By now, regular readers of this blog know my primary interest has always been movies. This time around, I want to highlight my very earliest memories of how and when my cinema experience began. In 1953 I turned ten and in my neighborhood lived a bunch of guys, some girls, but mostly guys, who played cowboys and Indians, street ball, and, who, on Saturday afternoons went to a movie at the nearest neighborhood theatre on Summer Avenue –The Bristol.
The 660-seat auditorium of the Bristol was well-worn by the time I was old enough to go to the movies. It had been built in 1929 as one of dozens of neighborhood movie houses in the suburbs of Memphis. Its location at 3415 Summer was far from the center of the city and better known in those days as the Bristol Highway that led (500-miles northeast) to the furthest point in the state of Tennessee, Bristol. Indeed, that theatre was named the Bristol in honor of the thoroughfare in front of it. In the 1950’s few people ever referred to the Bristol Highway anymore. Summer Avenue continued on after it left the city as State Highway 70 through Jackson, Nashville, Knoxville, and, finally, Bristol. So nobody really associated the far-flung outpost called Bristol with the obscure theatre in East Memphis.
As I recall, tickets for the Saturday matinee were twelve cents (two cents of which was listed as tax). That ticket entitled me to two full-length feature films, previews of upcoming films, as many as ten cartoons, and, quite regularly, a fifteen to twenty chapter “serial”. I’ll explain some of these terms as we explore the long-lost world of Saturday afternoon matinees as I remember them in the 1950’s. I cannot fail to mention the lobby where the concession stand operated before, during, and after the movies. Imagine having twenty cents today and asking for anything (even water) at one of Malco-complex theatres. In my day twenty cents was enough for a box of popcorn (freshly popped on site), a soft drink, and a bar of candy (chosen from Holloway Suckers, Clark bars, Neccos, Dots, Three Musketeers, and Baby Ruths, just to name a few). You could barely carry the treasures that fifty cents could buy. The concession stand sold all their goodies at a profit and kept the theatre in business for many years (1929-77). That’s one similarity between then and now. The concession stand is still the basis of profits in movie theatres today.
On most Saturdays a group of five or six neighborhood kids would gather and walk in a creek bed near our neighborhood for about a mile or less to the Bristol. We were prepared for a line of our fellow urchins in front of and behind us. The matinees were the most popular activity of all kids everywhere and the dear, old Bristol was fully occupied by two P.M. every week. That meant at least three hours of entertainment before it was all over. Three hours of mad, frenzied, loud, frolicking joy, accompanied by lots of changing seats, horse-play, running up and down the aisles to greet friends, go to the concession stand, go to the bathroom, or to just exercise that endless need that adolescents have to be doing anything other than what they came to do.
The middle-aged lady who was “in charge” of managing the theatre had her work cut out for her from the beginning to the end of the three-hour onslaught of energy underway. She usually started off by ejecting the worst offenders and real trouble-makers (who were immediately let back in by their cronies through the exit door next to the screen). Then it was just a matter of shining her flashlight on different rows of seats and threatening ejection or calling parents if bad behavior did not cease. Fortunately not many of the patrons cared about the actions on the screen so nothing was lost except for the few ill-advised adults in the crowd who had the bad judgment to show up at such a circus. I remember loving all the hoopla and shenanigans going on all around me. A broken seat here or there and spilled cokes and popcorn added to the fun. This was an “imp paradise” for a precious few hours each Saturday. No other day or time commanded such benign melees of harmless misbehavior. Compared to the dreadful standards of many of today’s youth, the Saturday matinee was quite acceptable and ordinary.
The two feature films were usually westerns, horror films, or “B“ movies from poverty-row studios that could be rented by the theatres for next to nothing. Since very few cared about the movies at all, anything would pass for a feature in those days. One of my favorite films from those days was 1954’s THEM, a very scary picture about giant ants in the deserts of the western United States. They eventually managed to get to Los Angeles where they killed and terrorized everyone, hiding in the concrete tunnels of the always-dry Los Angeles River. Every time the music announcing the next appearance of the ants played, every eye became riveted to the film and all of them screamed at the devastation for a few seconds. Once the ants retreated the merrymaking resumed. Our emotions were like a ferris wheel with endless ups and down over the course of the afternoon, enhanced by limitless amounts of sugar injected willy-nilly.
Some of the other films I remember seeing at the Bristol were Roy Rogers westerns with Gabby Hayes, Dale Evans, and the rest of Roy’s troupe, including the singing Sons of the Pioneers. Abbott and Costello, the popular comedy duo made dozens of movie spoofs for Universal Studios “B” unit such as A&C MEET DRACULA, A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN, etc.. They were cheaply made and very popular. I loved the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON with beautiful Julie Adams. I vividly recall dozens of war films, teenage love stories, and lots of comedies. Most of the fare was in black and white (b&w) and color films were rare, especially at a Saturday matinee. Between the showing of the two films the animated cartoons played and some Saturdays they had what was known as a “cartoon carnival” during which as many as ten cartoons in a row unfolded. Some of the cartoons were quite dated and were in b&w, like most of the feature films. As I said, we were too busy acting out to care much even for cartoons.The time between films was for more teasing friends by doing things like pushing their seat up and having them land on the floor in a pool of popcorn (hilarious) or trips to get more food and drinks from the lobby. Water balloons were not unheard of eitherWhen they sailed through the air to land on unsuspecting victims many rows up or back, the thrower could not be identified even by the poor lady manager. One time she herself was the target of a balloon and stopped the movie, threatening to send us all home. But, fortunately, she relented after ten, long minutes.
But my very favorite part of that movie experience was the “serials”. The best way to define serials is to compare them to movie sequels like the HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS franchises in recent years. The distinction was that the serials only lasted about ten to fifteen minutes each Saturday over fifteen or twentySaturdays, finally reaching the last episode (or chapter) and ending the story. I actually saw all fifteen chapters of only one serial. That was 1945’s JUNGLE RAIDERS made by Columbia Pictures. Definitely made on the cheap in b&w with second-tier actors like Kane Richmond, Veda Ann Borg, Eddie Quillen. And Carol Hughes (as Zara, jungle high priestess).
The thin plot was set at the end of World War II in an unidentified jungle where the opposing forces searched for powerful medical cures in the hands of a mysterious tribe and a cache of jewels protected by that tribe. Chapter titles included such exotic things as:”Mystery of the Lost Tribe”, “Devil’s Brew”, “The Vengeance of Zara”, and “Jewels of Arzec”. Each chapter lasted between fifteen and eighteen minutes, each one ending with what used to be known as a “cliff-hanger”, which had one or more of the good-guys about to be inevitably killed or otherwise destroyed by the villains. At that moment the narrator would speak over the action announcing: “Come back to this theatre next week for the exciting next chapter of Jungle Raiders. Will our hero finally meet his fate?” (of course not). The music then swelled and that is the end of the latest episode. When the next chapter flashed on screen the following Saturday the last few seconds of the previous chapter were shown (usually slightly altered so the hero is not in as much jeopardy as shown last week or somehow able to avoid his or her inevitable doom by quick thinking or pure luck). Isn’t that a fascinating format? Such writing was novel in the 1940’s but is the bread and potatoes of almost every drama, soap opera, or mystery shown these days. I think the current writers owe a lot to the serials of old.
Long about five o’clock the day ended. Hundreds of little ones, those who had lasted the entire three hours, made their way out of the theatre as rapidly as they had entered, a few at a time. On winter Saturdays darkness was falling and some parents arrived to drive the worn-out patrons home. But most of us braved the dark and slipped back into the creek, the fastest way home on foot. I pity the cleanup crew at that theatre. Syrup from cokes soaked in popcorn, popped water balloons, and half-eaten candy are not a pretty sight or an easy thing to dispose of.
Flash forward twenty or so years. I am riding the MATA bus toward downtown where I worked and among the full load of passengers I spy the gray-haired former manager of the Bristol. She, like everyone, had aged in the interim but I was sure it was she. I saddled over to where she was sitting and asked her if she had been the manager of the movie house. She smiled and said she had. I told her I was a Saturday regular and that I thought I owed her an apology for all my sins against propriety on those days of yore. She kept on smiling and said those were the most hectic days of her life but also the most fun and challenging. We talked until she got off the bus. I never saw her again. WOW! It was like meeting a celebrity.
That meeting was a suitable denouement to my many memories of my youth. A final bookend to the precious Saturdays I spent in that beloved, old movie house, which by then had been torn down and turned into a machine shop. I did get one more shot at nostalgia when I found a VHS copy of JUNGLE RAIDERS in a bin at a film festival. Just $10 to return to the jungle, Zara, the lost tribe, etc. I couldn’t wait to play all fifteen chapters. I think I had endured about four of them when I realized how much I had changed since I was ten. Or had that serial always as bad as it seemed all those years later? Every once in a while I watch a few minutes of the serial just to take me back to the dark auditorium of the Bristol. I must thrive on ancient memories more than others. Or maybe I am just looking for a way to stave off old age. Whatever it is, I am comforted by the dubious charm of that creaky 1945 piece of film that delighted me for fifteen weeks in the nineteen fifties. But only a few minutes at a time.
Cinema Treasures Internet
Wikipedia Jungle Raiders, 1945 Columbia Serial
Internet IMDB Images of Cast of Jungle Raiders
Internet Image Bristol Theatre