“I was your age when the movies were born. I remember going to picture shows before there were theaters.”
This conversation took place around 1957; I would have been nine years old. A real movie nut, I immediately lost all interest in the subject of flu. How could I not? I was an enthusiastic attendee on Saturday afternoons of anything that was showing at the 20th Century a few blocks from home, on Oakley Square, a small Deco palace. But my favorite theaters were downtown, and my favorite of favorites was the RKO Albee. It styled itself as Cincinnati’s Versailles, with its own Hall of Mirrors. The Albee was where the family went, all dressed up, on Sunday afternoons to eat Swtizer’s licorice and popcorn with real butter and lose ourselves on a raft in the Atlantic with Thor Heyerdahl, or, in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, struggling for survival against the giant squid.
“There weren’t always theaters,” Mother observed, warming to her topic. “I was your age, and a lot of people had never even seen a movie; but I was lucky. We lived in Toledo then, and on hot summer nights, word would come that a picture show was happening downtown.”
We’d call that a “pop-up” now — what goes around comes around...
“So,” Mother continued, “We’d get on the streetcar and go to a particular corner where a man was taking money and passing out tickets. You’d sit on a chair or a wooden bench in a vacant lot where he and his friends had hung two sheets on a bare wall. The sun went down and the movie came on. Someone was selling punk...”
“Some kinda candy?” I guessed.
“No. It’s a thing you burn, it has a wick, like a candle. It keeps the mosquitoes off.”
She made it seem like an adventure, and it had been, in a time before even radio, when the only other techno wonder was “Stereoscope” slides borrowed from the public library. So you got on the street car, a thing that ran on tracks with electric wires overhead, and went downtown to sit in a vacant lot swatting at mosquitoes? That, I now realize, would have been about 1915. In New York City. The Strand, arguably the first movie palace, already stood at Broadway and 47th Streets; but it took awhile for such refinements to reach the Midwest. By 1919, Toledo had a movie palace, but Mother was gone. My grandparents moved just about every other year – so poor, and Gramp always out of work. They settled in Cincinnati where Mother could go to the Palace, built in 1919. She’d have to wait until 1927, when she was almost grown up, to see Clara Bow, “the It Girl,” at the RKO Albee, with its Hall of Mirrors and the world’s largest hand-loomed Austrian carpet.
Mother was off topic, no mention of the Spanish Flu. So the issue was dropped, and, of course, it’s too late to ask her now. All she said of the pandemic was, “A lot of people got sick and some of them died.”
Will people 20 years in the future, if I'm still alive, ask me about the Covid years? Will I think briefly of the friend I lost a few months ago and change the subject?
As for Mother, one death she did mention as important was Rudolph Valentino’s, in 1926, seven years after the pandemic. It was, coincidentally, the same year her mother died. Is that double loss perhaps why she cried so hard? 100,000 people lined up at Campbell’s Funeral Home in New York City to mourn him, many of them in hysterics, and my mother mourned too. If she had had the money, perhaps she’d have gotten on a train bound for New York.
I’ll never know what life — or lives — the Influenza may have claimed, that Mother didn’t want to talk about. Why not change the subject to the movies? — in vacant lots, at downtown palaces. What would the 20th century have been without them? They were how the world survived its first global war, the pandemic and, eventually, the Great Depression, not to mention WWII and its horrors.
My mother died in 1985, after I’d gone bust trying to run a movie palace in Staten Island, the 2,672-seat St. George Theatre. She never criticized me for an unwise investment of either time or money.
“What’s it like?” she asked once. “Is there a velvet curtain and how big is the chandelier?”
“Huge,” I assured her, “and the curtain has tassels that are half my height.” “Do you ever show any of the old movies...the silents?”
We wouldn’t have dared. In 1976, action was the thing our audience craved, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon. Desperate once, we’d booked Marty Feldman in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, a spoof, which had bombed completely.
“Well what about Blood and Sand?” Mother mused. It starred Rosa Rosanova, and of course Valentino. "Now there’s a movie if you could get it.”
1. If you’ve never read Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, I recommend it. She lost both her parents to the “Spanish” Influenza.
2. Brooks’ Silent Movie is a wonder. The only person to speak in all of its one hour and 27 minutes is the mime, Marcel Marceau.