Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Park Theater

Every Saturday afternoon from the time I was in third grade, a group of us went to the Saturday matinee at the Park Theater. Considered historic even then, the theater had opened in 1914. My father and mother told me stories about going to see live theater there, and even my grandmother had memories of vaudeville performances on that stage. Her sister-in-law, Gladys, had performed in some vaudeville shows, and I always imagined her as a Gypsy Rose Lee type of character, fish-net stockings, booming Ethel Merman-type voice, and a mind-your-own-business attitude. The theater still had the red velvet drapes and pull cords even after it had stopped hosting live shows and did nothing but movies.
During my grammar school years, I always got excited about going to the movies, largely because we'd all walk together from the projects to the theater, the farthest we were allowed to go on our own. Parents didn't chauffeur kids around then. We were actually able to do some exploring on our own. The Park was probably a mile from where we lived, and there were times during the winter that, by the time the show got out, it was dark on the way home. 
Another reason for the excitement was the prizes. During intermission, one of the ushers would come on stage and start pulling numbers from a spinning cage where all the movie ticket stubs had been stored. Your number was on your ticket -- and some were lucky enough to have a red stamped star on the back, which meant you were an instant winner. They'd spread the prizes out on stage, so we'd all ooh and aah over them. The prizes always included a bike -- I wanted the pink one with the long streamers floating from the handlebars -- dolls, stuffed animals, bats and balls, books, and basketballs. In the winter, they often added a sled or one of those "new" round silver disks that you could skim along the snow. Three or four lucky kids would win something each week. I was never one of them.
The show would start with a few cartoons, probably designed to get us to settle down before the matinee began. And the regular movie always had time for an intermission (just like the ones they showed at the drive-in theater that we went to with our parents on summer nights). I loved the animal movies, but the films I remember more than any others were the "different ones."
In 1960, I saw my first horror movie there. It was also the first 3-D movie I'd ever seen. And it scared the beejesus out of me. It was called "The Thirteen Ghosts" and starred a bunch of people who never made anything else. I can't remember the plot, but I do remember that every time one of the ghosts came out, you could see them with your 3-D glasses, but if you took them off, there was nothing there. That seemed magical to me, and most of the time the ghosts came on screen, I pulled my glasses off because it felt safer.
And then there were the Elvis Presley movies. It almost feels now like we saw one every other weekend during the 1960s, but that was impossible, especially since Elvis only made 2 or 3 movies a year. Still, I can see scenes from "Blue Hawaii," "Kissin' Cousins," "Viva Las Vegas," and many others in my mind, and I saw each of them at the Park Theater.
As I got older, I still went there on the weekends, and it became common to go there with my high school dates (mostly because we could sit in the back rows and make out). It was almost a rite of passage to be seen there on the weekends, and if I were with a girlfriend rather than a guy, we spent most of the movie craning our necks around to see who was in the back row making out with their date of the week. That ended up being gossip for the school cafeteria during the rest of the week.
The Park Theater ended up being demolished in the 1980s, and there's a high-rise apartment building there now. It's kind of sad that a place with so much history has disappeared, but I know there are many of us who treasure the memories still in that moving picture that plays in our brains.

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