I grew up at the movies. Really, I did.
My mother’s family was in what they called the picture business. I’m not talking about the kind of pictures you put in frames. I’m talking about the picture show.
Way back in the silent years, before talkies became the rage, they owned movie theaters, in small rural towns, mostly in Oklahoma, but also in Nebraska and Arkansas.
Mom grew up in Purcell, Oklahoma. The family theaters had names that evoke Hollywood’s Golden Age—the Ritz, the Metro, and the McClain, because it was McClain County.
My uncles ran the projectors. Mom and her sisters sold tickets, candy, and popcorn. In fact, Mom was selling tickets one evening during World War II when she met Dad, a young sailor from a nearby Navy training center. Mom’s older sister Flo met her husband the same way, at another movie theater in nearby Norman.
Years later, my Uncle Levi built a theater called the Canadian, because Purcell is located on the Canadian River. He also had a drive-in, the Sky Vue, south of town. The Canadian is the movie theater that’s imprinted on my childhood. When I was young, my family lived in Oklahoma City, some 45 miles north. On Sundays, after church, we’d drive to Grandma’s house in Purcell, for dinner with the family. Various aunts, uncles, and cousins would be there, but not Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Levi, because they were at the show.
After dinner, the grownups would settle into Grandma’s living room and talk. The kids walked the the few blocks to downtown Purcell, where we were allowed to take tickets from movie patrons and work in what Aunt Dorothy always called the Sweet Shoppe. And we saw movies, lots of them.
Every now and then, I was allowed into the projection room at the Canadian or the Sky Vue. None of this digital stuff that they have now. This was back in the 1950s.
One of my clearest memories is of Uncle Levi, sweating in a sleeveless undershirt in that hot projection room, as he hoisted huge rolls of film onto the projector. Years later, when I saw Cinema Paradiso, I thought of my uncle.
The Canadian closed a long time ago, turned into first an antique mall and later an event center. These days, I’m more likely to stream a movie. But I still like seeing movies in a theater. Especially in the 1930s Art Deco gem in downtown Alameda.
As a mystery writer, I’ve mixed movies into my plots. My latest California Zephyr book, Death Above the Line, takes my sleuth Jill McLeod off the train and onto a set, playing a Zephyrette in a film noir. In Bit Player, private eye Jeri Howard investigates what happened long ago when her grandmother worked in 1940s Hollywood.
Check them out, and I’ll see you at the movies!