Tuesday, September 20, 2005

I Sing the Projector Electric

The Walt Whitman Theatre in Camden, NJ--actually, right across the city line in Pennsauken--was the only pre-mall movie theater I went to in New Jersey, as opposed to traveling across the river to Philadelphia, where the Goldwyn and other richly lobbied wonders still stood through my college years in the '70s. You can go here if you're really interested in seeing and reading about virtually every old-time theater in Camden, including peripherally the Whitman; however, poor man's Proust that I am, I'm not concerned with a sense of history as much as of remembrance. Only two visits to the Whitman remain with me. Both mark a bridge between the dimming past of my childhood and my clearer, albeit less formative, perceptions of adolescence and adulthood. For now, I'll write about one of those visits.

When I was a child it was not unusual to have "movie parties," relatively low-maintenance affairs for the parents, who only provided transportation to and from the Saturday matinee--and, given my memories of the experience, minimal supervision--followed by a half hour of cake and present-opening back at the house. I actually remember only one of these--not my party, but, I think, my friend Louie's. The Whitman, high-ceilinged, dun-colored, and dim, was jammed with screaming, flailing kids, liberated not only by the absence of their parents but by all that space and darkness, and the glory of the mob. After a few hard-hearted cartoons--maybe Little Lulu (or Little Audrey), Casper, or Baby Huey--or worst of all Herman and Catnip, denizens of the semi-psychotic netherworld of Famous Studios, in which the antagonist's sadistic rictus remains frozen amid the Bosch-like excess of all that tearing and rending and dynamiting--Louie and his guests, as well as another kid's party, were forced to stand before the screen to allow the audience to sing "Happy Birthday." Of course, we slunk up there reluctantly, knowing full well that this was definitely not an opportunity for rousing fellowship but for ridicule and target practice--the disconnect between adults and kids being yet again a source of literal pain--and, half-crouching, our shoulders raised, our faces averted, we were pelted by the crowd with popcorn, Milk Duds, empty Sno-Caps boxes, and eye-threatening Jujubees, all the while derided by their squawking rendition of the natal hymn--you know the version, of course: Louie was unflatteringly compared to one of our primate cousins, with insulting olfactory references. And in true kid fashion, this misery did not bond us with foxhole fellowship to the other party; no, somehow we managed to form a mutual enmity, promising pain and ignominious defeat apres-theatre (which of course never came to be).The movie itself was King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962); what I remember most was that we cheered wildly whenever King Kong, by default the "American monster," was on screen--or better yet, besting Godzilla, the Japanese monster, whom we booed and jeered, perpetuating old antagonisms. I guess the memory of the Bataan Death March died hard for eleven-year-olds in 1967.

Looking back, I will confess I have, as usual, romanticized the event almost beyond recognition. On the other hand, to assert that it was actually just another everyday childhood experience belies the deep weirdness of childhood, the isolated imbroglio down there at hip level in which such impromptu parodies of adult sturm und drang were indeed everyday occurrences, played out with, again, minimal chaperoning and arbitrary convictions. Jammed into the Whitman and left on our own, we were vigorously shaken like bees in a jar; little wonder we emerged tumbling, squinting like Plato's imbeciles in the sun for the first time, unaware we had invented the world once again, this time in the cacophonic darkness of a matinee.


Sherry said...

Regarding the disconnect between children and adults, there is a little movie, the name of which escapes me, that captures this. It is black and white, set in Coney Island, and chronicles the small(to adults) but significant (to him) adventures of a little boy who has run away beleiving he has done an unforgivable thing. He spend a pleasant day on the beach, focusing on the pleasures of returnable bottles and pony rides rather than on the dilemma he is in. Meanwhile, big brother, who has just begun to make the transition from the world of childhood to grown up responsibility and outlook, must find him and get everything back to normal so mom never knows.

Paul J. Marasa said...


Ah, you're thinking of The Little Fugitive (1953), a movie that rewards on many levels, not the least of which is its location. If nothing else, it is a priceless record of Coney Island after WWII.

But it's more than a time machine/travelogue. You're right: It gives in to the boy's perspective, and shows us how deeply adults misunderstand life at knee-to-hip level. Few of us can consistently manage the trick. Jean Shepherd, of course, remained perfectly connected to the boy he once was.

Thanks for reminding me of The Little Fugitive; I just saw it a year or so ago, and it was so true that I experienced false deja vu and thought I'd seen the movie already--but no; it's just that I'd already been the boy.

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