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American Pie: A Night At The Movies

…My regular movie going ended in the era of “Laurence of Arabia,” “Ryan’s Daughter and “Dr. Zhivago,” which represented, for me, the cream of the art. I had also started to watch musicals, the pinnacle of which, in my opinion, was “West Side Story,” but “Sound of Music” did me in. Not long after that saccharine overdose, I went to live in the USA, where movie going had already degenerated into today’s minimalist experience. After twice finding myself in a half empty, featureless box of an auditorium, I decided to wait for the invention of the VCR…

John Merchant recalls the heyday of cinema going in Britain.

To read more of John’s varied and invariably mind-expanding columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=john+merchant

When my parents were courting in pre-World War II England, a night at the movies was a special treat. In our hometown, Sheffield, there were three grand cinema theaters in the city center, within walking distance of each other, and many lesser establishments in the suburbs. A night at the movies was just that – not the slam, bang two and a half hours, if you’re lucky, of today.

The evening’s program included a “B” feature movie, a cartoon or travelogue, a newsreel, and the main feature film. During the intermission there was a live stage performance – usually a chorus line, or an organist playing popular tunes. The audience was encouraged to sing along, aided by the song’s words projected on the screen, and a small dot that danced from word to word in synchronization with the music. In most theaters, the organ rose slowly out of the floor in the orchestra pit, illuminated from below – pure magic.

Commercials were shown during the intermission, and since people at that time weren’t saturated by commercial driven TV, they actually watched and enjoyed them. Before the intermission lights went up, spotlights picked out pretty, usually blond-haired young women at the front of each isle, dressed in short skirts and black, fishnet tights. Each girl held a tray on which some carried cigarettes, cigars and candy, while others offered ice-cream in tubs with a wooden spoon.

The movie theaters themselves were magnificent with stalls, a mezzanine floor and a third floor that carried the cheap seats, usually referred to as the “gods,” a carry-over from the music hall days. The walls, ceiling and balconies were embellished with gilded scrolls, cherubs, foliage, Greek gods and goddesses. Red velvet upholstery was de rigueur. The ceilings, from which massive crystal chandeliers were suspended, generally had painted murals. Many theaters contained restaurants on the mezzanine of sufficient quality that people dined there even when they weren’t intending to see a film.

I rarely went to the movies as a child. Most performances required youngsters under the age of, I think, sixteen, to be accompanied by an adult, and by then my parents were too preoccupied with other things to take me. There were also the World War II air raids to contend with, and even when it was false alarm, the audience would be required to leave. As a result, many people were not prepared to risk the interruption.

Though some theaters in Sheffield had been damaged by German bombing, most were eventually repaired, and I think the majority of post war movie goers hoped that the performances would return to pre-war standards, which they more or less did, with the exception of the intermission stage show. I guess post war inflation just didn’t allow it without increasing the cost of admission beyond what many people were prepared to pay.

In my teens, relatives took me along with them, and I discovered that I had a liking for the noir genre, and enjoyed such films as “The Small Back Room,” and “Rope.” I was absorbed by their intensity, which stayed with me long after the performance was over, and I usually identified with one of the characters, hero or villain.

American and British musicals were popular in the post war years as an escape from the dreariness of the late forties and fifties, but they failed to engage me. Cartoons and travelogues still were presented between the “B” movie and the main feature, and the intermission continued to feature the ice cream and cigarette ladies.

My regular movie going ended in the era of “Laurence of Arabia,” “Ryan’s Daughter and “Dr. Zhivago,” which represented, for me, the cream of the art. I had also started to watch musicals, the pinnacle of which, in my opinion, was “West Side Story,” but “Sound of Music” did me in. Not long after that saccharine overdose, I went to live in the USA, where movie going had already degenerated into today’s minimalist experience. After twice finding myself in a half empty, featureless box of an auditorium, I decided to wait for the invention of the VCR.

Now, with my big screen, plasma HDTV and surround sound, I can relax in my lounger, sip a glass of Cointreau if I desire, and watch the DVD movies of my choice in comfort. Occasionally I’ll discover an unsung jewel: “The Waking of Ned Devine,” “My Cousin Vinny,” and “Moonstruck” have all delighted me. But pleasant as the experience is, it can’t compare with the night at the movies of my youth.

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