Ohboyohboy! A new movie was coming to the Astor show! The stagehand had placed the really tall ladder beside the marquee and was now climbing up and down, up and down, changing the big black letters to make new words.
I had a prime seat for marquee-changing. Our apartment looked out at Hough Avenue, and to the right, less than a block away, was the Astor movie theater. As a pre-schooler, much of my time was spent observing the passing scene beneath the bay window in our living room.
"New movie, mom!" I yelled into the kitchen.
"Well, spell it out and we'll see what it is" she suggested. I knew letters but not words, so I began. The stagehand was putting up a large "C" then an "A", then an "S"
"A..B..L…" I continued as the letters were pushed into place, but Mother interrupted, "- Casablanca! Oh, great! We have to see that"
I wasn't sure I would want to see it. Mother liked boring movies, or so they seemed to my five-year-old taste. But she took me anyway, because
1. She couldn't afford a babysitter
2. It could be dish night.
3. It could be Bingo night.
The advantages of being an only child now were apparent. An extra little person (me) at the theater would just fall asleep instead of fighting with siblings. Only one box of popcorn to share, only one candy bar to buy. BUT-two tickets for the show, meaning mother's chances of winning a prize were doubled.
Light My Fire--Really
Mother could count on me to fall asleep through both Grade A and Grade B movies. This eased her conscience concerning "seeing something I shouldn't."
One time I did awaken to the horrific scene of Ingrid Bergman being fired at the stake as Joan of Arc. Something jogged my memory - hadn't Mother mentioned in a low voice to Grandpa her worries about being fired from her job? Is THAT what she meant?
It took several days of uneaten oatmeal and bed-wetting before my worry was pried from me. Mother responded by laughing and explaining it wasn't THAT kind of fired. And she didn't, either. Get fired.
The evening shows always started with the Movietone newsreels-"the eyes and ears of the world" the narrator proclaimed in deep serious tones.
The newsreels in stark black and white showed the most recent battles. This war business was always at the back of grownups minds. It was hard to understand the story, not at all like the cowboy movies on Saturday, when kids would wildly cheer for the white hats and boo and throw popcorn at the screen at the black hats.
The grownups sat silently in the darkened theater instead, just staring at the screen, and it seemed as if they were looking for someone's face in the flashes of battle, or in a chow line.
As the newsreel ended, the cartoon came on next, and people who had been sitting hunched forward intently now sat back and allowed the magic of make believe to carry their troubles away for a time.
Elmer Fudd, Pussytat, Tweetie Bird, Bugs Bunny, Wiley Coyote, Donald and Mickey, Porky Pig, Pluto, Popeye, Yosemite Sam, Roadrunner….what a wonderful, colorful way to unwind! Plots so predictable that you knew when the stick of dynamite would blow up or the when the character realized he was standing in midair before crashing.
Funny, silly, heart-lightening cartoons! The troubles of their heroes were deliciously repetitious and predictable. We felt safer watching their antics after the grim
newsreels. With cartoons, we knew the ending.
Under the Letter B
Now the house lights came on and the popcorn girl from the lobby wheeled a large metal cage on a stand onto the stage. Every one who was a paid customer had received a Bingo card when they entered the show.
The house manager asked a youngster - darn! never me- to come up, and as the manager turned the handle on the cage, the pingpong balls inside rolled around and around. The youngster reached in the cage door and handed a ball to the manager. The manager held up the numbered ball and loudly said, "GEE FOURTEEN!"
People began marking off the matching numbers on their cards with little pencils passed out by ushers. Mother had two cards because I was given a card, too. Her fingers would be fiddling with the card, waiting for the number she needed. "Just one more and we win" she whispered to me.
"Bingo!" Someone shouted from the last row. We lost.
Mother was always disappointed, but I wonder if she would ever have had the nerve to shout "Bingo!" even if she had won. She was pretty shy. If we had won, I imagined would stand up on my seat and with my very loudest voice shout for both of us: BINGO!
The happy winner came up to collect the prize, usually a basket of local merchants' goods supplied to the movie house to keep customers loyal to the area. There was only one game of bingo played during an evening, just enough time in which to rewind the reels and change them for the feature presentation.
If it weren't Bingo Night, it might be Plate Night. Everyone leaving the theater after the feature presentation could select a plate from a table in the lobby to take home. If we came often enough, we might have a whole set of plates.
But the ones in the movie house weren't the same as the ones given out every week when we shopped at Kroger's grocery store across the street.
Eventually Mother acquired some stunning glass plates with bright red tomatoes painted on them from the Astor show. She placed them in the cupboard beside the cups and saucers of deep green with painted sailboats from Kroger's. Well, they were free.
Follow the Bouncing Ball
Every so often, instead of a cartoon, a different "short" would be part of the evening's entertainment. The movie screen became a giant scrolling song sheet, with words to a familiar song slowly moving up from the bottom. As the music accompanied, the narrator offered this encouragement: "So come on, everybody! Let's all sing-it's easy, just read the words, and FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL!"
Then a little white circle (ball) appeared, doing some warmup bounces on the screen as the introduction began. The ball helped everyone keep time.
SHINE bounce, bounce, ON bounce bounce, SHINE bounce ON bounce HAR-bounce
VEST bounce MOON bounce bounce bounce UP bounce IN bounce THE bounce SKY bounce bounce bounce bounce.
Strangers sat in the darkness, singing together, some swaying in time, others nodding their heads back and forth. The simplest of pastimes, ageless and comforting.
Everyone felt good.
A few decades later, another enthusiastic guy invited us all to Sing Along With Mitch. That was fun, too. Only he had the lights on.
The Land of Nod
About 10 minutes after the main feature had begun, my eyelids started to droop and my head to nod. Mom's shoulder was the most comfortable place to be, as the story unfolded on the Silver Screen. As the lights came on after the symphonic ending, I was nudged awake and groggily stumbled out the doors into the cool air.
It was only a two minute walk back to the apartment and up the stairs. Mother tucked me into bed, closing the door and leaving me in darkness again.
She hummed the movie's theme song as she left. Almost asleep, my eyelids could still see little bouncing balls springing around her words.
She would hum that tune all week - until the movie marquee changed again. Another week, another plate.
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