The Last Picture Show: Saturday Morning Showtime
January 3, 2015
SOMEONE – SOMETIME AND SOMEWHERE – invented celluloid film, figured how to stamp pictures and stories on it, and changed our lives forever. At the movies, we learned about drama and the human condition and were surprised in later years to learn that it was no different from our own.
On screen, problems were created and solved in less than two hours.
Ours would take a lifetime.
We preferred the short version.
On Saturdays, no one ever worried about where we were or what we were doing. Kilgore knew. All day at the Crim Theater – from morning until daylight fled on the far side of the derricks – cost nine cents.
Cartoons made us laugh.
It didn’t take a lot to make us laugh.
Newsreels brought the world and its tragedies to the doorsteps of our town.
The weekly serial left us breathless. Did she die, lose her memory, escape the flames, dodge a hail of gunfire, survive the plane crash, or flee the mad doctor and his dreaded fireball, X-ray, enhanced radiation, neutron gun. One shot and she could vanish in a vapor of smoke.
There was an older feature in the morning and a new one in the afternoon. And the Crim gainfully fought the piercing heat of summer with air conditioning. Of course, we didn’t know we were hot until the movie house showed us what it was like to be cold. Ceiling fans, attic fans, window fans, funeral home fans in late-night church revivals had always worked just fine.
The evangelists could preach hell so hot you could smell the smoke of brimstone in the air, warn you that this might be the last message you ever heard, and all you could see passing back and forth in front of your guilty, troubled eyes was blurred images of Rader Funeral Home printed on the back of the fan.
You might be one sermon closer to the funeral home than you had ever been before, and you weren’t really sure if the Good Lord wanted those sins confessed in alphabetical or chronological order.
It might take the rest of the night.
The Crim was, after all, revered as the finest theater in East Texas, designed in an art deco style that Liggett Crim had called “modern-classic.” It was as lavish and elegant as a page torn from a movie magazine with a mirrored lobby and the futuristic statue of a nude woman, her head thrown back, her long hair cascading wildly down her back in the upstairs lounge. She could have easily been one of the Hollywood starlets that Liggett liked to escort through Kilgore and across his stage.
The Crim featured an upstairs and a downstairs, patrolled by the imposing and ominous shadow of Laura P. Slack who kept the kids in line, their feet off the backs of those revolutionary, push-back seats, their cracked voices never any louder than the hum of hoarse whispers, muffled laughter, and an occasional startled scream.
She was boss. She was the warden, stalking the aisles, probing the darkness with the deadly, beam of her flashlight, and, God forbid, if she ever glimpsed the faint red embers of a lit cigarette dangling from a teenager’s mouth.
Laura P. was more terrifying than the villain in a weekly serial, and we could feel her breath on our necks even when she wasn’t there. But we knew we were safe as long as she was standing guard and our feet were off the seats.
Not even the demons of hell dared quarrel or tangle with Mrs. Slack, who was never known by anyone as Laura P.
For a quarter, we bought the hottest ticket in town, paid a nickel for a Coke, a dime for two boxes of popcorn, and had a penny left over for the gumball machine.
As likely as not, a hungry-eyed boy, his little hands shoved deep inside empty pockets, would be hanging around the ticket office outside.
He didn’t particularly beg for your extra penny but would certainly be proud to take it. Collect nine of them from nine good-hearted souls, and he had bought his way inside.
My old buddyTerry Stembridge recalls, “My mother saw a small boy sitting on the sidewalk crying one morning. He said he had come to the early show and lost his nine cents. She gave him a quarter and watched him run across the street, smiling. She might not have changed his life. But she changed his day.”