The Light Touch / Cinemas remember: reflections of a movie addict
Updated 12:12 pm, Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Many years ago, I stood in line at the Fine Arts 4 Cinema in Westport. It was a gray summer afternoon -- one of those perfect days to grab a movie, and cram in a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cone before the theater doors opened.
I was not a stranger to lines, especially ones that held me captive until the movie started. I always arrived early to "queue up" so I could be one of the first inside facilitating a choice seat. I regarded such moments as preludes to the best that was yet to come. Having been a movie buff for most of my life, films represented the high-point of an ordinary day.
Back when theaters had names like Central, Capitol, Majestic and The Jewel, going to the movies was met with a heady excitement. We joined our pals and walked up to an outside booth, where a gum-chewing matron handed us our tickets through a round pass-through. In the lobby, an old man with his belly protruding over his belt, and chomping on a cigar, slapped the stubs into our palms reminding us to pipe down once inside. From there we made a beeline to the snack counter to purchase our bags of popcorn dripping with real butter and icy sodas that didn't cost more than the price of entry.
The movie theaters of my childhood became a microcosm of life at its best. Ten cartoons and a double feature preceded by Movietone News Reels offered our parents an afternoon reprieve, during which from noon until five o'clock, we were tucked away inside the cavernous theaters. Usherettes acted as babysitters, often scurrying down the long aisles, their flashlights glowing like large silver teeth in the dark, reminding us to keep our feet off the seats in front or risk being thrown out. These women meant business. There were rules to obey, and we kids paid attention, never talking back or disrespecting these "wardens" -- the name we affectionately gave them.
My passion for those halcyon days followed me into adulthood. When I moved to Westport in 1973, my first priority was to check out in order of importance: The movie theaters, library and book shops. I was elated to find Fine Arts 1 (now Restoration Hardware) next to Max's Art Supplies and behind it over on Jesup Road, Fine Arts 2. Later, the two merged becoming Fine Arts I and 2, and what was Fine Arts 2 before it was now Fine Arts 3. Years later, Fine Arts 4 was born where a bank and maternity store now stand. This smorgasbord of film offerings was a paradigm of Westport's main attractions.
I loved the fact that Westport took its movie-going seriously, and that up the road the Post Cinema joined in the act to further illustrate that our town was, indeed, cinematically savvy. We were inundated with theaters back then, and a sense of community prevailed. Standing in lines allowed us time to chat with our neighbors, discuss the film at hand and catch up on the local news of the week. These moments represented a slice of Westport that is long gone, and along with its decline we lost more than just our little movie houses, but an integral piece of the town's history.
Now the tremors are again being felt. The Westport Cinema Initiative group has come to the rescue. There is talk of bringing back the good old days by building a new movie theater in the heart of Westport. This will mean a revival of `down home' cinematic entertainment with fewer visits to multi-level movie complexes requiring travel beyond our area.
On March 26, Westport Cinema Initiative presented the first of its diverse Film Screenings Programs at the Westport Country Playhouse -- dedicated to raising awareness, supporting film and paving the way back to a time we remember fondly, and whose loss is flagrantly felt.
For now, I mentally rewind those old childhood tapes when the curtains parted and the MGM lion roared us into silence. I miss the cowboys and Indians, Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck and Bambi, and the shrieking when Boris Karloff, as Frankenstein, rose from the casket. My hands clasped to my chest, I watched with teen-age intensity as Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue worked through their trials of puppy love in "A Summer Place"; and "Picnic", where the heat generated between William Holden and Kim Novak resonates in me still. Esther Williams dressed in her black Janzten swim suit did a perfect jackknife practically diving off the screen and into my lap.
The innocent screen kisses have now been replaced by raw sex and explicit love scenes that leave little to the imagination. We live in a time when the shock effect is gone, and anything goes. I miss the hearty belly laughs induced by Abbott and Costello when entertainment meant mad-cap adventures not shrouded in diabolic violence. I long for the gentler world of Elizabeth Taylor waiting for Lassie to come home, and John Wayne who always saved the West. Now, alpha-males shoot their way into scenes, but it's not quite the same.
In many ways, present cinematic achievements are to be acknowledged and applauded. We have come far in terms of special effects and animation. New talent emerges daily, and film sophistication has risen to new heights. And yet, I cling with nostalgic fervor to the days when I could sit beneath the bulbous chandeliers watching the three-dimensional House of Wax with a pair of skimpy cardboard glasses instead of today's industrial-strength shades that bring celluloid characters to life.
Westporter Judith Marks-White shares her views each Wednesday in the Westport News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or a judithmarks-white.com.