Until I was 10 or 11 years old, I didn’t realize you had to pay to go to the movies. That’s because our family didn’t.
As one of the perks of being a rabbi in a small town, my dad had a clergy pass for the family, allowing us to go to any of the three movie theaters in Annapolis, Md., any time. And since there wasn’t much for a kid to do in town in those days, I went often, seeing each of the movies playing at least once, and sometimes twice. Often with my brother or my friend, Michael, the son of the cantor, since his family, too, had a clergy pass.
Michael enjoyed this privilege immensely. One summer weekday afternoon we went to the movies and there was only one other person in the theater, a well-dressed middle-aged man sitting about halfway down in an aisle seat. Michael walked over to him and said, politely but firmly, “Excuse me, sir, but this is my seat.”
The man looked up, surprised to see this young kid asking him to choose another seat in an empty theater. The man said, “Sorry, but I’m sitting here.”
“You don’t understand, this is my permanent seat,” he said, flashing his laminated clergy pass as if he were an FBI agent showing his badge.
The man moved.
A few years later, I found myself to be the only person at the movies. It was another weekday summer afternoon, and I had come into the theater mostly to get out of the heat. I may well have seen the movie before. As I sat in the cool darkness, waiting for the film to start, the young usher came over to me and said, somewhat apologetically, that he was going upstairs to the projection room to start the movie and he appreciated my patience.
A few moments later, he returned, a bit out of breath from going up and down all those stairs, to ask if I’d mind if he didn’t turn on the air conditioning. “If you start to feel warm, just let me know,” he said, pointing up at the projection room behind us.
Feeling guilty that he was going to all this trouble just for me — and I wasn’t even a paying customer — I told him that would be fine and made a mental note to buy a big box of Raisinets before leaving.
I loved going to the movies, and could lose myself in just about any kind of story, from romantic comedy to Western to horror — watching the scary parts through the little air holes in my baseball cap.
I have a friend who loves to eat, and can remember what he ordered at a given restaurant, even years later. I could never do that, but if you mention a movie I’ve seen, I can usually tell you when and where I saw it, and who was with me.
I certainly remember the crush I had when I was about 9 years old on Esther Williams, who starred in a number of aquatic musicals and spent more screen time in the water than out — a good thing because she wasn’t a great actress. After hearing me rave about her, my brother encouraged me to write her a fan letter, which I did; in return, I received an autographed photo of her in a swimsuit. I kept it in my wallet — the photo, not the swimsuit — for many years.
Though I was a constant moviegoer, it never occurred to me that only white people made up the audiences in the Annapolis theaters. But one day, when I came out to the lobby during the intermission of one of those three-hour-plus film spectacles popular in the 1950s, I saw a group of Negroes (the preferred term for African Americans then) walking in a circle outside the theater, chanting slogans.
My brother explained that they were protesting the whites-only policy of the local theaters. I hadn’t realized that they could patronize only the town’s one “colored” movie house.
Times have changed, and so have movies. Hollywood’s primary target audience these days is aged 12 to 34, and the studio films tend to be romantic comedies that substitute crude talk for cleverness, and fantasy blockbusters with huge budgets, more for special effects than coherent plotlines. I prefer the independent movies; modest budgets, more creativity.
Even now, all these years later, I tend to rate movies as Good, Bad, or Annapolis, meaning it’s OK if it’s free, but not worth paying for.
I look back fondly on those days of my youth when I learned about the real world by losing myself in the fantasies of fiction, seeing the world in a new light while sitting in the dark.