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
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 though 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 to not make me wait an
appropriate amount of time. "We’ll go Friday night." I was almost
reassured. "And every Friday night?" I asked. "Forever?" My mother nodded.
We entered the Lowe’s Pitkin theater the way we did a church or
synagogue: attending meant some revelation might be at hand. The theater’s
decor furthered that impression with its painted sky of midnight-blue
shining hundreds of glittering stars down on us and golden cherub statues
ensconced from 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 that 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-Lautrec 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 of 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. Deborah
Kerr’s and Burt Lancaster’s smoldering embrace couldn’t be extinguished by
the symbolic crashing surf rushing over their bodies in From Here to
Eternity; even at eight, I felt the screen sizzle. Far more disturbing
to me was Frank Sinatra being knifed 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 one single movie year that changed the way we viewed
movies forever. Psycho entered the scene, and with it an iron-clad:
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-goers.) 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
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 summoned the lives 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
On New Year’s Eve, l963 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 rode 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
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’s still continuous showings.
Donna Scott lives in Los Angeles, California, where she is at work on a