Many years ago, before there were cineplexes, multiplexes, and myriad other megavenues for enjoying a movie, there was the neighborhood theater. Where I lived in San Diego there were three movie theaters within walking distance of my house and one more only a short bus ride away. There were matinees every weekend and evening shows all week, and for only fifty cents a double feature could be had for a day’s or evening’s entertainment.
The theater closest to me was the Crest Theater, which was torn down in the early 1960’s after a forty year run, first as the Fairmont Theater and then later as the Crest. The building which housed the Crest sat on a corner of Fairmont and University Avenues and was home to multiple other small businesses. My first dentist had his office there, but that is a story that I would rather forget. The theater itself was all that you would expect of a neighborhood theater in the 1940’s and 50’s; one central block of seats separated from smaller blocks on either side by aisles which ran from the back to the front. Set in the back wall on the right, as one looked back from the stage, was a thick glass window. Behind the window was the “crying room”. Accessed by way of a hall originating in the lobby, the crying room was reserved for mothers with crying infants who wanted to finish their evening’s entertainment without their squalling child driving everyone else in the building insane. I cannot say that I ever saw the crying room being used for that purpose and must assume that it spoke to a need that existed before I was old enough to go to the movies. Or maybe mothers with young children didn’t go to watch “Fiend Without a Face.” Could go either way, I guess.
Going to the theater was one of my favorite activities when I was young, which was before parents were afraid to let their children get out of their sight. Most of my friends felt the same way and on a Saturday afternoon I was certain to find a large contingent of my neighborhood’s kids standing in line at the ticket box or already in the door and seated with a coke and a box of popcorn, or Jujubees, or Necco wafers, or licorice, or any of the other seemingly countless candies and other treats offered for a reasonable price at the snack bar. While we waited for the first feature to begin, which would be after a cartoon and the newsreel, we would flatten out our empty popcorn boxes and fly them like Frisbies, or shoot other kids with small white beans through our pea shooters. And then, after what seemed like an eternal wait, the lights would dim and the thick, red velvet curtain would begin to pull away exposing the screen, and it was finally time for the show to begin.
The 1950s were the glory years for the “B” science fiction genre, and between the Crest, the Academy, the State, and the slightly more distant North Park theaters we saw then all. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, “The Thing”, “The Beast with Five Fingers”, “Fiend Without a Face”, they all paraded across the silver screen wrenching shrieks from the girls and stoic grimaces from the boys who were much too tough to make a sound at what was, after all, just a movie. Such courage was more apparent than real however. On more than one occasion I was slumped down in my overstuffed theater seat peering barely over the seat back in front of me just in case some gristly beast crawled out of one of my nightmares to jump onto the screen and challenge me in the darkened room. I ducked down from time to time, as did everyone else.
One time I was not prepared. The movie was “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and it was being shown in one of the downtown theaters, the Savoy or the Orpheum I believe, and it was being shown in something new called “3-D.” I had no clear idea what 3-D meant, but when my brother asked if I wanted to go with him I enthusiastically answered in the affirmative. I counted out what remained of that week’s allowance money and found that I had enough for both tickets and a couple of dimes left over to get us there and back on the bus. Brad, my brother, had used up all of his money for the week, hence the invitation to use mine.
We got to the theater, found seats right in the middle, and waited impatiently through the cartoon and newsreel and finally the introduction to the movie, which proceeded at the usual glacial pace. At last things began to heat up; The good scientist clearly had the affection of the girl while the bad scientist wanted the girl and also wanted to kill rather than capture and study the monster. The boat captain with the weird sense of humor skillfully navigated his way into the Black Lagoon while the third scientist (who was last seen turning Michael Landon into the ‘Teenage Werewolf’) speculated that they might have bitten off more than they could chew. About this time the girl decided to slip into the water and take a swim in the Black Lagoon. It was as she was doing the backstroke across the pond that Old Fishface boiled up out of the weeds and began to tickle her feet. In 3-D, remember.
I nearly shat my underwear. I did not see that one coming. I was nowhere near slumped back in my seat prepared to make that strategic dip of the head between the shoulders in order to block the view for the few moments I needed to take the edge off. I was sitting there flat-footed and amazed by the 3-D, not to mention the curves on the lovely lady taking a dip in the pool, and then BOOM! It was just him and me. I don’t believe that gravity alone can account for the speed with which I hit the floor. There was some other power, as yet neither named nor described by science, that pulled me down to the floor at least three times faster than my weight and Newtonian physics would suggest was possible. The girl was safely out of the water and back on board the boat before I ventured to peek over the back of the seat in front of me again. That was one of my best days ever.
The only real downside to my neighborhood theater experience came about when we attended a late showing. In such cases the movies would begin in the bright San Diego sunshine, but by the time that the Giant Leeches had sucked their hapless victims dry, or The Tingler had broken every spine in sight, I would emerge from the Crest with the daunting challenge of making my way home in the dark. Home was located only two blocks and change away, but between point “A” and point “B” there were only three feeble corner street lamps to keep “Them” away from me.
My most frequent companion at these times was Wes. Wes and I were born 10 days apart on the same block and I have known him as long as I can remember. Wes had a considerable advantage when it came to surviving an evening trip from the Crest back to the safety of home; he lived one block closer to the theater than I did. We would cross busy and well lighted University Avenue and dive into the gloom of 44th Street, walking down the middle of the street so that we might have a head start if a slimy tentacle should shoot out from between the cars and trees that lined both sides of the street. It was a comfort to have Wes there because even if we couldn’t outrun that tentacle and the scaly horror attached to it, I could at least hope that I would benefit from the luck of the draw, and the thing that “Came from Beneath the Sea” would take Wes instead of me. I feel quite confident that Wes was calculating the same odds. Upon reaching the end of the first block and regaining the limited safety of the first street light, Wes would break off of our mid street trajectory and veer to the right towards where his house sat on the corner of the alley which ran between Wightman and Landis Streets. My advantage of numbers disappeared when I saw Wes disappear through the front door. Now, there was only me, one long and pitch black block, and whatever else was lying in wait for me out there.
The dim illumination provided by the street lamp offered a glimmer of safety, but there was no way around the fact that I would not be secure until I disappeared behind my own front door, which waited for me a little more than a block away. As I began my trudge down the middle of 44th Street the glow of the street light was quickly swallowed up by the preternatural gloom which ruled the neighborhood like a tyrant with a spiked iron fist. There were houses facing out towards the right side of the street which ran for the entire length of the block. Out from the living room windows and open front doors, if it happened to be warm (which it usually was in San Diego), light would usually shine, but it was never equal to the hungry darkness which allowed no challenge to it’s inky reign. I would not be fooled by those light’s empty promise of security into drawing closer to the right side of the street, thereby giving up any advantage that the middle of the street gave to me in the way of a head start.
The other side of the street, the left side, in latere sinistro, presented it’s own unique challenge. On the corner was a church building which was nearly always dark at this hour. After the church there were two houses which were usually dark and offered little cheer, and then came the Park. The Park was a nearly all-block complex of buildings, fields and courts, and the tennis court was the first thing to meet me as I passed the Last House on the Left. I felt no more threat from the tennis court in the abstract than I felt from any other part of my journey, but that dark expanse of concrete provided to me an awful temptation, and therein lay its real threat. Just a few yards past the far corner of the court lay the lighted basketball court and the recreational center buildings beyond that. The lights and the activity that could frequently be seen on the other side of the tennis court were inviting but the tennis court presented a challenge that I would not rise up to; it was surrounded by a twelve foot chain link fence and was not lighted.
I will not present myself as a guy who can never be swindled. I have bought more than one metaphoric bridge in my life. But even I, at my tender age, was smart enough to not get suckered by a promise of a quicker release from my anguish of fear into taking that short-cut which took me into a dark cage with gates at only three corners. Tempted as I was, I knew that my chances of completing a traverse of that sepulchral tennis court was exactly zero, so on I maintained my course into the continuing gloom down the middle of 44th Street.
After the tennis court came the shuffleboard courts, low gray buildings with a high and solid wall around the whole complex. The senior citizens of the neighborhood would gather there on weekends and didn’t need to be pestered by the noisy and irreverent kids like myself who infested the rest of the park. At night though the building was silent and brooding, providing ample cover for giant ants, blobs, flies or teenaged this-or-thats which might be lurking in search of a snack.
Passing the shuffleboard courts I only had a small field left to get past until I reached the light at the next intersection. Already I was beginning to make out the colors of the cars parked to my right as the light from the streetlamp on the corner of Landis and 44th wrestled with the dark for primacy in this tiny corner of the city. The shrubs which surrounded the field on the left were losing their malice as I began to make out each individual shape of the bushes among which I played during the daytime. The increasing light lifted a weight of dread off of me and I rounded the corner, now less than a half-block from my home and with one more street lamp between me and there.
Feeling increasingly safe I nevertheless stayed in the middle of Landis Street until I passed the dark open mouth of the alley (no sense in being foolish with success within my grasp) and then casually strolled around the next corner, patting the pole of the third street lamp affectionately, and scampered four more houses down Highland Avenue to where I disappeared into the safety behind my own front door.
I am now in my sixties and those old childish fears seem silly to me. I can hardly believe that I was once afraid of…, wait a minute! What was that noise?