July 25, 2016 - Theater Roots, Pt. 1 - A Little Town Like Bedford Falls
In trying to pursue some goal of Movie Activism, I may have to veer briefly away into Personal Reminiscences, but there's a reason for that. It's occasionally necessary for any of us to take a look at what we had, before we can even start to grasp a Big Picture theory of just where and when it slipped off its leash and got away from us while our back was turned. Usually most of us find we had other things on our minds at the time, and just didn't notice.
My upbringing started about as iconically movie-fated as you could get: The old hometown of Seneca Falls, NY, an upstate town of Finger Lakes scenery and Erie Canal mills, that now has a minor tourism industry in convincing the world it was the "real" inspiration for Bedford Falls from "It's a Wonderful Life". And from the old Victorian houses and big iron bridge I remember from getting about town on my bike, I can't honestly say they're wrong--In fact, I think I passed the "Bailey house" on State Street every day on the way back from third grade. (Of course, that didn't mean much to us at the time, since nobody back then had really heard of Frank Capra's public-domain movie until the 70's TV-remake with Marlo Thomas.)
It was a centralized small town, with my dad's college and Cayuga Lake a few minutes away by car, and we were lucky to have a house within five blocks of the main street--Middle school was two blocks away, and it was easy to pedal down to the library or hospital at the point where the town "started". But it's the experience of walking downtown for a movie on Friday night or Saturday afternoon that sticks out clearly, probably because seeing movies I didn't have to depend on parents for represented the first 9-10-yo. image of independence. I'm stuck to remember the names of any of my 5th-grade teachers, and yet I can name most of the movies, matinees included, that I saw at that little hundred-seater Strand between 1973 and 1976.
That's not the theater, btw. That's a 1915 picture of what was originally the Strand, a former stage theater that served as the town's main-street movie palace up through the end of the 60's. I have dim memories of going to exactly three movies there--one was 2001, one was Disney, and one was a bizarre foreign kiddie matinee that someone must have done their own blog column upon by now--before it burned down in 1972. I remember a balcony, and classic red-velvet curtains, and rumors of a bat up in the rafters. I think I also remember hearing the new owners were playing a midnight-audience softcore when it caught fire.
The Strand theater I remember, I can't show you any pictures of. I can dig up pictures of the Women's Hall of Fame Memorial Park that was built on top of the site shortly after our family moved away, as that's all that's standing in the spot now. History and upstate-NY scenery became the town's main industry after a few longtime factories left, and I think I'd only been back once.
But the theater I remember was a little functional replacement Strand built in the vacant lot, just past the corner by the church and the hotel. (The hotel's still there, btw.) It was certainly a replacement building, as from the outside, it looked rather like a one-story industrial cinderblock bunker painted blue, with posters and marquee added. The parking was what parking you could find in the remainder of the vacant lot, with a driveway out the back behind the laundromat on the corner, but the point of having a theater on the main street wasn't the parking anyway.
A local independently-owned downtown theater is not a cineplex--What downtown theaters you see today only have room for three or five movies, the one I went to had one. They didn't have room to build twelve screens, and exile themselves out to the highway shopping-malls on the edges of town just for breathing room. Each town had a little one to keep the local folks occupied--some were lucky enough to have two or three scattered around--you hoped that "your" movie would be the one or three playing, and if not, you took a jaunt to the neighboring town. (Geneva, NY had one of those old-school movie-palaces with a skyline in the trim and "stars" in the ceiling.) In the late spring, when it wasn't Friday-night-football season for the town, it was the gathering point for everyone you knew in school, for the weekly release ritual of No School-Night, and some hanging around the lobby afterwards for their parent-pickup. You didn't wait to go to a movie, you waited to go to the theater, and saw anything goofy enough to strike your fancy if "your" movie wasn't playing there--You knew why you were waiting for the Friday afternoon bell, and you knew what would be talked about on Monday in school.
The lobby of the local theater was never the brightly lit blitz of corporate marketing that a cineplex theater is today (even the theater itself was the size of one cineplex screen, and no stadium seating)--It was more like someone's well-built home-theater den, with a popcorn machine and vintage posters, and curtains separating it from the seats. If I remember movies from '74-'76, I remember them as the lobby posters on the wall, to Logan's Run and Silver Streak, Soylent Green and The Pink Panther Strikes Again. Thinking "I have to see that here" attaches my memory to every movie I did see there, without having to leave the hometown comforts.
I remember my first whole Hitchcock, when Family Plot turned out to be a "safe" PG--Oh good, it didn't have those seagulls in it. I remember having some actual stake in staying up late to root for the Oscars every year, since I had actually seen Murder on the Orient Express and All the President's Men. I remember Blazing Saddles (my dad sneaked me in), Young Frankenstein and Monty Python and the Holy Grail on opening week, before any showoff audience member could quote a single line.
And because this was the Gritty Golden-Age 70's, when there was nothing for families to go see except Disney revivals, I remember local mom-and-pop theaters stuck to show something on Saturday afternoon, which meant the Kiddie Matinee. There was a big industry for it back then--Christmas always meant those two strange Santa Claus movies from the 60's--and even major studios like MGM and Columbia got into the act, trying to get their back catalog going by selling 10-yo.'s on the Saturday thrills of Forbidden Planet and Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. In those days, old movies were "unwanted" enough to show to kids, and our Management believed that old 30's comedies, with a few Stooges Shemp-shorts thrown in, would keep fourth-graders in their seats when there was nothing else syndicating to show. I had heard old-Hollywood mention of people like the Marx Brothers and WC Fields, but it was $1.50 Saturday-killing matinees that first exposed me to "A Night at the Opera" and "The Fatal Glass of Beer"--At school, some of my friends actually did recognize jokes about nights not fit for man nor beast (ploof!).
One afternoon, since Mom had gotten used to me getting out of the house to keep up with her Saturday-cleaning urges, I decided to stay after the "kiddy" matinee to the 3pm showing of the "real" feature that day: Airport 1975. (And yes, like everyone else back then, I wondered why a "1975" movie was being shown in 1974, and whether it would be more proper to wait.) It was...okay--I've only learned to look back on Airport movies with nostalgia, but back then they were a bit of an annoyance--it had Helen Reddy in a bit part, and planes were cool in those days. But it felt almost like a dare; I mean, ten, that's "PG age" isn't it? It felt like independence, not having to sell the parents on a big drive-out movie night, with the usual family-restaurant dinner, and trying to make the movie sound interesting to grownups. This was my thing. And like the bike I took to get there, I was actually a Me enough to have a My Thing.
Growing up in a small town taught me a lot of things, not just about how to save banks or how angels get their wings--It taught me that what you have in the center of a town is the identity of the town, and everything that happens in it shapes what people think of themselves as members of the town. Corporate chains don't shape a town, a town decides just how much of the outside world it really needs in it, and how much it does nicely without.
Driving out to the big cineplex out in the strip-mall wilderness, or attached to the shopping mall, with its ocean of parking, makes the cineplex feel as if it's establishing its own sovereign domain--You must come to it, if you want to be granted your allotment of blockbuster from the Studio Powers on High, and you bring your nasty texting cellphone to keep from being cut off from civilization. And yes, the first cineplex I discovered did feel like an airline terminal, which made the movie's "gate departure" feel more like an event. But a Main Street (or, in Seneca's case, Fall Street) storefront is not out to conquer your expectations, but meet them, as just one of the regular folks who live there full time. It's part of what you're there to do on a weeknight, even if it's not the season when strange out-of-town folk might come into town to do it. Whatever was there, you'll take with you down the road when you ever have to leave.
Like the towns that look down on the invasions of Starbucks Coffee and Wal-Marts, some towns are still lucky to have locally-run downtown independent commercial theaters, left over as a bit of local pride from the days when, well, that was just what they had. Most are a sampling of the big blockbusters, some still run a few midnight classics in the college towns.
If you're living in such a town, support that theater you've got, treasure it, and do everything you can to keep it alive as a community staple. It may not be the same as striking a match at the drugstore for good luck, but years from now, you'll still remember it.