As a kid growing up in small town South Dakota, I enjoyed one great perk that has stuck with me all these years. My uncle owned the only movie theater in town – the Harney Theater. As a result, I got to attend every movie – every movie – for nothing. I had to pay for the popcorn and soda. The relatives had to eat, after all, but the movies were free.
This is the period when I fell for Doris. Over the course of several years, I think I must have seen all of the Doris Day – Rock Hudson movies at least three times. I confess, I loved her in Pajama Game and, while the Academy Award winning song – Que Sera, Sera – will now be stuck in my head all day, I thought the Man Who Knew Too Much was pretty darn good stuff.
First run movies came to Custer, South Dakota, but only after they had run first everywhere else.
I remember seeing The Longest Day with its fabulous cast and I went from that great film about D-Day to a life-long fascination with the Allied invasion of France in 1944. I saw To Kill a Mockingbird and don’t think I ever missed Gregory Peck in anything else he ever did. Peter O’Toole became T.E. Lawrence for me and Middle East history – at least post World War I history – has never been the same since Lawrence of Arabia.
All these movie memories came rushing back yesterday when I read the New York Times piece about small town theaters in North Dakota and elsewhere that are being revived by volunteers. One of the volunteers, Babe Belzer is 74 and it sounds like she is addicted to movies.
“If you can get a whole living room of kids watching a movie for three bucks, what a deal,” Belzer said. “But at the theater,” she continued, “the phone doesn’t ring, it’s not time to change the clothes from the washer to the dryer, and there isn’t anyone at your door. It’s kind of the heart and soul of our town.” I get it.
With names like the Dakota, the Lyric and the Roxie, the picture palace does help make a town and a small town doesn’t seem so small or isolated when a new, big movie shows up on a Saturday night.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see every nook of the ol’ Harney Theater in Custer. I held hands with my first girl friend there. I loved it when the theater manager unwrapped and unrolled the movie posters that came every week. I think I can even remember that smell – the mohair seats, the butter (or whatever it was) on the popcorn, the cool darkness and the bright screen. Those memories seem a good deal more authentic than the local metroplex.
The Harney made me a movie fan and perhaps these memories contribute to the fact that I still like the movies from the 1950’s and 1960’s the best. And, much to my darling wife’s amazement, I do still love Doris. She seems authentic, too.
Tomorrow…while I’m on a roll, some of my all-time favorite films with political themes.