If you live long enough, the fun often lies in looking back at your personal timeline with a new eye. Why did I fall in love with movies? What led me, fifty years after my first movie to the great pleasure of reviewing them? And now, the trail seems very clear.
In 1941, Helen Hurd, mother of my closest childhood friend Dickie, took the two of us to see Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the Carlton Theater in Red Bank, NJ. We were ten years old. It was my first grown up movie and by the time Spencer Tracey’s Mr. Hyde had finished with Ingrid Bergman’s Ivy, I was awash in terror. At home that night, I put my stuffed animals under my bed so there would be no chance that Mr. Hyde could possibly find room to hide there.
During the next two war years, I saw a few movies at the Carlton, each a memorable time because the theater was always full of soldiers and sailors. Before each movie, the entire packed theater of 2000 people sang the Star Spangled Banner while each of those young men stood at attention and saluted the onstage flag. It was a solemn time when no one knew what lay ahead. And even my own twelve year old life was about to change.
My father who had volunteered for the Air Force even though he was in his forties, had been stationed at Mitchell Field on Long Island but now he had been transferred to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio where he would work in procurement for the Air Force. At twelve, I was thinking only about how it affected me. I had grown up riding my bike four miles to school in country laced with dirt roads which were not, believe me, easy as they turned from deep dry sand to wet mud depending on the weather.
After the long drive to Dayton, quite suddenly we were living at 24 Oak Knoll Drive in an actual neighborhood, one block from a trolley system of maroon colored trollies with a long black spike that rose from their roofs to connect with the electricity above. I rode the trolley or walked to the big high school every day, often with a classmate who lived nearby. She was Joan Schadel and she became a dear friend for the two years we lived there and ever after by letter and then email.
It wasn’t long before Joan and I decided to ride the trolley to the movies in downtown Dayton that had several first rank theaters of the kind I had never before seen. It became our habit, and if Joan couldn’t go, I went by myself. Just for fun, look at the Academy Award winners and nominees for that year, 1943. We saw every one of them and I was hooked. How old, I wonder, do you have to be to smile at the quality of this list?
Best Movie: The Song of Bernadette, Watch on the Rhine, Madame Curie, In Which We Serve, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Best Actor: Paul Lukas, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Walter Pidgeon, Mickey Rooney. Best Actress: Jennifer Jones, Jean Arthur, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, Greer Garson. (wnners in bold)
One block from 24 Oak Knoll, a small, slightly seedy movie house, The Far Hills, was a lure. But there was one problem: On Friday nights the Far Hills was the headquarters for the Oakwood High School In-crowd – football players and their steadies in bobby sox and saddle shoes and the long coats I so envied. They all sat in the first four rows laughing and talking and watching while those of us who sat further back (we would never have dared take a sea up front) felt sad and envious and wondered what it would be like to feel entitled to stroll down the aisle. It was less stressful to take the trolley to downtown anonymity but sometimes we went to the Far Hills anyway and sat in the way back feeling a little sad.
At war’s end, we came back east and my movie going ended during two boarding school years. But then came Vassar with the Juliet Theater just across the street where I hung out much too often. One slight regret: on the night of the annual basketball dinner, I went to the Juliet and learned the next day that I had been selected for Vassar’s JV team as a playmaker. I remember thinking that this might have put me in the fourth row in Oakwood if only it had happened there.
Then, a hiatus for marriage, first jobs, and the births of three children. We started taking our children to Drive Ins. I remember watching “The Beatles” while the kids sat on the hood of the car on a beautiful summer night. On most of those nights we took all five of us to McDonalds for hamburgers before going to the Middletown Theater, a grand new four-plex. Four movies under one roof – an inconceivable advance. For five of us in 1962, the tab for the whole evening was under $5.00. And when they had grown up and left home, my husband and I continued to go – mostly Westerns and adventures.
And then, sometime after I turned sixty and was alone again, an earlier thought kept popping up. Could I review movies? So I started watching them with that in mind, feeling discouraged when the meaning of the movie escaped me. But then I applied to the Middletown Courier, a tiny local paper, and began to review for them. It felt odd, I felt unqualified but there was a strange feeling of knowing it was the perfect thing for me to do. After a while, Claudia Ansorge who had recently founded The Two River Times in Red Bank, asked me to review for her new paper. Writing for a startup – perfect. And so it has been for more than twenty years. Somewhere along that line, Jef Gully designed a web site for me and gradually it grew to hold 1500 reviews.
With two weeklies, the internet, and being part of the Film One Festival in Atlantic Highlands, my appetite for movies – watching and writing about them, has been satisfied. From “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” to “The Theory of Everything.” Life is good.