— Time, from Brief History: Air Conditioning, by Katy Steinmetz
But back to the front porch, where my friend proceeded to tell me why she can’t get very far away from air conditioning. “I have a tendency to heat prostration,” she told me. “My mother had it too. It can cause me to pass out if I’m not careful.” (I checked it out: it’s called Hyperthermia, which is sometimes accompanied by fainting — Heat Syncope — and it can be a killer). But why am I writing about this in a column dedicated to movie theaters?
It could have been 1936, one of the hottest summers on record in the New York region. That would make sense, because my friend was born in 1942, and her mother, in this story, is an unmarried young woman. She’d been with some friends for a weekend, sailing on Long Island Sound, and after helping them haul their heavy wooden boat out of the water, she got into her broiling car to drive home. Most houses had no AC in those days, and, it goes without saying that almost no cars, except limos, had it either (Packard introduced it in some models in 1939, but only the rich could afford that kind of thing). Our heroine was sweating so hard she thought she’d melt, and things didn’t improve as she drove toward home. The last thing she remembered was feeling woozy.
She woke up in the dark: John Wayne on screen. But she hated cowboy movies! Where was she, how long had she been here? It was cool and delicious in what turned out to be the Bronxville Playhouse, a 1116-seat theater in a tiny town close to the Westchester border. How had she gotten there? bought a ticket? More importantly, how had she managed to drive and park the car? It’s fourteen miles from Rye Town Beach (possibly the site of that afternoon’s sailing adventure) to the Bronxville Playhouse. These days it would take 24 minutes on the Hutchinson River Parkway to get from that beach to the heart of Bronxville; but the Hutch was incomplete until 1941, so it’s likely she took local roads. A good thing too: parkway speeds would have further tested her guardian angel.
Of all the possibilities for chilling out, her unconscious had chosen the nearest movie theater!
We have so many ways to get — and stay — cool post-millennium. It’s hard to imagine what it felt like to be an ordinary citizen before AC became omni-present. The Rivoli in New York City was “refrigerated” in 1925. Willis Carrier, whose system had just been installed there, described the first day:
Long before the doors opened, people lined up at the box office—curious about 'cool comfort' as offered by the managers. It was like a World Series crowd waiting for bleacher seats. They were not only curious, but skeptical—all of the women and some of the men had fans—a standard accessory of that day.
These were giant theaters, but by the mid-thirties even the lowly Bronxville (originally part of the Metropolitan Playhouses chain) could boast AC. It’s the Bowtie Bronxville Cinemas these days, still on Kraft Avenue across from the train station — a three-screen plex, stripped down by several renovations and changes in management — but still in the biz.
I wonder which of Wayne’s cowboy flix she woke up to? Could have been King of the Pecos, just out in 1936. In a previous blog post, my husband, who grew up in the fifties, recalls his boyhood fixation on John Wayne. It’s part of a dream, oddly fitting, because he was dreaming that he was in a theater, while my friend’s mother, so long ago, was dreaming in a theater!
I’ll close by quoting Dean: