COLLEGE SQUARE CINEMA
By David Porter
(All Rights Reserved by Author)
May 1974 REFLECTIONS
There I was, standing alone at the edge of the vast parking lot directly across from the College Square Shopping Strip Cinema at ten-thirty in the evening, watching it burn. Yeah, just standing there with those hot hungry golden flames reflecting in my wire-rims.
My full Christian name is Paul Nolan Davis, I was twenty-three years old at the time, and the fire happened in the town where I grew up. It’s a small Northeast Ohio college town not far from the city that was once referred to as The Mistake on the Lake, owing to the fact that its river had, more than once, caught on fire. Tough clue, huh?
I worked at the Cinema during my last year in high school. As far as I was concerned at the time, this fire was one of the best things to ever happen to my hometown. Don’t get me wrong. I did have some good times working at the Cinema. They weren’t really great times, mind you, but there were some times that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Although, if I’m being perfectly honest, I guess such a trade would depend on exactly what was being offered.
The Cinema was in business long before modern summer blockbusters and sold-out matinees. Before multi-multi-multi Cinemas and concession stands larger than the auditoriums themselves. This was when the films being shown mattered more than popcorn and candy sales.
It was a period of time just before the old ways made room for the new ways and an old way of life began to fade away. I guess that’s the way of the world, isn’t it? Don’t step off the roller coaster, ’cause when you try to get back on, you’ll find that everyone else has moved on to the Super Colossal Tower of Fear and left you behind to cough from their dust. You don’t appreciate things the way they are until they’re long gone and there’s no way to ever bring them back.
Here are a few quick details about life at the College Cinema to help you understand what it was like to work in a movie house at that time. We used to waste way too much time pretending to change the mini-marquees out by the road during those warm and seemingly never-ending summer evenings.
Sometimes the ushers would sneak upstairs and out the skylight trap door to make out with the concession girls behind the air conditioner units. Sometimes during the show on slow nights, a couple of ushers would ride a bike down the auditorium aisle to check the exit doors.
Where was I? Oh, right. I was standing across from that old movie house with fire engine sirens blaring around me and the flickering light from the blazing fire bathing me in its golden glow, watching a part of my life go up in smoke.
Here, warts and all, are some stories about a year in the life of a movie theatre and the people who staffed it, in a time more recent than you think and in a community much closer than you realize.
January 1970 THEM
It was your normal Saturday afternoon at the College Cinemas. Fifties Hair-Do Girl was the cashier, Holly Lee worked the concession stand, Arnold Ziffle and The Kid were the ushers, and Deaf Eddie Bishop and yours truly manned the doors. Mr. Carrey, the manager, was, as usua,l upstairs in his office. Elmer Cody slept quietly in the projection room. We were over-staffed by at least five people because only ten customers had come in for the first afternoon show. At least that put us in double digits.
This was long before summer blockbusters and such. People just didn’t go to matinees much back then. The price for adults was only twenty-five cents lower than at night, and unless you had a Disney movie for the kids, forget it.
But we were open anyway, hoping against hope that a giant sunspot would knock out all the TV waves and the crowds and the golden age of movies would return. There are worse things to wish for, I suppose.
I was bored to tears, as usual, right up until it happened. What happened? you may well ask. This happened: Them walked in.
Who were Them? I’ll tell you who Them were. Them were two guys in long leather coats, black gloves, and ski masks.
The ski masks should have been the first clue right? But then and of course, why? Because it was the second week of January, the temperature was in the teens, and good old Mother Nature was being a cold-hearted bitch. Northeast Ohio in winter. Also, Them planned to rob the place. Got it?
I guess if you checked the Police Records, you could find Them listed by name in there somewhere. That is, if you wanted to take the time to do that.
Today Them might be labeled as Victims of Society’s Ills, or something. During the 80’s Them might have been referred to as System-Challenged. But the truth of the matter was, Them guys were what you’d call ‘badasses’, or ‘hardasses’ or ‘badass hardasses’ or, in just plain Average Joe parlance, ‘bad guys’. That was the bottom line. See?
The short one – we’ll call him Ray – was the type of guy who would hurt you if you had something he didn’t, and having it made you happy. The way he would hurt you was, he’d destroy whatever it was. Guess he figured that if he couldn’t have it, then neither could you. The sad part was that it never crossed his pea-like mind to just take whatever it was away from you and keep it for his very own self so that you wouldn’t have it and he would.
Rusty little wheels in his head just didn’t work things out that way because he wasn’t very smart.
He needed guidance. And that was where his partner came in. Let’s call this worthless asswipe Eric.
Eric was different from Ray in that he had half a brain. He didn’t have much more than that, but then half a brain is better than no brain at all. At least that’s what the scarecrow once pointed out to Dorothy.
Eric was meaner than Ray. Remember what Ma Joad asked young Tom in The Grapes of Wrath when he returned home from prison? “Did they make you mean mad, son? Did they?” Well, for a fact, Eric was mean mad. Whereas Ray would hurt you for a reason, justified or not, Eric would hurt you just because you happened to be within hurting distance and were breathing.
Didn’t matter to him if you had something more than he did; nope didn’t matter at all. He just wanted to hurt you close up. No glancing blow. Hurt you right to the gut. Would cut out your beating heart and eat it before you’d taken your last breath. Like that Indian Magua in Last of the Mohicans would.
And just like that, he’d forget about you. That’s how much you meant to him. If everyone else considered him to be dirt, he figured that you were even less and how much time do you allow yourself out of your busy day to think about something that’s stuck to the bottom of your shoes?
So, there you have it, Eric and Ray. As the local Good Old Boys down at the Haymarket Bar in Tappan would say, Them was two badass sombitches.
As I’ve already said, in Them walked. All ski-masked up.
When Fifties Hair-do Girl asked if she could help Them, one, perhaps Eric, said in a muffled voice, “Give us the money,” and both of Them opened their long leather coats and brought out sawed-off shotguns to aim at us.
One of Them jumped over the counter, cleaned out the ticket booth drawer, and stuffed the bills into a bag. Them then ushered the cashier and myself back to the concession stand and had Holly Lee give them the money back there. About this time, both Arnold and The Kid emerged from the auditorium and Them herded the whole wild bunch of us toward the stairwell door.
Mr. Carrey never knew what hit him, as usual.
All of us were then thrown into the office and we watched as Them two emptied the ‘open’ safe. Then the two of Them turned off the light, told us to stay where we were, and left, shutting the door behind Them and leaving us in the dark.
Time passed. Nobody spoke. Eventually the door opened again revealing Deaf Old Eddie Bishop in silhouette against the stairwell light.
“Mr. Carrey,” he said. “There’s no one downstairs and the movies are letting out.”
“Fine. Thank you, Eddie,” returned Mr. Carrey. His voice sounded firm and manly, but I don’t quite know how he managed it.
Deaf Old Eddie nodded, turned, and pulled the door closed. Leaving us in the dark once again. He never asked why Mr. Carrey was sitting in the dark in his office. In fact, he’d missed the entire robbery.
Which makes me wonder, is silence, indeed, golden?
February 1970 THOSE
To begin with, it was just plain too blessed warm for the second day of the second week of the second month of the first year of the second half of the Magnificent Decade. It was. And something was in the air, so to speak. When night fell, the sky was mostly starless, there was a brooding crescent moon, and something strange seemed to be brewing. There was a spark of electricity in the heavy atmosphere.
Not that they, them, those two jerks hiding in the shadows of the alley by the back entrance to the old Starlight Theatre were aware of the brooding and stirring. Hell, no. Them weren’t aware of much of anything.
For here once again, in living three-strip Technicolor, were our two local good old boy moron badassess, Eric and his partner, Ray. Them had a plan. They were going to break in and rob the place. The fact that all the money had been safely deposited hours earlier hadn’t occurred to either of them.
It was ‘round about midnight, as the stars in the constellation Orion touched the zenith of the dark space in the heavens which the aborigines called the backbone of the night,* when good old Eric nudged good old Ray.
“Could be,” said Eric to his less-than- brilliant buddy, Ray, as those two half-wit lame-brain good-for-nothing idgits knelt in the dark shadows of the cluttered alleyway near the rear entrance of the old theatre, “there are other things in the theatre that’re worth something, along with the dough in the safe.”
(Dough which, unknown to Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dumb, wasn’t there anymore.)
“You ready?” Eric asked.
“Yeah, sure. Why not?” replied his nervous buddy, who rarely thought about much of anything and, consequently, never ever thought about the consequences of anything.
Together they rose up and moved toward the old wooden exit doors. Good old boy Eric brought out the crowbar that he had carried with him and told good old boy Ray to keep watch while he worked at opening the rear door.
Ray wasn’t the brightest bulb in the old marquis, but then come to think of it, just how many two-bit, low-life, good for nothing hoods are? He wasn’t particularly brave, either. Nighttime bothered him. In fact, dark starless nights downright scared him clear to the ends of his nasty parts. His nerves weren’t any too damn steady to begin with, and that was a fact.
He had lost all control of his bladder following the afternoon heist at the College Cinemas just a short five weeks earlier. Because of that, good old Eric had beaten him almost totally and completely senseless, which, since we’re talking about Ray here, hadn’t taken too damn much. There hadn’t been all that much sense for old badass sombitch Eric to work with, if you get my drift.
Eric believed for a fact that he had carefully thought this caper out to the last and final little detail. It was an old theatre with no alarm system and it seemed like breaking in ought to be a piece of cake.
Old Ray, on the other hand, had a really bad feeling about the whole thing. But he didn’t want to say something and risk upsetting his pal Eric again. One beating was enough. Ray hunched down behind his buddy Eric and watched the alleyway while Eric turned to the ancient, paint-faded wooden door.
Eric went to work with his rusty crow bar. Suddenly Ray thought he heard footsteps echoing from the end of the enclosed alley. Then he thought he saw a faint smoky mist coming toward him. Blinking, he rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn’t just falling asleep.
It didn’t help. That smoky mist, slowly swirling in the night air right in front of his very eyes, began to turn solid and that cloudy wisp began to take a ghostly shape. Rays lips began to move but he didn’t seem to be able to make any sound come out.
As he watched, the ghostly mist began to form itself into the shape of what appeared to be a very tall gentleman with a bushy western mustache. Details emerged. He wore western gear. A big bronze sheriff’s badge hanging off his shirt suddenly glinted and a handgun about the size of a small cannon appeared and pointed directly at Them.
Old Ray’s eyes popped damn near out of his head, his ding-dongs climbed back up from where they had half-dropped years before, and he fell backwards into good old Eric, who was none too damned pleased to be interrupted, for sure.
“Stupid mother . . . ” muttered Eric. He turned to see what was happening and found himself looking up into the stern and ghostly eyes of that eerie, misty shape and Eric – badass sombitch Eric, don’t-care-about-anything-or-anybody-in-this-world Eric – finally, completely, and for the first time in his completely useless, worthless, and pointlessly wasted life came to finally understand and fully comprehend the term . . . fear.
As Eric and Ray stared, frozen in terror, the misty ghost-like shape of a man who shouldn’t have been there but was, asked them a question in a voice that neither of they, them, those two morons would ever wish to hear again for as long as their wasted useless worthless lives would, by chance, last.*
“You buckos sure you wanna go to this dance?”
In an instant, Them lost their badass, down-and-dirtiness and ran screaming down the alley to Depeyster Street and straight into the side of a police car. The young officer whose car they, them, those two dumb, no-longer-badasses, ran into, documented what happened next. They fell to their knees and begged to be arrested right then and there. One of Them even wet the back seat of the cruiser on the ride to the station.
After Them had been booked, the young officer and the older detective stepped outside for a breath of fresh air.
The young officer said, “Whatever it was they think they saw, it scared them right down to their very souls. Do you think they’re on drugs, Lieutenant?”
The gray haired man grinned and slowly shook his head. “So, those losers say they saw the Sheriff, huh? Man, some people have all the luck. I wish I could meet him.”
The young officer blinked and raised an eyebrow at his superior.
“You believe those two, sir?” he asked in stunned disbelief.
The older man looked off toward the night sky and the far distance glowing white sliver of moon.
“You’re new here, right?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve been here a little over three months.”
The older man put his arm around the shoulders of the younger officer and began to lead him back up the steps into the station house.
“Come on in, Kid. I’ll tell you the Sheriff’s story while you do your reports.”
The crescent moon that lit that February night continued to shine. It was still just a little warm for this time of year, but the strangeness was gone from the atmosphere and it was completely and totally safe now, from all of the monsters of the night.
*And yes, I know this can’t happen, but I don’t care. It worked for Frederick Brown and it sounds good, so there!
May 1974 REVELATIONS
There I stood, a solitary figure at the edge of the large and mostly-empty parking lot, across from the College Square Shopping Strip Cinema on a warm evening in late spring, watching it slowly burn to the ground. The emotions of the moment passed quietly over me like a silent breeze and left me alone with memories of all the people and the things that happened when I worked there.
For that one single year, I wasn’t a social outcast like I was at school. I was a productive part of the whole. Sometimes I was even at the center of it all. There were moments that I’d never forget, moments without stories but only those wonderful John Ford like vistas that would play over and over again in my head.
Like that summer evening when Trevor and I drove out to a spot west of town just to film the sunset. It was high on a ridge that overlooked the countryside and we let my 16mm Bolex Rex-5 camera run for the whole two minutes and forty-six seconds and didn’t say a word to disturb the moment because it was so far – freaking – out.
My only true regret was that I hadn’t quite appreciated all of it as much as I should have. Moments that I shouldn’t have let slip away trickled right straight through my fingers. Perhaps, if they hadn’t, some things might have been different.
A big red American-LaFrance fire engine with its horn blasting the scorched air drove past me, breaking me out of that magical spell. It was such a strange turn of events, after all. Who would have guessed that the owner was so cheap that he never bothered to insure the place properly?
Oh, yeah, who would have thunk that? From deep inside me there came a grin – a nasty, evil smirk that betrayed my actual knowledge of such things.
Presently I found myself walking away from the burning inferno laughing to myself, not unlike Renfield from Tod Browning’s 1932 version of ‘Dracula’