You see movies differently when you’re selling tickets or popcorn or just trying to pay the bills; you see them in fits and starts, each time you pass through the lobby; that is, if it’s the kind of lobby the St. George has, with mahogany pillars framing glass, so that the movie is visible, even if it isn’t audible to people standing just outside. Thus I saw the shark in Jaws pull the moonlit swimmer under, but didn’t hear her screams. I ducked behind the popcorn warmer anyway.
Tarantino isn’t the only famous person who got his start while working in a movie theater. Sylvester Stallone, (Rocky, Rambo) had to keep body and soul together somehow while auditioning for parts in NYC back in the seventies. He tried a lot of things, including cleaning lion cages at the Central Park Zoo; he also worked briefly as an usher at the Baronet/Coronet, a Walter Reade theater. I say briefly, as he was fired after about a week, for scalping tickets and selling them privately to late arrivals at several times face value. The last patron he approached happened to be none other than Walter Reade himself, who fired Stallone right there on the pavement. Well, as Shakespeare pointed out, “All the world’s a stage...”
But even if you never worked at the local movie house, just going there counts for something, in forming the later you. Case in point, Rosemary Clooney, singer, actress, was a native of Maysville Kentucky, a tiny town on the banks of the Ohio River, not too far from Cincinnati. Rosie was a teenager in the nineteen forties, when she got lost in movies at the Russell, Maysville’s movie house, with her best friend, Blanche Mae Chambers. Since segregation was the rule then, Blanche had to head for the balcony, and so did Rosie, who never missed an opportunity to sit with her friend. In 1953, Rosemary returned in triumph to Maysville, a brilliant popular singer and a movie star by that time. She’d selected the Russell for the world premiere of her first movie The Stars are Singing, with co-star Anna Maria Alberghetti, “a grand affair of Hollywood magnitude.” The Russell was still segregated in 1953, but Rosemary insisted Blanche be seated with her. She and Blanchie Mae remained best friends until Rosie’s death in 2002.
Rosemary Clooney actually made her first stage appearance at the Russell, when she was just three years old. Gazing at the twinkling electric stars in the theater’s ceiling, she sang, “When your hair has turned to silver, I will love you just the same.” Odd lyric for a three-year-old, but you gotta start somewhere!
1. Around the bend of the river from Maysville, and on the Ohio side, is my native Cincinnati, where 17-year-old Rosemary started her career, singing with her sister Betty on WLW Radio; many Cincinnatians consider her one of us, though serious Clooney fans know her quieter roots. In the 1980’s I was privileged to hear her each February at Rainbow and Stars, in New York City, the nightclub then at the top of Rockefeller Center. She’d made an admirable comeback after years of addiction, a girl who hit the road at 17, now a portly but charming older woman with a lot of character and her unmistakable “whiskey” voice. One February, as we were waiting for the down elevator at Rock Center, she emerged from a dressing room in the most ordinary of beige raincoats. We talked briefly. That’s how I’ll remember her, just folks.
2. The Russell Theatre in Maysville has recently been refurbished and is as open for business as any movie house in the U.S., which is to say, “not now.” Built in the Spanish Colonial style with a Moorish influence, by a Maysville entrepreneur, the successful grocer, Colonel J. Barbour Russell, it features elements of terra cotta in its facade. “What the Roxy is to New York,” the prosperous grocer boasted in 1929, “The Russell will be to Maysville.” The Russell is an atmospheric theater, as indicated by the twinkling stars three-year-old Rosemary Clooney sang beneath.