The Theater

Grandma A always had a tough time saying the word “Hoover.”  An unmistakable Irish brogue pulled that first syllable into the air with thick reservation.

“So do you remember how we go?”  Grandma questioned, even though Mom well knew how to navigate the path.  “Right at the corner onto Hoover.  It’s less than five minutes then to Florence.  That’s where the U Line ends.  You can catch it there.  It’ll turn and go back down Florence, right, and up Vermont.”

“Yes, Mother,” Mom replied.  She always addressed Grandma as Mother.  The one time she and Joe tried to address her as “Mom” they were told in no short terms not to do so.

“You have your .25 cents?”

“I do.”

“Here, have two more for a candy,” Grandma dug into her purse and handed over the coins.  Two cents would buy Mom two licorice sticks.  There was a big jar full of licorice on the candy counter at the movies.  Chocolate would be even better, but that was a full nickel.

“Thanks!” smiled Mom, slipping it into her sock.  That’s what the girls at school did sometimes.  Mom didn’t want to take her Sunday purse with her.  It was too fancy, and kids didn’t wear fancy clothes to the movies.  This outing was a first, and a bit of a test.  Mom was a big girl now, ten full years old.  If she could find her way around the neighborhood, board the streetcar, give her money at the movies, and find her way back home – maybe next time Mom could bring Eleanor with her.

Mom loved going to the movies.  Her favorite movie as a child was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Just before Mom’s sixth Christmas, the newspaper’s front page told of Snow White’s star-studded premiere.  All the names in show business were there – Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Shirley Temple, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, Jack Benny, Fred MacMurray, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, John Barrymore, and Marlene Dietrich.  Clearly, Snow White was a big deal.  It was the first full length, cel-animated motion picture in history.  Walt Disney had promoted Snow White during the popular Saturday kids matinées.  In February, 1938, Grandma took the kids to see it. Mom entered the theater with anticipation and watched with wide, amazed eyes.  “Oh, I loved that movie,” she repeatedly recounted.  She loved how beautiful Snow White was.  She loved the music.  (I suspect she loved the tidy work ethic of the dwarves.)  That movie became a part of her.  She always appeared wistful when speaking of it, and I loved finding Snow White related items to show her through the years. *

This day, though, Mom was not six anymore.  She was ten years old and eager to join her school friends at the matinée.  That’s what the kids mostly did on Saturdays.  An afternoon at the theater might be five or six hours long.  They would screen cartoons, popular series films, each about 15 to 20 mins, and often a short Western.  There was almost always a double feature.  Pre-adolescent children pushed their way into packed theater houses.  Often the kids were rowdy and noisy, booing or hissing when a villan would arrive.  If the film reel broke, they’d stomp their feet and yell or scream at the management.  Sometimes fistfights broke out.  At school on Monday there would be talk in the schoolyard about the whole ta-doo.  Sometimes when the kids would meet one another, they would greet with “Duuh”… to which the recipient would respond in kind, “Duuuh.”  (Recounting this brought Mom and I to tears in laughter!)

Strolling down Florence, Mom barely had time to whistle one song before arriving at the streetcar.  The U Line connected neighborhoods all the way North to USC.   It traveled straight down the center of wide ol’ Vermont Street.

South end of the line, at Florence and Vermont

Florence Blvd, heading south on Vermont     (from )

Money in hand, Mom boarded, and the streetcar scooted up Vermont.  Smiling, she held her head high, chin up, and assumed the casual air of a proper ten year old.  She was, after all, a big girl now.

Independent theaters lined Vermont.  Within two miles from home, Mom had access to six or more movie houses: the Congress, Madrid, Temple Theater, the Rio, Astor, and Vermont.  By the mid 1930’s, Los Angeles had  more movie theaters than we have Starbucks.  Each of these had one screen and between 350 to 900 seats.  Some were conversions from as early as 1914 with fancy organs and architecture.  And even though it was the Depression and few luxuries were afforded, somehow families found money to enjoy these movie theaters.  By 1934, the majority of families saw at least one movie per week.  Nothing was quite like going to the movies.

Mom loved all kinds of movies, but especially she loved Shirley Temple movies.  Shirley Temple was a few years older than Mom, just the right difference to look up to.  Mom found her adorable.  Shirley was sweet, talented, and beautiful.  She had nice clothes, and a positive message of hope wove its way through her films.  Grandma started to curl Mom’s hair like Shirley Temple for occasions.  The love for Shirley Temple extended through Mom’s whole life.  It was Mom’s love for Shirley which landed me in tap dance lessons – and ballet for good measure.  Mom’s face beamed as I learned the dance routine to “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”  My hair was also curled like Shirley Temple for occasions, and I suspect some of the fashions Mom sewed for me had Shirley in mind.  Mom loved to watch her movies, even as a grown up, and keep up with news about her in the celebrity magazines.  Later in life, when Mom decided to treat herself to something she would enjoy, she chose to expand her doll collection with the Official Shirley Temple dolls.  Each doll portrayed Shirley from a particular movie role.  Mom would excitedly unwrap the doll to show me.  After careful, almost surgical level re-wrapping and re-boxing the doll, it was off to Suncoast video or Video Depot to find the movie.  Mom wanted to own each movie which she had the doll for.  Sometimes she would special order them, if the video stores didn’t carry the title.

Mom, with her hair curled like Shirley Temple.

“You can just get lost in movies,” Mom would say.  “Gone With the Wind” was another favorite Mom enjoyed in those early movie houses.  Years later, Mom took me to see “Gone With the Wind” as a teen.  She had told me for years that I reminded her of Scarlett O’Hara.  I couldn’t believe what a wonderful movie it was!  We saw it at the Baronet in Woodland Hills.  It was the first movie I had attended with an intermission.  “He’s so handsome!” I squealed as we refreshed our popcorn and soda.  “I know,” Mom smiled, raising an eyebrow.  Mom said Scarlett’s final moment reminded her of my indomitable spirit in life, and from then on, we refered to the Westlake house as Tara. When she spoke about Clark Gable, Mom’s eyes would shine with a mischievous smile.  She frequently blamed Marilyn Monroe for his death, saying he was overtaxed in the heat of the desert during a movie they were filming.  Fred Astaire was another favorite (for different reasons), and Ginger Rodgers.  Mom loved Jimmy Stewart and what a nice guy he seemed to be. Sometimes Mom would tell me I looked like a heroine from a B movie.  “Honey, you’re so thin, with a piece of hair going here and one there.  You look like the heroine of a B movie.”

One movie Mom spoke ill of was 1941’s “Tobacco Road.”  While most Depression-era movies shared tales of hope, “Tobacco Road” was a story of poverty and despair.   The movie had been filmed on closed sets so it would not meet with religious opposition and be banned before its release.  For the same reason, there was little to no promotion in advance.  Mom was taken aback by what she saw.  It was the one movie she repeatedly denounced.  In fact, I believe it was the only movie she walked out on.  “It was terrible… horrible.  People unwashed and hungry – living in intense poverty with no hope at all.”  Mom would recount, “They were living like hillbillies.  It was awful.  The Catholic Church condemned it.  It was so filled with despair, and despair is a sin.”  Later, when it came on tv, Mom caught a glimpse.  “Oh, turn that… that’s that ‘Tobacco Road’ – it was condemned by the church.”  The images of the film left such an impression on Mom, that it became a simile she drew from.  If I looked hungry, tired, or my clothes were too old, Mom would say, “Honey, you look like a ragpicker.  This isn’t ‘Tobacco Road,’ you know.”  Similarly, if a neighborhood or house was unkempt, Mom could barely stand it.  She could not bear clutter or chaos.  A house with a dilapidated yard, trash blowing around – Mom would remark, “It’s like Tobacco Road.”  And years later, when Dad found a woman he helped living in abject poverty, Mom recounted the story, “She is up there living like ‘Tobacco Road.’ ”

While movies like “Tobacco Road” seemed determined to bust morale, other films and stars seemed able to lift everyone’s spirits.  One star, Carmen Miranda, arrived on the scene in 1939, when Mom was eight years old.  Immediately, Mom loved her.  For her American movie debut, Carmen teamed with Betty Grable and Don Ameche in “Down Argentine Way.”  It was so lively and musical, Mom loved it.  Not to mention, Carmen Miranda was even Catholic!  Carmen became the 1930’s version of the pop star Madonna.  Just as girls and teens wanted to look like Madonna in the 1980’s, the little girls and teens in 1939 and into the 1940’s wanted to look like Carmen Miranda.  Department stores rushed to market jewelry donned with fruit. She was fabulously successful and considered quite a sex symbol.  The United States Government had even extended a hand to Carmen, encouraging her movies and performances.  President Roosevelt received her days after her arrival into the country from Latin America.  He was establishing his “Good Neighbor policy” and putting a face onto Latin America via Carmen served his political interests.  Americans loved her, and Mom was no exception.  In fact, Mom’s love of Carmen Miranda extended into her adult life.  She frequently mentioned her.  I loved looking for Carmen related gifts to show Mom.  When, in 1985, Betty Boop was portrayed as Ms. Miranda in cookie jar form, we had to buy it.  Mom kept it with her, and it was in her room even in her last years. 

Living in Los Angeles those early years truly brought a focus on the life of movie stars like Carmen Miranda.  One day you’d see a star on the big screen, and next you’d hear news of their local meanderings.  It wasn’t unusual to hear the scuttlebutt about how so n so was seen at the Brown Derby last Thursday.  Movie stars were surrounded with mystique.  Little girls shared this extra excitement of being close to the glamour of stardom.  Mom would pile Eleanor’s hair up on top of her head, dress up, and play movie stars.  They’d play out the imagined life of the fabulous and glamorous heroine’s of Hollywood.

Meanwhile, the 1920’s had transformed LA from a little overgrown town into America’s fifth largest city.  Palms were planted down Vermont as real estate agents promoted the area as a tropical paradise.  The movie industry fed into this image and took root.  The presence of movie stars grew LA’s idyllic mythology.  There was still a bit of old Hollywood around in the 1970’s, when Mom and Eleanor were able to witness a second generation, with Maryann and myself, being starstruck by the likes of the Bionic Woman or Sonny and Cher.  Just as Mom hoped to spot Carmen Miranda or Elizabeth Taylor, I’d be on full alert for sightings of Cher.  The theater, Los Angeles, and movie stars became a part of us all.

a newspaper listing a fragment of the independent movie theaters in LA in the 1930’s

*footnote:  In Mom’s last year at Sunrise, the showed Snow White to the folks in the Reminiscence floor.  I tried with effort to show Mom the movie.  When she did not notice it, I thought maybe the music would bring it back to her.  But she began dozing off.  I pointed out the music, longing for connection, knowing how very much she loved the movie.  It was heartbreaking,  being on the precipice of nostalgia, and falling into it alone, devoured by the yawning monster which is time.

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