Magic and mystery of old movie houses made good theater

January 24, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

These long, post-holiday winter nights are the ideal time for watching videos. Yet for all the convenience of dropping by a local video shop and finding a film that seems to fit the mood, I still miss my grind-'em-out neighborhood movie house.

Don't ask me precisely what the show was. In those flickering days of a movie marquee at every crossroads, the stars and the movies were not as important as the act of getting out and going -- as often as possible.

There is a lot to recommend going into a video store and selecting from what seems like a thousand choices. You can screen it whenever you want. The rental charge is about the price of a cheap sandwich. If the movie is dull, you can turn it off or switch to fast forward. There are no commercials.

But where is the magic, the mystery, the fun of a big, darkened auditorium full of people? Where is the delightful uncertainty of slipping into a hushed hall and attempting to find a seat by instinct and touch?

There was the game of chance in the aisles -- trying to avoid stepping on slippery popcorn butter grease or waylaid Milk Duds, hearing the crunch of empty candy boxes underfoot.

I also miss the experience of going out with half the neighborhood, the sense that your friends are out too, even if you don't exactly know them by name. You kind of think they live three streets over or maybe they were in your sister's Spanish class.

And even if people talk in movie houses, there is still something to be said for judging a movie on audience reaction. Or allowing the audience reaction to be part of the show itself.

One of my favorite watch-the-audience movies came out in 1967. Its title was "Wait Until Dark." It starred Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman who inadvertently buys an antique doll packed with heroin. Critics called the movie tense and suspenseful. I went to see it three or four times just to watch the audiences jump and scream at its climactic moment.

One night at the Charles I thought the bolts holding the chairs in the concrete floor were going to pop out as a row full of animated high schoolers went berserk.

Not-very-terrifying horror movies of the 1950s were great material for this sort of social outburst. Each usually had one or two great moments when something actually did happen that caused even the most somnolent audience to twitch or yell.

The whole thing was usually stupid. But there was an underlying humor and absurdity that made the night worthwhile. Plunking down what used to be 50 or 75 cents for some Vincent Price vehicle directed by William Castle would have been a dumb thing to do if half your friends and neighbors weren't doing the same thing.

Film exhibitors also went through the motions of filling out a bill of fare with coming attractions and selected short subjects. Most people stayed in their seats and sat through it.

There was also the magic of the theater itself -- like the maroon ceramic water fountain with a round mirror at the old Waverly, now turned into a shoe store.

The Boulevard had a Grecian goddess bathed in neon lights. The Stanley had a golden glow when the lights came on and the big pipe organ started to play. The New had the steepest balcony this side of the Rocky Mountains, and the McHenry was surprisingly huge once you got past the little entrance on Light Street. The Ambassador had the best frenetic art deco interior, one that put the Senator to shame.

The stage at the State seemed bigger than a church. And the Towson always seemed small and crammed. The Paramount was dull but the Northway was nifty.

But even the unremarkable movie houses possessed a certain draw.

Where-oh-where have all those matronly women gone who once sat in lonely box offices and punched out strips of admission tickets? Rarely were they pleasant, but even their sour-grape attitude was part of the show.

Come to think of it, was it a requirement that all movie ushers had to be skinny and look like walking cadavers in their ugly blue uniforms? I guess the managers bought the coat in only one size -- extra large -- and assumed it would thereby fit all its wearers.

The concept of a movie usher seems like a dizzying, non-cost-effective role, a job on a par with an elevator operator or a milkman who made house calls. But would the world be so bad without a few more people around to help you find a seat?

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