Friday, January 19, 2007

The Broadway

I’m immersed in a project right now that’s about the love of movies, what people sacrifice to make them and what keeps them working in such an often thankless trade. It got me wondering about where my own love of films came from and how the taste in movies I have was formed.

I grew up in the SW corner of Saskatchewan in a time that wasn’t before television, just before TV had reached that section of the Canadian Outback. There wasn’t a movie house in any of the nearby towns either so movies ran at the Legion Hall every Friday night. There were two showings and two different films, an early one that kids and families could watch and then a late show for adults and teens on dates. The R rating hadn’t been invented yet.

Every month the local grocery store would tuck a glossy card in your shopping bag printed with mini-posters of all the coming attractions. And the offerings were more or less recent releases, arriving where we were a couple of weeks after the theatres down the line in Swift Current had finished their runs.

The films were presented by a guy named Alf Blodgett, who would arrive in the late afternoon, unpack a portable 35mm projector from his car and haul in 4 or 5 heavy metal hexagonal suitcases that carried the reels for the evening’s films. Some of my earliest memories are of hanging around after school to watch him tack up the posters and try to figure out what else was on the bill.

Seeing a movie was always exciting, but at my age, more important were the cartoons and featurettes that preceded the main event. The big metal cans always had hand-written tape on them indicating that there would be a “Looney Tunes” or “Tom & Jerry” cartoon and on a bumper night “The Three Stooges” as well. Often there was a newsreel or sportsreel too, but those only ran before the second show for the adults. Still, the selection showed a dedication to serving the audience.

Alf must’ve been a pretty dedicated guy himself. I remember the projector lamp burning out one night during a torrential thunderstorm. He replaced it and the replacement blew as well. Alf got in his car and drove 3 or 4 towns away to get another. Everybody stayed put and gave him a big round of applause when he returned, soaked to the skin and holding up two brand new bulbs to let everyone know their night was not a loss.

Among the first films I remember were Elvis in “Loving You” and “Jailhouse Rock”, “Earth vs The Flying Saucers” and “The Bridges of Toko-Ri”. Movies for me weren’t about exploring your own life and experiences but of being taken into worlds that were absolutely unfamiliar.

On the occasional Saturday we’d travel into Swift Current or Medicine Hat to a real movie theatre and my memories of them are mostly of the lobbies. There was a real ticket booth, just like the ones you saw in movies where people went to the movies and they were filled with posters and lobby cards for all the coming attractions, sometimes five or six of them. I couldn’t imagine how anybody had the time to see that many films. It was a luxury beyond imagining.

Around the age of 11, we moved into the big city, Regina, which at the time had five theatres, all at least three times as big as the ones in Swift Current. For the first time, I encountered the concept of certain theatres catering to a certain crowd and began to realize that what showed at each theatre just wouldn’t play in any of the others.

The Nortown was in the North end of the city and we lived in the South. Although it was probably only a half hour bus ride, I only got there once. It was in the “tough” part of town, meaning I think that they had a drunk and some kid who might steal your bike. So my parents didn’t want me going that far afield – I guess they didn’t think anybody local would join the search party.

The Nortown and another Downtown theatre, the Roxy, had the best Saturday matinees; double feature, several cartoons and not one parent within a mile. The Nortown was legendary, however, for having “A full hour of cartoons” prior to their double features. Those kids on the wrong side of the tracks had it so-o-o good!

What I remember most about the Roxy was the smell. There was this sweet combination of stale popcorn, rancid butter and spilled coke that permeated the place. Years later, while doing a police ride-a-long with a homicide squad, I encountered that smell again. It’s almost identical to the sweet aroma of a freshly decaying body. And that seems fitting because the Roxy was where films that had played Regina went to die.

There was a double feature every night, changing twice a week; lots of westerns, gangster films and war movies. It showed strictly B movie fare augmented by whatever had been playing elsewhere in the city and quickly shunted there because it wasn’t drawing a crowd up at the big house.

In the current era of strictly patterned releases invariably opening on a Friday, it may seem strange that films once opened almost any day of the week. A couple of bad nights and the theatre manager simply called in a replacement.

My memories of the Roxy include “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond” and “The Legend of Tom Dooley”, "Tarzan" during his Gordon Scott incarnation, along with double bills like “The Blue Max” and “Patton” (how many hours must that have been). I saw my first Horror films there starting with “The Vampire and the Ballerinas” paired with Roger Corman’s “The Premature Burial”. I didn’t sleep for a week.

The three classy movie houses were the Capitol, the Metropolitan and the Broadway. The Capitol was extremely classy; velvet curtains and brass railings with a giant wide screen big enough for “Ben-Hur” and “The Sand Pebbles” as well as anything in Cinerama. The Capitol had ushers in tuxedos and they played the National Anthem before every show and you had to stand around after the credits until they’d finished “God Save the Queen.”

Sometimes the Capitol slummed it with classy junk. I remember seeing the legendary 7 minute long trailer for "Psycho" there and sensing this was something very different. When the film ran, there was a big cutout of Hitchcock at the front door holding a red bulb that started flashing a few minutes before the film started. The sign on it warned “No One Will Be Admitted To The Theatre After The Start Of Each Performance Of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho”. Back then, you just bought a ticket whenever you wanted and walked in. But Hitch obviously knew that wasn’t going to work with what he had planned.

The Capitol was where I saw the Roman Empire fall and met James Bond and Bullit and Dr. Strangelove. It was where my first girlfriend dove screaming on top of me when Alan Arkin leapt out of the blackness to try to kill Audrey Hepburn in “Wait Until Dark” and where I watched Butch and Sundance gun down a bunch of Bolivian bandits in slow motion and suddenly understood the awesome power of film.

The Metropolitan was a very sedate place that presented all the Disney movies and I had an amazing chat with an usherette one day about the aesthetic failings of “101 Dalmations”. I wanted to be an animator by then, revered Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett and the smooth Warner Brothers and early Disney style. Neither of us liked the ‘scraggly’ look of the Dalmations. I mean, anybody can do rough sketches!

It was the first intelligent discussion of animation and what would later be dubbed “semiotics” by film snobs that I’d ever had with an adult and I just adored her for that and wanted to take her with me when I ran away from home to work with Walt. But I was 13 and she was in her 40’s so it never would’ve worked.

The Metropolitan was where all the Jerry Lewis and Elvis movies played. I didn’t have much use for either one of them by then, but they were the preferred movies for dates. Yet somehow the brilliance of Lewis as a director (no, I’m not kidding here) showed in “The Bellboy” and “The Ladies Man”. And much as “Blue Hawaii” and “Double Trouble” made me want to puke, there was always a moment in each when the King would rise above the material the Colonel and Hal Wallis were making him do and for a couple of minutes remind you of why he was so remarkable. I think he taught me that any actor can be good, if only he’s given something to work with.

But Kitty-Corner to the Metropolitan was the movie house that really made me who I am. The Broadway Theatre. The Broadway was like a punch drunk heavyweight champion. You knew it had been special once and as shabby and past its time as it was during the 1960’s, it just wouldn’t go down. The lobby was small and as I remember always wet. You walked up a few stairs to the theatre which raked down to a permanently un-curtained screen. Gawd, even the Roxy had a curtain!

The interior façade was a detailed replica of a Spanish courtyard with stars painted on the night sky above and little candles glowing in the windows of Castilian porticos that ringed the sides and balcony above tiny adobe tiled roofs. To this day, I swear that Zorro and a sultry dark haired Flamenco dancer would occasionally peek from the shuttered windows on either side of the projection booth to see what was happening onscreen.

And what crossed the Broadway’s screen was impossible to pigeon hole. The manager must have been a deranged drunk. One week he was screening a pseudo-documentary-bio like “Mein Kampf”, the next it was sex films masquerading as educational aids. “Honey, after breakfast, I think I’ll take the kids to the stud farm.” The week after that Jane Fonda in “Cat Ballou”.

Most of the movies at the Broadway, us kids couldn’t get into, but when they were running something you could, you still saw all the previews for the forbidden stuff. I remember my mom phoning the manager in a rage after my brother and I went to “Hercules Unchained” and got a bonus second feature starring a young actress we couldn’t stop talking about named Bridgette Bardot. What we’d seen was the one movie where she’d kept her clothes mostly on, “Babette Goes to War”, so things were soon smoothed over. But still, you have to wonder what kind of mind puts those two films on a double bill.

Because you never knew what to expect at the Broadway, it became my favorite place to see films. And to comprehend that last sentence you need to understand that the world was not always obsessed with celebrity, weekend box office and ain’ More often than not, all you knew about a picture was who was in it and what the poster implied. The lights went down in those movie houses without anyone knowing all the funniest lines from the trailer or what the critics had given away.

I saw “Beach Party” at the Broadway and “Cool Hand Luke”. That theatre introduced me to brilliant British films like “The Knack” and “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush”. It was where I lined up to see “A Hard Day’s Night”, “The Wild Angels” and “The TAMI Show”. I took cheerleaders to see Nicholson and McQueen and my buddies and I discovered Harold Lloyd and "Spartacus". The theatre was rigged with wires for “The Tingler”, ushers handed out special glasses so you could see “The 13 Ghosts”. You got a paddle at the ticket booth to vote thumbs up or down for "The Abominable Doctor Phibes" and 3D glasses glued to your popcorn box for the re-release of “House of Wax”.

I remember a man being carried from the theatre, helpless with laughter at a Jack Lemmon movie I still search for called “Good Neighbor Sam” and almost had to be carried out myself watching Peter Sellers in “The Party”. And I saw movies that changed my life like “The Pawnbroker” and “Easy Rider”.

What the Broadway taught me about the movies is something I endlessly try to recreate. That you should always surprise the audience, give them something they weren’t expecting – or expecting but not in the way you deliver it to them. Play with them, make the story and its execution something they’re familiar with and yet have never seen before.

Many times in my career, I’ve been parked in front of a computer at 4 a.m. knowing the crew’s arriving in a couple of hours and something’s still not right. Invariably, I’ll drift back to the Broadway Theatre, think about a film that plowed the same ground I’m now working and find something I wasn’t expecting.

Maybe it’s my way of giving back. Maybe it’s my way of taking what I was given and passing it on.


wcdixon said...

"sniff" "sniff"...

Kelly J. Compeau said...

Thank you so much for that post and all the YouTube trailers, Jim. While I was a child of the '80s, not the '60s, I had and still maintain my passion for classic cinema. Cleopatra, To Catch a Thief, The Odd Couple, Sunset wonderful!

I used to work at a turn of the century movie house, once called the Roxy, here in Ontario back in the late '80s -- and it also had that sweet/salty/stale smell you spoke of.



wcdixon said...

This was a killer post Jim. Mostly for the Regina memories for me. I know I was a few years later, but yeah 'The Broadway' rocked. Saw '20,000 Leagues Under The Sea' there for one of my first flicks I believe, and left scarred for life, running in terror of giant squids. The Roxy was where I saw Star Wars. Grease at the Capital (I will admit here I went to a 1 pm matinee and stayed for two more successive screenings...crushing on Olivia Newton John in a big way.)

Wasn't the Odeon Center around back then (under the Regina Inn)? I remember the back 12 rows of it were red seats where you could smoke...maybe they all had that.

And then one by one they were demolished to make way for the Cornet and the Cornwall multiplexes (6 screens each I think).

But the 'Broadway' experience you describe for me was the Loop series out at the University. I used to get dropped off out there in my mid teens to 'see a movie' and just walk into such mind f*cking insanity for a kid like Andy Warhol's 'Bad' and 'Frankenstein', Harvey Keitels 'Mean Streets' and 'Fingers', 'Easy Rider' and 'The Trip'... too many others to mention.

Watched the screen agape. But left inspired and believing there was this wild world out there to discover.