We moved to Deer Park (Ohio, not Long Island) in August, 1955, a tiny city, exactly one mile square. Tract houses, shoulder-to-shoulder on quiet tree-lined streets, it was teeming with kids under ten, and we all grew up together. There were four centers of activity in Deer Park: school — K through 12, Chamberlain Park with its four baseball diamonds and swimming pool, Gabby’s Pony Keg and, the center of life under fourteen, our own Deer Park Theater.
It 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 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 three years under age, eligible to purchase a child’s ticket for the low, low price of 35 cents, but, alas, I was ten cents short, since my allowance was just a quarter. It’d been raised to that amount 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 seldom said anything. 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, anchored around 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 suddenly, no more John Wayne, you could get on the bus on a Saturday, go downtown and see a movie at 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?
The building that was the theater still stands. Last I looked the marquee was gone, but the opening of my neighborhood dream house is still at a verticle 45-degree angle to the sidewalk. For a while, it was the home of a company that sold potbelly stoves and fireplace inserts. I could not bring myself to go inside.