The reel deal
Whenever my childhood pal Pete MacIntyre talks about growing up in Our Home Town, he always describes it as “idyllic.” Mine was idyllic as well — till the day after Labor Day, 1952. For it was then I said goodbye to my life of Sweetness and Light, and said hello to The Cold Cruel World.
The scene of the crime? The bottom floor of the Petrova School, a few doors down from the cafeteria, in Miss Starr’s first grade class. Just writing those words “Miss Starr’s first grade class” makes my hands shake and a cold sweat bead up on my forehead.
Miss Starr was a small, soignee, very pretty woman whose education philosophy leaned a lot less toward Maria Montressori’s and a lot more toward Sgt. Major Dagineau’s.
You need to understand that till then, my whole educational experience had consisted of kindergarten with Mrs. Eldrett, and Little Dopey Boy could not have asked for more.
First, since it was at the apex of the Baby Boom, there were so many students, kindergarten had split sessions, so I was in school a mere three or four hours a day.
Second, back then kindergarten’s main mission was to socialize rather than educate. Today, for all I know, the little poppets have to master algebra and the works of Milton before they can move on. With us, then, all we had to learn was how to eat milk and cookies without getting them all over the place, how to be nice to others, and how not to whizz our drawers (and just for the record, those are things I still need to remind myself).
And third, there was Mrs. Eldrett herself. She was a peach — sweet, kind, and endlessly patient. My fellow kindergartner Robin Smith summed up our experience in one sentence: “Everyone loved Mrs. Eldrett.”
Then, with no warning whatsoever, I was thrust into first grade. No longer was I cuddling with my fellow puppies; instead, I was running with the pack. Or more exactly, I was trying to. Going into first grade was the same for me as going into boot camp … with one big difference: No matter how much of a pressure cooker boot camp was, I had the consolation of knowing it’d all be over in eight weeks. There was no such solace in the American educational system.
In both Great Lakes 1969 and the Petrova School 1952 the whip got cracked from the get-go. I still recall its first lash vividly.
We were in two lines in the hall — boys in one, girls in the other — waiting to be marched off to our first bathroom break. A man in a suit came down the hall and when he got to us he stopped, smiled, and said, “Good morning, children.” Though we didn’t know it, he was the superintendent of schools, Kenneth Wilson.
We in turn sweetly sang out, “Hi.”
That did it!
No sooner had our salutation ended, than Miss Starr barked, “You do not say ‘Hi’! Instead, you say, ‘Hello, Mr. Wilson.'”
She paused for effect, then went on: “Now say, ‘Hello, Mr. Wilson.'” Which we of course did.
Mr. Wilson nodded his approval, probably less at us for our obedience than at Miss Starr for her successful ass-kicking. Then he went on his way.
Miss Starr continued her etiquette lesson.
“When you greet an adult, you never say ‘Hi,'” she said. “You always say ‘Hello,’ and then follow it with mister, or missus, or miss, and then their last name.”
Then she had us say, “Hello, Mr. Jones,” “Hello, Mrs. Jones,” and “Hello, Miss Jones” a bunch of times till she was satisfied we were at least on our way to becoming productive and polite citizens.
That was only the first day. The pressure never let up and Miss Starr ran so tight a ship, she made The Bounty look like The Queen Mary.
Giving the devil her due, I did learn a lot — though most of it was about how to keep my tender tuchis close to the ground. I hadn’t yet heard the Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks up, gets nailed down,” but I sure understood it.
Second grade, with Mrs. Ruth Smith, was more of the same. She was a thin, sharp-featured woman who reminded me of a bird of prey. She may have had a sense of humor, but if she did, I never saw even a hint of it. Again, like first grade, I tried to fly under the radar, which I pretty much did. Still, no matter if I avoided the beak and talons of herself, herself, life was pretty grim … till I was blessed by My Saturday Salvation.
The light in the darkness
My Saturday Salvation was not of a conventionally religious nature, but it sure worked for me. It was the Saturday matinee at the Pontiac Theater.
To today’s children, who have access to a billion TV channels and every video experience imaginable, I’m sure our Saturday matinees would seem quaint, silly, even boring. But to us, living in a world with only black and white, small screen TVs that got maybe two channels, the matinees were pure magic, and the Pontiac was The Eighth Wonder of the World.
At showtime, the place was packed to the rafters and the air fairly crackled with sugar-fueled excitement. But as fired-up as we were, we were a well-behaved bunch. It wasn’t due to our domestication at the hands of Miss Starr, Mrs. Smith, et. al., but because the theater ushers brooked no nonsense from any of us.
They were a fearsome lot. As I recall, two of them prowled the length and breadth of the theater, six-cell flashlights-cum-billy clubs in hand, making dead sure we stayed in our seats, with our feet on the floor. And if we even thought of some act of rascality, we bloody well kept it to ourselves.
Something else about them: They wore uniforms. The jackets were grey, double-breasted, with red trim and big brass buttons. In my memory they had red epaulettes, but even if they didn’t they should have. The uniforms were supposed to confer an air of big-city, high-class theater chic. But given their authoritarian attitudes and the fact they were really just someone else’s flunkies, they reminded me only of The Wicked Witch of the West’s flying monkey soldiers (which if you must know, was bad enough).
As for the show itself? I think the matinee started at noon and provided two hours of nonstop entertainment.
First, there were the cartoons, which usually numbered about 20. My favorites were Bugs Bunny (always getting over on that putz, Elmer Fudd); Sylvester and Tweety (with Sylvester thwarted in his diabolical attempts to have sweet li’l Tweety for tapa); and of course Roadrunner sprinting away from Wilie E. (leaving him to either fall off a cliff or get blown up with some of Acme Dynamite’s finest).
After cartoons were were a bunch of short flicks. Among them could be Ma and Pa Kettle and Abbott and Costello. And sometimes there’d be old silents of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whose brilliant slapstick I loved then as much then as I today admire. There were also always several old cowboy films, with those classic chase scenes with both good and bad guys (white hats and black hats, respectively) each firing at least 75 rounds from their six-shooters — without reloading. There might also be a Tarzan or Jungle Jim short, or some real exotic like Bomba the Jungle Boy.
After the shorts there was the featured flick, which was newly-released and ran the gamut from a horse opera to the screwball antics of Marin and Lewis.
When the matinee finally ended, I remember the mob and I filing out of the Pontiac. Once out on the street, after being in the dark for so long, the midday sun was like being blinded by a spotlight, and it took me a while to regain my eyesight. It took longer to readjust to reality, but both took a matter of minutes. The matinee’s joy, however, stayed with me for hours.
A ticket cost a lordly 25 cents, which in today’s money is the equivalent of three bucks.
But let me tell you somethings straight up: I’d gladly fork out 20 times that much money, if I could, just once, have half that much fun.