Ah, the Good Ol' Days! Remember when we actually went to a building where we sat with a bunch of other people to watch a movie? Those places were called cinemas. Can you say cinema? I knew that you could. I wonder what happened to them.
Here's some real nostalgia about those swell days of the Kiddie matinee, an excerpt from my book IN THE DARK: A LIFE AND TIMES IN A MOVIE THEATER.
One of the ancient rituals of youth that I was fortunate enough to have experienced was the Saturday afternoon Kiddie matinee. Kiddie is an archaic term for child; therefore this was a special movie show just for kids, not cats. (If cats had their own matinees, what would they watch?)
I used to attend these every single week without fail at the Stockton Theater, the last of the classic style movie houses built in my hometown of Stockton, California.
What a bargain this was! For the astronomical sum of twenty-five cents, you would get three to four hours of non-stop pre-pubescent entertainment. This was the spark that ignited my love for all things celluloid for this weekly underage Cannes Film Festival was a crash course in the World Cinema. It was like a day-care run by Leonard Maltin.
For starters, the matinees I remember were always jammed packed to the rafters with tons o’ cartoons. I’m talking GOOD cartoons too. Early on, I was able to recognize the quality of any given cartoon by the company that produced it. Warner Brothers delivered guaranteed goods-and those goods were great, featuring the likes of Bugs, Daffy and The Road Runner (the original Mad Max). If it was MGM, you’d score big time with Tom & Jerry, Droopy and anything by Tex Avery. But, if it was Universal…Woody Woodpecker…Andy Panda…or (shudder) Chilly Willy…The horror…the horror…
Intermingled in that animated buffet was one or two live action comedy shorts. Once in a great while, they starred either Laurel & Hardy or The Little Rascals, but for the most part-The Three Stooges. This was my first exposure to the boys before I could bask in them on a near-daily basis on television. On the big screen, they took on a whole new dimension by their sheer size alone. Maybe as a kid, I subconsciously imagined them to be gods, albeit gods that beat the crap out of one another.
It was always a crapshoot to find out who the third Stooge would be that particular day since that would either add to-or subtract from-your potential viewing enjoyment. Moe and Larry were constants, permanent fixtures, if you will. Moe was the boss, the head guy, the Mack Daddy Stooge. Larry was…well, Larry. He was the guy in the middle, the foil for the other two who rarely flew solo. Larry was a buffer. Now when the Columbia Pictures logo appeared, you knew right immediately that it was The Stooges. Then their theme song, “Three Blind Mice”, played and, suddenly, everything banked on how the music was arranged. If it just charged through without stopping, JACKPOT! You got Curly, everybody’s favorite. But, if the theme was more staccato with some pizzicato strings, that meant one thing and one thing only…SHEMP! There would be a moan of disappointment throughout the theater. Then you’d see his stupid face mugging at you with his greasy hair and every kid in the place just sank in their individual seats and grumbled that it wasn’t Curly. Once Moe smacked Shemp in the face with a frying pan, all was well in Matineeland again.
In retrospect, Shemp got a bum rap. One of the first Stooges I saw was SING A SONG OF SIX PANTS when Moe, Larry and Shemp ran a dry cleaners and it’s always been a sentimental favorite of mine. (I loved the way Moe made pancakes on the pants press.) Let’s face it. Shemp may not have been Curly but neither were Moe or Larry either. And Shemp was certainly preferable over Joe Besser, the last stooge in the cast of short subjects, those that began with the three of them repeating their patented “Hello…hello…hello. Hello!” routine. It was enough to want you throw something at the screen…like another kid. El Crappo del Stoogero. However, it was it was a feature, that meant it was Curly Joe and that would fool into thinking Curly was back. Then, Joe DeRita as Curly Joe would pop up and that would be just cause for a full-scale theater riot. Joe Besser was freakin’ Charlie Chaplin next to that pantload. Curly Joe was never, ever funny, the absolute antithesis of comedy. So, in order of appearance meant in order of importance: Curly, Shemp, Joe and Curly Joe. Such is the evolution of the third Stooge.
Following a few dozen more cartoons came another exciting thrill-packed episode of an adventure serial complete with cliffhanger, the only pictures the studios produced specifically for the Saturday matinee market. I ate these things up with a spoon. My best friend at the time and I would re-enact what we saw in those serials in the park or the vacant lot around the corner, calling them “chapters”. We weren’t playing cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. We were having “chapters”.
My very favorite serial was a science fiction saga that featured your three basic protagonists: the square-jawed, no-nonsense hero, his hot, yet strangely non-sexual girlfriend and, for comic relief, his dorky sidekick whose name probably was Dorky. I was riveted each and every episode for several weeks (most serials contained 12 to 15 separate parts).
During the showing of the next-to-the last chapter, the Dark Side of my young personality emerged for the very first time, which is not a proud moment in my biography. Slumped in my chair and engrossed in my “chapter”, I had my feet up and over the seat in front of me. This was wrong to begin with, but it gets worse. There were a couple of girls sitting there who were annoyed by this and one of them let me know it. My feet weren’t on her chair, just next to it so I ignored her. “Put your feet down,” she demanded again. I told her no, so she repeated herself once more. I had had enough and kicked her in the head. Now, I didn’t kick her hard and only with the side of my shoe, but it was enough to startle the hell out of her and make her cry.
I wasn’t a rotten kid. This really was an isolated incident. Honest! But, man, what I did was horrible. I’m sure I traumatized that kid for life and she probably hasn’t been to the movies since. Whoever that little girl was that I bopped in the noggin with my foot at the Stockton Theater back in the early 1960s, I apologize from the bottom of my heart. Don’t try to sue me for it now though. There is such a thing as a statute of limitations, you know.
I didn’t get in trouble with the theater management like I should have because the girls didn’t report it. However, my mom found out, thanks to my sister ratting me out. Her punishment, while not physical painful, was devastating to me. She took away my movie privileges for a month. That meant I could not see the last chapter of my “chapter”, the same one I had invested three months of my young life. The last image I recall of this serial was two spaceships, one carrying the hero, the other, the villain, colliding head-on in outer space with a title card that read “TO BE CONCLUDED”. To this very day, I never found out what happened because I don’t know the title, so I couldn’t track it down. Maybe I blocked it out as a result of that viciously stupid bratty act of mine. Did the punishment fit the crime? You decide for yourself. Just remember, I’ve got a shoe with your name on it.
Several cartoons later-as I said, there were tons o’ ‘em-lead up to the main feature which was usually of questionable quality. Sometimes there might be a Tarzan or Jungle Jim (not the inventor of the playground) or Lone Ranger movie. Very rarely was it something like THE INVISIBLE BOY, the only starring vehicle for Robby the FORBIDDEN PLANET Robot. The “main attraction” was more likely to be a snoozer like THE LITTLEST HOBO, all about a German shepherd on the run or SNOWFIRE. I saw SNOWFIRE twice, fooled by its title both times. It sounded cool to me because I took it literally. “A fire…in the snow!” I thought it might be some kind of war picture. Nah. Snowfire was a white horse and not a very interesting white horse at that.
In the long run, it didn’t matter one iota what the feature was. It was just a piece of a very large whole and that whole was the Kiddie matinee, which I considered to be a slice of Heaven for a quarter.
Copyright by Scott Cherney All Rights Reserved
See you at the movies...one of these days.