Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Sunday Memory Drawer - Revisiting My Hometown Movie Theater

The internet can be wonderful.   It can bring you back in time.  Promoting images long forgotten.

About five years ago, I did a Sunday Memory Drawer piece on my hometown movie theater.   We had two in Mount Vernon, New York.  They were right around the corner from each other and they were both multi-leveled palaces.   

Loews was the very first movie theater I ever went to.  You can see it in this photo.  
It was an afternoon showing of "Tom Thumb."  The curtain opening scared me.  I wailed.   My mother dragged me out of the theater, bemoaning the $1.50 she had wasted on tickets.   Mom was always partial to Loews, probably because the smoking lounge was so opulent.  For her, it wasn't necessarily what was up on the screen.

As I grew to movie fandom, I gravitated more to the cinema a block away.  RKO  Proctor's.  Also multi-leveled.  And it wasn't just the smell of the popcorn as you mounted the slope up into the theater.

It was another world and I always lamented the passage of both these terrific movie houses.   Loews became a parking lot for City Hall, which was across the street.   The building that housed Proctor's, however, still exists.  It's just the theater that's gone and I can still see in this recent snapshot where the box office and entrance doors were.   Right behind that red parked car.
Other than this shell of an office building, I can only imagine how a movie theater could have existed within this spot.   I want to go inside and see if there is anything remotely reminiscent of hours spent as a child.  With Mom.  With Dad.  With my neighborhood pals.  Or, sometimes, all by myself.

On Facebook, there's a forum called "I Grew Up in Mount Vernon."  It's chock full of memories from older folks and dreary discussions from young people trying to determine what their favorite Denzel Washington movie was.

But, from time to time, gold is found.   Amazingly, somebody just posted an unearthed picture of RKO Proctor's in all its movie showing glory.

My heart skips a beat. 
I can pinpoint the photo to Christmas of 1947, long before I was eating Pom Poms inside.  The movies on the marquee point came out in the fall of that year.  History tells me there was a big blizzard on December 25 and 26.   Those snow drifts are purely a product of a major snowfall.  You can see a wreath hanging on the bank in the background.

This is my newest version of a time machine.   My mind scurries back to days of old. Or days of young, if you will.

The RKO Proctor’s Mount Vernon theater had a sparkling marquee. When we would walk to the theater, we would not see the lights until we turned the corner. It gave me a complete rush of adrenaline. And, as soon as you were within 50 feet of the movie palace, you could already smell the popcorn. You’d buy your tickets at the box office booth and then head up that steep ramp into the lobby. Not a big one, mind you. But, beyond the popcorn, you had the slowly turning hot dog machine. The frankfurters seemingly flew in the air by themselves.

If I was there with my mother on a Friday afternoon following school, chances are we had already eaten an early dinner at the Bee Hive restaurant. So, my movie treat would be candy and, in those days, the sweet of choice was always a box of Pom Poms.The RKO Proctor’s theater was three levels and, for some bizarre reason, my mother liked the third level which had a slope that was almost as steep as the Shea Stadium upper deck. Oddly enough, if I went there with my father, he preferred the lower level. No wonder my parents didn’t accompany me together. And, that in itself should have explained a lot more to me as well.

Despite the fact that I was a seven or eight year-old movie geek, I rarely sat still for a double feature. In those days, you entered the theater whatever time you got there, regardless of what part of the movie had already started. I can clearly remember coming into some flick for the last ten minutes. Then, we’d see the other movie and then sit through the first movie right up to the very segment where we started.

”This is where we came in.”And we would leave. As if seeing the final ten minutes again would have detracted from my family’s busy schedule. But, I digress…

When boredom set in, I liked to roam the bowels of the theater. They had wonderful ramps between the levels that were just ideal for running. Until, of course, you met up with the enemy.

The dreaded old movie matron.

Blinding you with her flashlight, she’d give you a stern warning.

”Go back to your seat or I’ll call the manager.”

Yes, Frau Commandant! I saluted.

"And don't be fresh!"

There was a soda machine in this theater that never worked right. You’d put in your coins and then press for your soda of choice. Sometimes, the soda would spit down with no cup. Another coin. A cup but no soda. Or seltzer with no syrup. Or ice and no cup. Or all syrup and no ice. I don’t believe I ever got it right.

I have a lot more RKO Proctor memories now ping ponging around my cranium.

Sitting in Hartley Park right up the street waiting until the movie started before we went in for the first show of the day. Why? This six-year-old was deftly afraid of the curtain opening.

Saving up a lot of Pepsodent toothpaste box tops to get a free ticket to some Bob Hope-Lucille Ball movie. They made a personal appearance on stage for about ten minutes and took questions from the audience. I raised my hand and asked Lucy how old she was. "Next."

Going to see "Operation Petticoat" with my dad who never laughed harder at this hilarious comedy about a Navy submarine that was painted pink.

Going to see Hitchcock's "The Birds" with my older cousin Gini. By taking me at such a tender age to such a grown-up movie, she made me feel so incredibly important. And scared shitless when the birds pecked Suzanne Pleshette to death.

Seeing some double feature with my mom on a Friday night. The second movie was about women trapped in a concentration camp. Years later, I saw it on a movie channel. "Seven Women From Hell." A very adult movie and I felt really uncomfortable watching it even when I was older. Mom, what the hell were you thinking?

Going to see a movie there just before it closed. They already converted part of the place to a bingo parlor. I sat there amongst folding chairs, tables, and those cages where they kept the Bingo balls. Weird. 

RKO Proctor's died shortly thereafter.  So did most of my hometown, for that matter.   But the photo above re-jiggers it all again.  One more time.

I want to go again.   I wonder what's playing.  Oh, according to this other photo from 1947, it's "The Best Years of Our Lives."
Dinner last night:  Beef roulade, German potato salad, and red cabbage at Wirthaus.

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