In the years that I was growing up in Berkeley, most Saturday afternoons were spent at the Saturday children’s matinee at the Oaks theater on Solano avenue My friends and I, possibly with my little brother in tow, would first stand in the long line to pay for our nickel tickets, then rush inside to claim the best seats on the center aisle or in the first row of the balcony. There we would thrill to the adventures of Tom Mix or other western heroes, preceded, of course, by the cartoon, the newsreel, the serial with its cliff-hang, and the sing-a-long when we would scream ourselves hoarse on our favorite Anchors Away. “SINK the army! SINK the army gray!” I would then forget the movies until the next Saturday.
(Sunday Scribblings prompt: My Misspent Youth)Losing Myself
Then in 1932, when I was eleven years old, my father was transferred to San Jose and I was uprooted from best friends and the school year that had just begun. I was thrust into a strange junior high school among classmates who already knew one another and the school routines. Since I had earlier skipped a grade, I was the youngest one in my seventh grade class, and, what’s more, I was the tallest. My mother and I were both embarrassed when the gym teacher phoned to suggest that I really needed to wear a brassiere.
Uncomfortable in my new surroundings, the movies became my refuge. In San Jose the programs planned for children were on Saturday morning. I went on Saturday afternoon when the regular first-run movies were shown. I fell in love with Gary Cooper. I began to spend my allowance on movie magazines as well as theater tickets. I immersed myself in Hollywood lore.
I saw favorite movies several times over, as they moved from the first run theaters, which changed the program every week, to lesser second and third-run venues. I saw “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer” thirteen times before my mother put a stop to it, and I could recap it scene by scene with exact dialogue. A new friend of my own age, Lillian Townsend, had moved to the house across the street from our home. She was equally fascinated with the movies. We would act out those we had seen (almost every one produced!), taking turns on the most dramatic parts (usually death scenes).
By the time I reached ninth grade I could recite not only the plot and cast of almost every Hollywood movie but also what studio made it, who the producer, director, and camera-man were, and the salaries of some of the stars. I remember that Greta Garbo made the then unthinkable salary of $1000 a week!
As other interests, new friends, new enthusiasms developed, I finally became a little ashamed of the frivolity of my expert knowledge. I expressed this to my father, who said, “Never be ashamed of knowing everything about any subject.” I moved on to interest in many other subjects, but they have never become the escape from circumstances that movies were to my young self.