Movie Madness: Kiddie Matinees, the Drive-In and Escaping The Deuce Unscathed
by Lee Sobel
Everyone who is obsessed with movies, or has made their own films, has formative incidents in their youth of going to movies and how it shook them up. In the sixties, my dad worked in book publishing for someone who is now a legend in that business, Barney Rossett. It's no surprise to me that there have been a number of books written about Barney. He came from a wealthy family and his passion was to publish books that pushed the envelope of creativity and taste. Look him up. My dad worked for Barney's company, Grove Press, for ten years. In the end, Barney's love of mixing booze and amphetamines led to his making insane decisions that included firing my dad (who was very loyal to him) out of paranoia that my dad wanted to take the company over. Although Barney eventually ran his company into the ground, back in the mid-sixties one very nice decision he made was that he more or less gifted to my dad an old barn that had been turned into a two story house in East Hampton, NY that to date my dad still owns. I know, I know, the Hamptons have the air of the rich but back when I was a kid it was a humble little town with a one screen movie theater where every Saturday there was a 2pm kiddie matinee that my parents would drop me off at. I saw lots and lots of movies back then: The Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno, you name it, and there were always cartoons before the movies too. I had to sit in the "kid section" of the theater and they had a huge overweight matron that wielded a giant flashlight she would blind you with if you sat in the wrong place. I guess she was supposed to keep some of the more boisterous kids in line but my memory is that the other kids threw candy all over the place and at the movie screen. Once when I sat close to the screen I ate a jujyfruit that had landed in my popcorn. Well at least they didn't throw anything worse than that. I remember once in a while she would make a kid leave in the middle of a movie -- hell, nothing would make me want to leave in the middle of say "Airport '75" and why would anyone waste candy by throwing it at the screen when it was so much better to just eat it?
My dad was, and still is, a "book guy." When I was a kid he was always trying to get me to read books and he would quiz me on them to make sure I actually read them. Although now I love to read, as a kid it seemed like drudgery when TV was much more enjoyable. Unfortunately, my parents were strict about TV watching -- I could watch only one hour a day and even into my teens they just had a small portable black-and-white set -- they didn't want to get a decent TV because then I might be tempted to watch it more. (I remember as a little kid visiting my grandparents in Teaneck, NJ and I saw my first ever color TV and my mind melted as if I had never seen anything so beautiful before.) So, since my dad wanted me to read more, he would always tell me to walk down Main Street after the kiddie matinee to the library and I could read kids books in the children's section -- which really wasn't too bad. On the way there I could stop into Marley's which was like a five and dime store that had a fantastic array of coloring books for sale. I have no idea why I loved coloring books so much or why my two children I have now couldn't care less about coloring books.
One of the best things about East Hampton when I was a kid was that there was a drive-in movie theater one town over in Bridgehampton. Even before I started going to kiddie matinees, my parents would take me to the drive-in movies and we'd get there before sundown. Figure I was about five or six. I always went dressed in my pajamas and so would most of the other kids. They had a playground behind the snack shack and we'd all run around and get crazy for a while until the sun went down because they would not start the movie until it was sufficiently dark out. Then I'd get into the backseat of my parents car and my mom usually made something for dinner wrapped in tin foil. My dad would take the
speaker outside our car and clip it to the window so we could hear the movie. Then a little commercial would come on the big screen with dancing hot dogs and sodas and a cute little song, "Let's all go the movies to have ourselves a snack!" I'd then beg my parents for crap to eat. Sometimes I would fall asleep during the movie and sometimes I would stay awake for the whole thing. I remember one movie that really fucked me up: "Planet of the Apes." In the beginning of the movie, Charlton Heston checks one of the suspended animation compartments and finds that the lone female crew member had a crack in hers and was aged and mummified and creepy as hell. My five year old brain manufactured nightmares for weeks after that. One day I was apparently walking with one of my legs stiff and my mom was like, "Lee, what's the matter with you?" I had to explain that my pants had a hole in them and that the air had gotten in there and made me walk funny, because I had seen that in "Planet of the Apes."
In 1976 when I had just turned 14, my mom and dad split up. I had just gotten home from sleepaway camp and in the tail end of the summer my dad spent some quality time with me on weekends. One thing we did was to go see the Clint Eastwood movie "The Enforcer" on 42nd Street also known at "The Deuce." '76 was also the year that "Taxi Driver" came out with its depiction of how sleazy Times Square was so that gives you an idea of what seeing a movie there was like. As a kid I loved going to 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenue because it looked so cool and even when you look at pictures of it now from the 70's you can see what movie paradise it was. One movie house after another after another and another on both sides of the street. By the 70's you could see some big movies there but you could also see sleazeball shit that of course my dad would never have taken me to. Inside the movie theater, we must have been the only white people there and we stood out like a sore thumb. It seemed like everyone there was a teenager and they were all loud and crazy and running around and dancing and one kid walked in with a giant ghetto blaster he had turned up to 11. I was sure we were going to get mugged but my dad was fearless and, in fact, nobody bothered us. Typically audiences would be rowdy in these theaters and shout at the screen and also these movie theaters had cats that lived in them to keep rats away from biting customers ankles. I wish I had gone back to 42nd Street movies as I got older but that block was filled with scary people who looked like they'd rip you off in a New York second if you stopped moving so I moved fast when I was on that street but it was always fascinating. Those people are all ghosts now since that street had a Disney makeover and I no longer have to fear for my life walking down 42nd. But I do miss seeing all those movie theaters that used to be there with their lurid advertisements for movies like "Make Them Die Slowly" or whatever. I'm not sure what was scarier - the action on the screen in some of those theaters or the scumbags milling about on the street looking for trouble. Those were the days!