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Monday, July 04, 2011

Hooray For Hollywood (1930s style)

Do you have memories of going to the show as a kid? I remember my mom telling me to not let my head touch the back of the seat or I might get ringworm. We also never worried about starting times for shows. We would simply leave “where we came in.” Do you remember the “Air Cooled” banner on the marquee to indicate air conditioning?

Here is guest writer Joe Finnerty's account of a day at the movies with his buddies in the 1930’s.


By Joe Finnerty

Hollywood is to blame. Moguls such as Cecil B. De Mille stopped me from experiencing real life as a child. Movies, with their dream world of adventure and comedy, captivated me while growing up. Thank goodness for TV documentaries which allow me to catch up on the events that passed me by while the big screen kept me glued to my seat.

I joined legions of Hoboken’s waifs every Saturday afternoon to watch endless numbers of films at the nearby U. S. Theater, a grand name for a somewhat shopworn venue. Half the fun of attending the matinee was trying to sneak in without paying. Two fire escape doors on either side of the balcony led to steel stairways. With precision, at an appointed time, some paying customer would open one of the exit doors, allowing a horde of waiting boys to race inside. This mad dash came to mind when recently reading a news report of a mob of illegal immigrants who charged en masse across a border checkpoint. A few lucky ones managed to elude the police. That is the way it was with my boyhood pals. Only a small number managed to avoid detection. Most were corralled and booted out by the ushers. The excitement generated by this storming of the gates sometimes exceeded that of the latest adventure film which followed.

Sneaking in to see a show this way was not my style. Rather than rely upon cohorts to help me enter the theater, my preference was to steal a few deposit milk bottles to earn my ten-cent admission fee. I had SOME pride, after all.

Most of the pre-teen boys chose to sit in the balcony. The pre-teen girls sat in the orchestra. This seating preference allowed the boys to shower the girls with wads of gum and candy wrappers. The mezzanine was an unmarked hard-hat area. Usually this barrage ended when the first serial began showing. Then, everyone focused their attention on the screen for the next three to four hours.

Few ‘B’ movies made in Hollywood from 1935 to 1940 escaped my viewing. It was a time of innocence. The plots taught me values that became etched in my psyche. Good guys always won. Bad guys always got their comeuppance. A few Native Americans were okay, like Tonto, but most of them were low-down (inappropriate term). Mexican cowpokes, especially the Cisco Kid, always spoke broken English in a hilarious way. The Chinese were definitely inscrutable, especially Charlie Chan, although his son was a nerd. Some Black people had rhythm. Did you see that old butler Bojangles dancing with Shirley Temple?

One afternoon, in the summer of 1938, while returning home after spending four hours of movie watching, my weary eyes began to observe that something unusual had occurred outdoors that afternoon. In plain view were many canvas window awnings torn to shreds, flapping loosely. It puzzled me, but not sufficiently to discuss my observation with my family who never brought up the subject either. Not until years later did I learn that a great hurricane had smashed the eastern seaboard that afternoon, destroying lives and property across a wide region of the northeast including metropolitan New York, Long Island and much of New England.

All the movies I saw that day were memorable, legendary even. In one, Tom Mix and his horse Tony became lost in New York City. The Marx Brothers stole his nag and took it to the races. Meanwhile, Mickey Mouse chased a big ape up a tall building. I know. I was there. I saw it.

The marquee of the Orpheum Theater in downtown Phoenix in 1942. Notice the "Cooled by Refrigeration" banner.

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