The Mystery of Movies

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.

The Canadian Theater in 1959, Purcell, Oklahoma

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.

Alameda Theatre, Alameda, California, built 1932

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!

9 thoughts on “The Mystery of Movies

  1. I too wonder if theaters will survive. Since they opened the fabulously restored Art Deco palace in Alameda, I hate to see a movie anywhere else. In order to make it economically feasible, they had to add a multiplex, but seeing a movie on that big screen in the main theater is wonderful. It was designed by the same architect who designed the Paramount in Oakland, another great movie palace.


  2. I had no idea you came from show folk. How wonderful a childhood you must have had with access to all those adventures on the screen. I remember every movie I went to as a child on a Saturday afternoon. My mom would drop me off for “kids day” at only 10¢ a ticket. I would see a double feature, maybe Jungle Jim and Roy Rogers with lots of Bugs Bunny thrown in. Every year they would show the old black and white movies to the kids, the same ones year after year. We didn’t care. To this day, I have a soft spot for Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan. Thanks for prompting me on my own trip down memory lane!


    1. Oh, yes, I come from show folk. In later years, I remember talking with Uncle Levi, long after he’d retired, about his favorite silent-era cowboy actors, William and Dustin Farnum.


  3. Good post, Janet! As a child we rarely went to the movies. Thought in our small rural town it was an older movie house like you talk about. I only remember going twice my whole childhood. Once was to see Mary Poppins the other, I can’t remember. How fun to put memories of your family’s movie business into your books.


      1. They saved those for the adults in the evenings. The kids got the black and white movies and series from earlier times. Once I even saw Buck Rogers! I didn’t see the technicolor ones until they came to television. My deprived childhood!


  4. What a memorable childhood! We rarely went to the movies when I was a child, but now in my town we have a restored Art Deco theater, which I love. Another, of the same age, was operating when I was a teenager and I remember it well. I certainly hope the old movie theaters survive the pandemic–they’re part of a community experience.


    1. I remember Saturdays when we lived in a small town in Colorado and my dad owned a store on Main Street. Mom and Dad would give me and my brother some money and we’d go across the street to the movie theater to see a double feature.


  5. Great post! I love going to movies–but wonder if theaters are going to survive through the virus. We went to the movies every Friday night when I was a kid–two features no matter what they were. My dad worked for Paramount and liked to point out what real and what wasn’t: toy trains, painted sets, telephone poles where there should be one, booms showing. (Still manage to see some of that stuff, but not so much now with so much being computer generated.)


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