My original intent today was to get a cappuccino. The space to the right of the theater — a failing barbershop when the marquee still had its tracks — is now a coffee bar. I’m waiting in my car beneath a red NO PARKING ANYTIME sign, just long enough for the barista to make my double shot. When it’s ready, she gives me the signal. I dash in, slap a five dollar bill on the counter, grab my drink and run back to the car. I’m late to leave for my next appointment, but sitting beneath the marquee for even a brief time is a kind of transport, like falling down a mine-shaft in time. I sip my coffee and tumble.
It’s 1976. Jim, a senior usher, is teetering on a 15-foot ladder on the uphill side of the marquee. A dangerous wind threatens him, as he tries to keep his balance while hanging that most fragile of items, black-painted aluminum marquee letters. It’s Tuesday night. A new movie starts on Wednesday. It’s Jim’s job to spell out, “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea,” for all to see. It’s an impossibly long title. He has to substitute an upside-down m for the W, and two capital i’s for the L’s. We inherited our incomplete set of letters — and not much else — from the previous theater manager, who pulled out in the dead of night. At least he left us the means, more or less, to spell out the names of the movies that would break our hearts, week after week, failing, one title at a time, to fill our cavernous auditorium. A gust of wind causes the ladder to sway, and Jim drops a precious capital G. There is no sound quite like the sound of breaking cast aluminum, a surprisingly brittle material. Almost like glass but not quite. What’s a substitute for G?
I shake myself back to the present, press the button that starts my 2014 Volvo, and pull out from under the marquee’s shadow.