Friday, September 14, 2012

Remembering the Liberty Theater

I was eleven years old and watching a Saturday matinee at the Liberty Theater when I realized I would die someday. Every kid in town was there. Every kid in town went to the movies every week back then. Every Saturday afternoon. You played outside in the morning, came home, ate lunch, got a quarter from your mother, and raced to the movies as fast as you could.

The man who owned the theater was about sixty, and, every week, before the movie began, he slumped down the aisle wearing the same baggy gray suit—your grandfather’s suit—a suit like the ones Broderick Crawford wore on Highway Patrol on television. He would trudge up the stairs on those flat feet of his, slump out to center stage, and hold his hands out in front of himself to quiet us down—like Al Jolson quieting a Vaudeville crowd. Then he would launch into the same tired speech:

Saturday matinees weren’t a right, gang… We don’t have to put on our kind of shows and, if you don’t behave, we’ll stop showing the kind of movies you like.

Feigning chastisement, we would give him his moment of silence. But he knew it was futile. We knew it was futile. The ushers and the ladies at the candy counter knew it was futile. Saturday matinees may not have been a right, but all those quarters sure as hell counted up. Every seat in the house was taken. The whole town knew all hell was about to break loose, but what could he do? What could anyone do?

Sighing to himself, resigned, already defeated, he would signal the projectionist to, “roll it”. The lights would dim. The newsreel would begin. The old man would slump off the stage and trudge back up the aisle, a scuttling pair of ragged claws, to his tiny, cluttered office behind the candy counter to count his quarters.

Out in the theater, the chaos would start slowly, crescendo, and, eventually, reign supreme—a chaos I had known all my movie going life—a chaos incubated and sustained by row after row of my round-headed, buzz cut, Baby Boom peers. Whoopee cushions blatted. Rubber band slingshots twanged. Jujubes flew. One especially raucous Saturday, in the middle of an old Roy Rogers movie, a chocolate covered cherry splatted against the screen, hitting Trigger on his giant Technicolor ass, and oozing down. The stain would remain there for years. I remember Vivian Leigh flouncing through it when they re-released Gone With The Wind. Spilled, syrupy, ten-cent-a-cup vending machine soft drinks ran in rivulets down the sloped floor under the seats, and we tracked the sticky residue up the once-luxuriously-carpeted aisles to the art deco men’s room, where someone always clogged the urinal with heavy brown paper towels.

So there I was, sitting, behaving myself, awash in the noise and the churn of my childhood friends. We were watching yet another cowboy movie. The good guys had the bad guys pinned down in the rocks up a box canyon yet again. Everyone was shooting it out yet again. Somebody—one of the good guys—sighted his rifle and pulled the trigger and a bad guy jumped up, grabbed his belly, and fell dead.

Between television and the Liberty Theater, I had witnessed this scene hundreds of times before, but for some reason, sitting there that day, I was suddenly enlightened. I too would die some day. The news arrived with a jolt, and it was not easy to accept.

I had always thought of God and Jesus as good guys; as biblical versions of Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. They wore white robes, if not white hats. And according to the nuns, God and Jesus stood up for the little guys. They suffered little children to come unto them. Sitting there in the dark, now aware I too would die, I thought either God and Jesus had double crossed the nuns or the nuns were in on it and had double crossed me.

Not that it made any difference. No matter how much I believed, no matter how hard I prayed, we were all going to die. Every kid in the room. I remember turning away from the screen, looking up at the once-classy-now-dusty fleur-de-lis sconces on the theater walls and dreading absolutely everything.

There was always a point in those old cowboy movies when somebody out scouting gets down off his horse, crawls on his belly to the edge of a cliff, peeks over and realizes the good guys are about to ride into an ambush. He comes back, riding hell bent for leather, waving his hat, yelling, “Go back. It’s a trick.”

I wanted to ride back and warn the guys in the theater. It’s all one big ambush. Everything—life, fun, matinees, Jujubes—it’s just a set up. Go back. It’s a trick. But what good would warning them do? We were already in and of this world, and there was only one way out.

So I kept my mouth shut. For that afternoon at least, Death was my own little horror. It was the darkest moment of my life up till then. Eventually, the good guys roped the rustlers and Roy Rogers kissed Dale Evans. The two of them rode off into the sunset on a buckboard, the movie flickered to an end, and we all jostled out into the late afternoon light. We all went home. The initial jolt subsided. We grew up, and went our separate ways.

For years there, I was too busy living to think much about my own mortality. If I did so at all, it came to me as a quick little reminder—a couple synapses while shaving or a blip on the verge of a night’s sleep. It was one of those, “Oh… Yeah… Forgot about that…” moments; a note to myself—like an appointment I made long ago and forgot to jot down on the calendar.

Lately, though, Death is starting to worm away at me again. It’s getting a little more insistent; taking on the tone they use in overdue utility bills. Some days, reading the obits, I feel like the slowest wildebeest in the herd. Death is the hyena snapping at my heels. It’s already brought down a few of the guys. One of these days… Well…

These days, I hold Death at bay with the memory the old man from the Liberty Theater, long dead himself now, in church at nine o’clock mass on Sunday morning. He is wearing his nicer, less-rumpled blue Sunday suit. He is kneeling back on his hams, hands clasped, eyes screwed shut in prayer. God’s light is falling around him. I can’t tell if he’s praying for salvation or better-behaved young matinee patrons.

Meanwhile, up on the altar, the deaf old parish priest, dead these many years himself, is warning us all to behave or God will stop showing the kind of movies we like.