“I simply can’t give such a young child popcorn; she might choke,” she is said to have remarked. Good & Plenty, as a consolation, did not apparently work: I thrashed and cried inconsolably.
As my sister tells it, the moment the movie came on-screen, I was transfixed. Grownups talking, singing and kissing each other? I was rapt! I stayed in my seat and gazed. It was dark and we all gazed together.
At home there was a cabinet with people inside that the grownups called “The Zenith,” with a record player on the left and a radio on the right. The screen was circular, like a fishbowl. There wasn’t much to watch; sometimes there was nothing there at all but what people called “test pattern,” a circle with some lines and a profiled face, the head of an Indian in a feathered bonnet. When the station ran out of programs, you watched this mandala, not in a Buddhist meditative way, but fitfully, hoping something would come on again.
The movies still reigned.
Downtown on Fountain Square you could see the new features when they came to town, on Saturday or Sunday for a matinee. We went as a family, we dressed, just a little. White socks and MaryJanes for me, penny loafers for my teenaged sisters. My favorite theater, The RKO Albee, had a balcony, a grand chandelier and marble staircases. It’s easy to see how twenty years later I got caught up with a group of people all about my age, trying to run a slightly down-at-heels movie palace. We grew up, all of us, under various domes.
My family, like most others, went to the movies together five or six times a month. Tea for Two wasn’t the only feature I would never have chosen to see. Kon- Tiki, The Lavender Hill Mob, Royal Wedding, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The African Queen: odd bits of these mostly adult films show up in my dreams occasionally, flying saucers here, a car chase there. It was 1951, and I was three, on my way to being four. I couldn’t always say what I was seeing, but I was old enough to eat popcorn without choking and sit in the dark watching a bright beam flood the whiteness of the screen. The light came from over our shoulders, very high up and faraway. It turned into stuff when it met the screen — people or trees or space ships. The line between imagining and actually seeing--the distance between mind and screen — was very, very thin.
One Saturday, my sister, perhaps still feeling guilty for practically tying me into my seat at Tea for Two, took me to a matinee of Walt Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland at The Twentieth Century. It was a waking nightmare: “Off with her head,” barked the Red Queen. Why were all the playing cards walking? I was afraid, the floor of the theater was falling into blackness, and all I wanted to do was go home. Alice had no control once she drank those little bottles. When the living cards flew off the screen I wanted to cry, but other children seemed to be having fun, so I was ashamed of my terror. To this day, animation chills me — not cartoons like Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck — their stories are silly and short, but figures in an animated movie that seem to live in an imaginary space. Fantasia is one more horror show to me: the sorcerer’s apprentice with all those monstrous self–generating brooms. This was the power of the movies for me: what you saw on the screen was real.
Other pictures I saw that year come back in fragments: leeches in The African Queen, like sticky garden worms. Kon-Tiki gave me distance and the sense of a world outside Ohio. I wanted to go on the raft with Thor Hyerdahl and see that thing called ocean.
Memory claims that we saw Kon-Tiki at The Albee on Fountain Square, and it could be so, but memory is a kind of fiction. I loved the Albee so much that all the childhood movies I remember really caring about seem to exist there in my mind, under the Albee’s long–ago–demolished dome.
No wonder that a quarter century later, ostensibly all grown up, I’d fall in love with another dome — the one that still graces The St. George Theatre — in Staten Island, where I had come to settle. Along with my friends and co-workers, I’d struggle to do the impossible, to keep a single-screen 2672-seat palace open and profitable in the full-blown age of color TV and multiplexes. It all started with Tea for Two.
Here’s a question, Dear Reader: What’s the first movie you ever saw and where did you see it? If you know the answer, let us know in Comments!