Updated: Feb 22
My first memory of going to the movies involves darkness, awe, and fear. I can’t remember how old I was, but let’s say I was five. My mother took me to the movie theater as she did everywhere else: church, the doctor’s office, shopping for clothes, all the places where kids are dragged mostly against their will. Yet none of those places instilled darkness, awe, or fear. Well, the doctor’s office carried a good bit of fear; the church, just confusion at that age. Clothes shopping? Abject misery. (Maybe this was the weeping and gnashing of teeth they talked about at church.) But I felt my first trip to a movie theater could be something I might actually enjoy.
While my mother took me to the theater and sat next to me, she might as well have been somewhere else. Once we entered, I was utterly lost in the moment, mesmerized. Here was this huge room filled with row after row of wooden-backed seats with crimson cushions you had to sit on to keep them from springing back up. Why couldn’t we have chairs like this at home? It felt wonderfully plush, even more so than our living room couch. The room was dark, yet several lights were still on overhead. I knew they would eventually be turned off, but I had no idea how completely black it was going to get. An enormous red curtain hung before me. Something was behind it, but I didn’t put two and two together to understand that in order to see a movie you had to have a screen. I’d never seen a magic show either, but this seemed more in line with that type of event.
I suppose my mind also couldn’t make the connection between shows I’d seen on TV and movies projected in a theater. TV and movie theaters had to be related, but there were obvious differences. We had to be quiet in here, other people were around (people we - or at least I - didn’t know), we couldn’t change the channel if we didn’t like the program, etc. Would there be commercials? I hoped not.
To the right of the curtain, I noticed a red EXIT light above a door that remained closed. A clock perched just to the right of the exit sign, but one unlike any I’d ever seen: black (or very dark purple) with illuminated hands and numbers. I couldn’t tell time yet, but I knew that keeping up with the time must be an important component of going to the movies. Time means nothing to a young kid, so I figured it was a grown-up thing I didn’t have to worry about. Yet both the exit sign and the clock were reminders of reality, that regardless of what I saw onscreen, these two things were real. Once I realized this, I didn’t want to look at them anymore.
All at once the lights went down, and the curtains parted. I quickly glanced to the right and was annoyed to see that the exit sign and the clock remained illuminated, but I soon forgot about those distractions. The opening of the curtains revealed a massive screen, far larger than our simple TV at home. I realized that I could walk up onto the stage and easily fit inside that screen, me and several of my friends, and we would still have plenty of room for running around. My imagination filled the screen before the first images from the projector hit it, but I knew that what I was imagining - memories of black-and-white cartoons on our primitive television - would fall far short of the glories and wonders I was soon to witness.
I don’t remember if we saw any previews (we never called them trailers) that day, but I had my first experience of movie advertising: an enticement for us to visit the concession stand in the lobby. The screen filled with overflowing amounts of popcorn in large white bags and boxes with red words spelled out and thin red and white vertical lines. Coca-Cola splashed into impossibly tall red cups covered in beads of condensation as jaunty music poured out from the speakers mounted on the walls.
When the movie started, I was surrounded by music, but I focused on the screen, seeing many words that were familiar and many that were not, including lists of names I cared nothing about. I’m not sure whether I’d ever watched an entire movie on TV from start to finish, but I knew that these opening credits, as I would later learn to call them, were part of what you had to sit through to get to the good stuff.
And the first real image did not disappoint. Here was a gigantic book that took up the entire screen, but not just any book. This wasn’t like the thin picture books I had at home, worn and tattered from use. This also wasn’t like the colorful yet weird-looking paperbacks with red or yellow page edges that my brother Bob kept in his room. No, this book was regal, shimmering in pristine white with gold borders and ornamentation. This book must’ve weighed a ton! Further, this wasn’t some book that had been tossed onto the kitchen table next to a half-eaten bowl of Corn Flakes. That tome was resting on crushed blue velvet! What could be more elegant, stately, majestic?
This was going to be spectacular.
Thanks to John B. Windham and Kathy M. Robinson for the photos of the Town Theatre and the flyers.