Most kids weren’t that nervy — they paid their way, also true when I was growing up, you might have to collect the money piecemeal, if you didn’t have the price of a child’s ticket. Then there was always popcorn; how could you live without that?
Here’s the story of one underage entrepreneur earning his way into his hometown movie theater; it’s in his own words:
We moved to Deer Park (Ohio), a tiny city, exactly one mile square, in 1955. Tract houses, shoulder-to-shoulder on quiet tree-lined streets. There were four centers of activity for a kid under fourteen — K through 12, Chamberlain Park with its four baseball diamonds and swimming pool, Gabby’s Pony Keg and, the center of all life, our own Deer Park Theater.
My sole source of revenue beyond the quarter I got for my allowance, was “Gabby’s Pure Oil Service Station— and Pony Keg.” In case you never lived in Cincinnati, there’ a good chance you don’t know that a pony keg is a drive-through pick-up station for beer. Anyhow, Gabby’s was a few blocks down from the Deer Park Theater.
The theater stood across a four-lane street, its raceway marquee flickering in afternoon light. My first memory of that marquee is THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA, a 1949 WWII flick starring an impossibly young (by my current standards) John Wayne. I realize now that the movie was six years old, almost as old as I was the summer we moved in, but who knew — or cared about that? What else do you do on a Saturday in August but revisit the war your daddy and everybody else’s daddy fought in? I was eligible to purchase a child’s ticket for the low, low price of 35 cents, but, alas, I was ten cents short. My allowance had been raised to 25 cents on my birthday, so I knew I couldn’t ask for more.
No problem! Sodas at Gabby’s came in glass bottles. Size didn’t matter, they were all ten cents, and if you had an extra empty to turn in, you got 2 cents back. You could walk around the neighborhood looking for those empties, and if you got as many as six, your next soda was free! Or.... you could add twelve cents to a quarter in your pocket and watch the sands fly and John Wayne as he dodged the bullets.
I wasn’t alone. Up and down the railroad track, boys my age and even some girls, spent their free time trolling for empties. Under the bleachers in Chamberlain Park, down at the Dillonvale Plaza parking lot. I didn’t get enough to see the movie that first Saturday, but a week later I was ready. With a little more than two dozen empties, I headed for the pony keg.
Gabby was a man of few words. A WWII Marine Vet in his late forties, he sat resolutely on a stool inside the station, watching over his two coolers, one for sodas, one for beer. “Don’t be touchin’ that cooler on the right, boys...that’s for your dads!” was the extent of his repartee.
I turned in my treasure, got my half dollar, thanked Gabby. He nodded. Walking out of the pony keg just before noon, with a 5-cent Snickers, a 5-cent Hollywood Bar, and a dime package of Twinkies Snowballs, I made my way down to the theater, with 30 cents from scrounging and a quarter allowance, to spare. Concealing my candy purchases, I bought a child’s ticket and spent the rest of my loot on some Good n’ Plenties and a dime’s worth of popcorn. Mrs. Weigel at the candy counter was a real crab apple,
“Popcorn? ...it’s a dime, a DIME!!! Don’t count out all those pennies!” She gazed down the bridge of her nose, past her glasses, suspended from her neck by a silver chain. Everything was a rebuke.
“Good n’ Plenties? Say it then.”
“Gooood n’ Pleeenties...?”
Slam. The box went down on the glass.
It didn’t matter. I was in — with my contraband candy — and John Wayne awaited.
The Deer Park Theater was the center of my world well into high school. Then my tastes became more sophisticated, and, after bagging groceries at Kroger, my pockets actually contained some cash. You could get on the bus on a Saturday, go downtown and see a movie at one of the palaces, the RKO Albee or the Grand, something grown up, like The Apartment (that you didn’t tell your dad about). Soon guys got licenses, we discovered the Montgomery Drive in. Could the larger world be far away?
As for me, I had a slightly more prosperous childhood; my allowance, fifty cents, covered the price of admission at the Hyde Park Theatre, in another part of Cincinnati, where I grew up. The author of the above chronicle, my husband Dean, was and always has been a natural hustler. Who else would go into business as a theater operator, in a palace large enough to contain twenty Deer Park Theaters? Dean muses further about the demise of the Deer Park Theatre: The building still stands. Last time I was home, the marquee was gone, but the doorway of my neighborhood dream house is still at a 45-degree angle to the sidewalk, the home for a few years, of a company that sold potbelly stoves and fireplace inserts. Couldn’t bring myself to go inside.