Born In A Trunk

Len Bourret


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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I spent a lot of time in the Patio Theater as a very little kid because my mom was one of the two cashiers there, and often, when my grandma couldn't watch me, I was allowed to go to work with mom. While she sold tickets, I had the time of my life and saw (sometimes 2-3 times) every movie that came to our small town. 

Bruce was the usher. He wore a snappy light gray uniform with a maroon chest and a double row of small brass buttons -- sort of like that Johnny kid who called for Philip Morris in the old commericals. Bruce saw people to their seats using his flashlight. When no one needed his escorting, he gave me rides on his shoulders and talked to me about his favorite movie stars (he was in love with Carole Lombard) and occasionally sprang for (pure heaven) a nickel treat. I spent a long time deciding from among the 5-6 pull knobs on the one candy machine in the lobby. Never bothered with popcorn -- went straight for the hard stuff: Root Beer Barrels, Nonpareils (never bought those), Mason's Dots, Good N Plenty. And a chewing gum knob (I never pulled that one, either). 

I understood how quiet one must be, slipping into the darkened theater to watch a bit of the movie, and then out to the lobby to talk to Bruce, hope for candy, maybe visit my mother if no one was buying tickets. And sometimes to see the Theater Manager. I guess he was the owner too. I was scared of him, always thinking he would ask to see my ticket (he never did, of course). One early evening show, he actually invited me to pull the winning ticket stub out of the spinning cage to choose the person who would take home the big prize on "dish night." Everyone in the audience knew I was the cashier's kid and our family wasn't eligible for the prize, so my selecting the number was OK with them. What glory! 

And sometimes we had "amateur night" before the feature film. I remember that a little girl tried to sing "My Blue Heaven" but forgot the words. Her name was Helen Ann Homeier. I'll bet her mama reassured her that no one would ever remember. Don't you believe it, Helen Ann.

'The Movie Palace' (Copyright 2003, Len Bourret)Although I'm sure they were not as spectacular as some of the great old movie palaces in larger cities, I fondly remember the beautiful Alhambra and Crest Theaters in Sacramento, California, which I frequented in the early '60s. The Alhambra was a stately, white Moorish-style building with a little tiled courtyard and fountain outside, and the interior, of course, featured plush everything, with sweeping, carpeted staircases and graceful lighting fixtures in a rainbow of subdued colors. The interior of the Crest was similarly elaborate, with a sweeping crescent of a balcony and, as I recall, fascinating murals on the walls (always adding a touch of mystery in the dim light). 

Moviegoing was one of my greatest pleasures as a kid, and how well I remember the delicious sensation of entering the cool depths of a theater on a searingly hot summer afternoon, and the equally wonderful sensation of feeling the intense rays of the late afternoon sun on my face and arms when emerging again. 

The Alhambra was demolished years ago, and whether the Crest has survived in anything like its former glory, I don't know. 

I grew up in a small town. The theater burned down about 30 years ago. I visited there last Christmas, and just for the memories I walked the entire length of Main Street, just short of a mile. The lot where the theater was is still vacant. It couldn't have been more than 20 feet wide, probably less. I remember there were six seats on each side of the aile. I think it must have held a maximum of 200 people. About the size of a "mini-screening room." 

I remember they closed down for a week to install the "Cinemascope" screen. The first wide screen movie they showed was From Here to Eternity. It blew me away -- not the movie, the screen, which may explain why I like letterbox today. Everybody commented on how the new screen was not as tall as the old one, although it did reach from wall to wall. 

The theater played four different movies per week, one on Sunday and Monday, one Tuesday, one Wednesday and Thursday, and one on Friday and Saturday. The one night Tuesday movie was generally a monster film or teen-oriented flick, and they had a Bingo game to lure the customers. When the old theater burned down, the whole town pulled together to build a new one. It was built across the street from the old one in a pre-fab metal building. The new manager got a new projector that would hold the entire evening's program on one big reel. He had to do a lot of splicing before and cutting after to get it back on the reels it came on, but it allowed him and his wife to operate the theater alone. She would tend the box office and he would run the concession stand. When it was time for the movie to start he would simply throw one switch beneath the counter. 

Some theaters today are taking credit cards. I remember you could go to this theater and write a check, even make it out for a little more than admission so you would have change for the concession stand. 

When the VCR came out the business began to fail. They tried renting video tapes to make up the slack, but the grocery stores and gas stations were doing the same thing. The city fathers gave him a subsidy to keep him is business (so the kids would have a place to go) but in the end it failed. It is still standing, its marquee empty. I'm told that the screen, seats, projector, even the popcorn machine are still in there gathering dust. 

My particular memory was of the beautiful Academy Theater, aptly named. Above the marquee was a tall, spiral structure adorned with lights of many colors. At night, the lights would start from the bottom and wind their way to the top of the dome. As you walked inside, the carpet seemed to wrap itself around your shoes. The doors were very large, and when they opened, the color hit you. Greens, blues, and reds. The material looked like pure velvet. The exquisitely decorated chandelier then slowly became darker and darker while at the same time the curtain began to rise. In stages and in horizontal rows, one after another. For me, it was a magical experience. There were many other theaters in Pasadena, California at that time, but there was something about the Academy that made it special in my mind. 

I'm not sure of the price back then. It was probably about 35 cents. Smoking was probably allowed, although I wouldn't remember as my brother and I grew up in a thin haze that was everpresent in our home. Remember, this was the 50s, and probably 7 out of 10 people smoked at the time. 

What was the name of your cinema palace? How much did a big box of popcorn cost? Did you sit up in the balcony? Did you sneak past the red velvet rope to do that? Could people smoke in your theater? Were there ever any amateur night bits before or after the feature film? What do you remember? Let's hear! 

Footnote

The Patio looked similar to the Liberty Theater 

The Liberty Theater in downtown Astoria, Oregon, is one of the best examples of the 1920s vaudeville-motion picture palace in the Pacific Northwest.
 
Liberty Restoration, Inc., a private, non-profit organization is restoring this magnificent structure to its 
original elegance and equipping it to be a state-of-the-art performing arts center. Restoration partners 
are Portland State University and Clatsop Community College. 
 
 
 
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