There was a meager bag of tricks at my mother's disposal when my father died: she was a young and poor widow left with an inconsolable seven year old. My father's death was life altering. What my mother pulled out of that bag would be as well. "I promise you," she said as she held me close, "we'll go to the movies every week."
The price of a movie in Brooklyn in 1952 was twenty-five cents plus a penny tax. For that you got a double feature, newsreel, coming attractions and in the summertime air cooling (as the ice-blue colored block letters advertised on a banner hanging from the marquee - a fine alternative to our fire escape, where the sweltering heat followed us as we tried to catch a breeze). That was a lot of money for our family; we couldn't yet afford a television and lived on eight dollars a week relief money from the government until my mother convinced someone to hire an unskilled housewife.
My mournful wail softened to loud sniveling at the mention of movies. I'd seen three movies: Cinderella when it was first released in 1950, An American in Paris the following year. When my father went into the hospital my mother wept in the dark while we watched Limelight . I'd made my mother sit through all of them twice. In those days going to the movies was like getting on a merry-go-round: it didn't matter when you arrived, it was always going round and round, passing from the unfamiliar to the familiar and then back again. No one thought to check the time a movie started, you just came at your own convenience and stayed as long as you liked.
"Every week?" I asked. My mother had never lied to me before, but this was so incredible I needed to confirm it. "This week?" When she hesitated, my sniveling increased. "Well I guess Daddy would be the only one who'd understand, and he's the only one who counts." It would be years before I would understand how brave that was of her not to make me wait for what would have been considered an "appropriate" amount of time. "We'll go Friday night." I was almost reassured. "And every Friday night?" My mother nodded. "Forever."
We entered the Loew's Pitkin theater the way we did a church or synagogue: attending meant some revelation might be at hand. The theater's décor furthered that impression with its painted sky of midnight-blue shining hundreds of glittering stars down on us and with golden cherub statues ensconced on the walls. When the music started, trumpets blared, and the red velvet curtain drew back from the stage revealing a worthy shrine. It was such a large screen that we took to sitting up in the balcony. My mother wanted to be farther back from the screen and I wanted to be closer to the heavenly stars.
In 1952 I learned a circus could be a place for heartbreak, even for clowns, in The Greatest Show on Earth . Gary Cooper made my mother and me ache for the quiet strength of my father in High Noon , and we watched with fascination as Jose Ferrer walked on his knees to portray Toulouse-Latrec in Moulin Rouge . Newsreels flashed thousands of people mourning for a young, glamorous dictator's wife, Eva Peron, a man became a woman when George Jorgenson underwent surgery to become Christine Jorgenson, and a mechanical heart was first placed in a human. It didn't matter that I didn't understand any of this: it was magic and magic defies comprehension.
The following year my mother obtained a job in Manhattan as a file clerk at an insurance company, and our Friday night ritual that would last her lifetime was established. I'd meet her at the subway station near the movie theater by six o'clock; we'd have dinner at the cafeteria and catch the double feature, whatever was playing. We'd enter the story - wherever it was - and stay until it came around again to that scene. If it was really a wonderful movie, I could convince my mother to stay until the end. No matter how tired she was, and how late it was (close to midnight, sometimes), my mother would agree. Somewhere during the show, she would indulge me in a box of Raisinets, while she ate ice cream bon-bons.
There were no ratings, nor did my mother shield me from any movie. Sex scenes were handled largely by innuendos, music and fade-outs. The crashing, symbolic surf rushing over their bodies in From Here to Eternity couldn't extinguish Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster's smoldering embrace; even at eight, I felt the sizzle. Far more disturbing was Frank Sinatra being beaten to death. I cried so loudly that my mother had to shut our apartment windows later that night to keep my howls from traveling across the courtyard to our neighbors.
When I was ten, in 1955, I ushered my mother into my era with Blackboard Jungle , which featured the song Rock Around the Clock . It was a schizophrenic time, with Rock Around the Clock sharing popularity with songs like The Yellow Rose of Texas, Davy Crockett, Sixteen Tons and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing , from the movie of the same title. My mother and I sat and made the transition together from the romanticized to the gritty. We finished out the decade with Ben-Hur and La Dolce Vita .
1960 was the single movie year that changed the way we viewed movies forever. Psycho was released, and with it a new ironclad rule: no one was permitted into the theater for the last twenty minutes. (Patrons were also encouraged to keep the ending a secret from future movie-goes). It was the first time lines formed at the theater as people showed up in time to see the movie from start to finish. From then on, my mother and I checked the movie schedule so we could come in at the beginning. This, of course, in no way precluded our staying through for a second showing.
By this time, my mother showed no signs of dating (I never thought to discuss it with her, and I don't know if it was because of her love for my father or her protection of me), but I was just beginning to go out with boys. In a city where cars and drive-ins didn't exist for teens, the neighborhood movie house was the perfect make-out place: the balcony was synonymous with under the boardwalk at Coney Island. Date-night was Saturday night, so I never had to choose.
The early sixties, the height of the cold war, chilled us with its political thrillers: Manchurian Candidate, Judgment at Nuremberg and Dr. Strangelove . It also marked the deaths of some of our most romantic movie stars: Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Marilyn Monroe. We mourned as if for someone we knew. But nothing could have prepared us for the communal mourning we would experience with President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963.
By then, my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had undergone a radical mastectomy and radiation treatment. We hadn't been to the movies for a few months, since her surgery. When I came home from school with the shocking news of President Kennedy's death, my mother and I spoke the unspeakable: that she too would be leaving well before her time.
On New Year's Eve, 1963 my mother and I boarded a bus to take us to the movies. She was very weak, but dressed in her favorite black dress with tiny lilac flowers. I wish I could say our last movie together was To Kill a Mockingbird or something with such import. It was Under the Yum-Yum Tree , a sex farce starring Jack Lemmon and Carol Lynley. We laughed through our pain as my mother made the effort to eat the ice cream bon-bons I bought for her.
Our movie-going days ended that New Year's Eve. My mother never came out of her coma.
When I think back to the significant talks my mother and I had, I can't help but acknowledge that many of them were spurred by the movie we had just seen. Together we'd ridden with cowboys, hung out with the mob, traveled furtively with spies, danced and sang frivolously, roamed in the darkness with vampires and welcomed (but sometimes defensively destroyed) aliens. We traveled the world - though she would never get beyond New York - and watched on the big screen as humanity succumbed to its frailties and rejoiced in its wonders. And sometimes we just plain laughed ourselves silly.
My greatest movie-going pleasure now is to take young children to the movies and watch the wonder in their eyes. Even television cannot ruin them for this experience. As I munch on my Raisinets - or sometimes a box of bon-bons--I miss the majestic theaters with their opening of the red velvet curtains and the double features (although I wonder if I could sit that long now), but thrill that in life, there are still continuous showings.