered when they were short handed.
Completing this triumvirate of management was a 30-ish dark-haired, dark-eyed man whose impressive looks reminded me of a character in a movie—–the robot Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still. His name was Gene and like Gort, he may have been seven feet tall. Holding a flashlight that measured a foot and a half—coincidentally the length of his feet—- Gene led you to your seat, even in the dark. Those who could afford it were shown the “Loge” seats, the restricted area behind velvet ropes in the back of the theater with its plush, wider seats. The higher floor beneath the Loge section allowed the occupants of Loge seats to tower above those in Coach seats. This layout suggested that, had those in Coach done better in school, they, too, could’ve been seated in the Loge.
Concerns with seating aside, movie-goers at the Moreland weren’t bombarded by Coke, Volvo and other commercials, pre-previews or inane Hollywood quizzes (“Which male star of The Avengers had breast implants in 2004?”) that are common today before the feature film. Basically you stared at a screen with hallucinatory color patterns that changed shaped repeatedly. That was it. Fortunately the newsreels and cartoons snapped you back to reality. Or seeing the glare from Gene’s flashlight in the dark as he raced down the aisle—-as fast as a seven footer can race which, like Gort, was more of a trudge-—to rout misbehaving kids or people who talked during a film.
Gene was aware that 7th and 8th graders flocked to the Moreland on Friday nights to observe their more sophisticated peers making out: The couples usually sat on the left side of the theater, ten rows back from the screen, and silhouetted against the screen just enough to promote speculation about their activities. Surprisingly, Gene never exercised his moral authority by rousting the lovebirds, possibly because they and their Friday night spectators were good for business. However, these pre-teen pairs would suffer a lifetime of loss, uncertainty and ridicule for missing large chunks of the films they were attending. Imagine trying to join or keep up with a conversation of your friends about North By Northwest when you were “too busy” at the movie and missed blocks to time. How could you comment on the famous film when all you saw were a few scattered scenes: Cary Grant’s character’s suddenly being drunk and almost driving off a cliff, then taking the train where people are killed, then being chased by an airplane, then walking along the stone nose of Teddy Roosevelt at Mount Rushmore. Possibly you could safely venture to your friends that in your opinion, Cary Grant appeared to have suicidal tendencies.
It is unfortunate that Gene isn’t around today to teach ushering skills and theater management to the cineplex moguls and their employees. Every time I see and hear the warning on the screen about not texting or talking during a movie—-“Don’t be the one we have to ask to leave the theater, because WE WILL”—-I fantasize how Gene would’ve handled today’s movie texters or foul-mouthed, popcorn-throwing kids: Imagine a seven foot colossus holding a foot and a half long flashlight, with a German Shepherd by his side, lurching down the aisle to set someone straight, establish order, or kick the offender out.
The enticing possibilities would be enough to make you give up NetFlix.