Once upon a time the movies were a way of life. People sent their children to the Bijou, the Roxy, the Ritz, Loew’s Kings, the RKO Albee, to get them out of the house, especially on Saturdays.
It was literally possible in the 1950’s — even likely — to grow up at the local movie house (which may or may not have been a palace). Many of us did come of age in movie theaters, which is why, in 1976, I and like-minded friends found ourselves running a down-at-heels movie palace, the St. George Theatre in Staten Island .
You started at Saturday matinees, which were at least in part a babysitting service. In grade school you went with friends on Wednesday afternoons or at night; my husband hung out at his neighborhood theater, the Deer Park, where almost everything was third run. Later there were dates. At the Hyde Park, another local house, I saw Dr. Strangelove first run with a pimply-faced boy whose name I’ve forgotten.
This way of life was in full swing when Frank O’Hara (an American poet who famously wrote a number of poems on his lunch hour) appealed to the “mothers of America.”
You can read the poem, “Ave Maria,” here, or at the end if you like.
Meanwhile, let’s go to the movies.
The entire history of movie-going in nineteen fifties America is encapsulated in this poem, anticipating that if the children aren’t sent off to gaze at the big screen they’ll “...grow old and blind in front of a TV set/seeing/movies you wouldn’t let them see when they were young.” Many of us did grow old watching formerly forbidden movies (in my case, Psycho). As for the war with television (much talked about in the fifties), if you believe a recently overheard remark by a movie mogul at the Polo Lounge in Hollywood, that war just ended in TV’s favor. I prefer, however, to think TV and the movies have both capitulated to social media — total Sci Fi to O’Hara.
He wisely asks, what about the soul/ that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images/ He’s right you know. We used to get that kind of transformation at the movies; there is nothing in streaming or on your cellphone or laptop that can confer any form of spiritual embossment.
There are/were other pleasures to be had in the movie-screen dark: O’Hara assures the mothers, their children "...may even be grateful to you/ for their first sexual experience/which only cost you a quarter/ and didn’t upset/ the peaceful home." Since sex was never talked about and hardly considered as a wholesome experience outside of marriage, most of the mothers I knew growing up would hardly have been consoled by the low cost (a quarter) of the debauchment. One suspects these imagined mothers‘ motivation in getting the kids out of the house may have initially had a sexual component of its own. At the outset, O’Hara thinks they might want to get the kids "...out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to."
Getting down to his own nitty gritty, O’Hara imagines, "leaving the movie before it’s over/ with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg/ near the Williamsburg Bridge.” Since the poet arrived in New York as an adult, this is no childhood memory.
I’d like to close with a snippet from William Carlos Williams ("Asphodel: That Greeny Flower”) another American poet, who reminds us:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Difficult, but not impossible.
1. I’d like to thank Robin Locke Monda, who keeps this blog and the site that contains it alive and well, for reminding me about O’Hara’s “Ave Maria.”
2. For other movie-connected poems...
3. Also don’t miss this treatment of O’Hara from The New Yorker.