Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tales of the Koko Lion, Part 23: The Saturday Matineé

A full-on hellacious meleé is what you might actually call it.

That would probably be a pretty fair description. There were about a thousand screaming kids, 98% of them boys from the ages of six to twelve, packed into the indescribable moderne-ity of the old State Theater on El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego, somewhere back around 1962. It was like that every Saturday, at the weekly triple-feature matineé. Kids' moms dropped them off, like mine did, watched for the ticket to be purchased—thirty-five cents back then—waited for us to go in, and then drove off in their classic Chevys, Fords, and Plymouths, that weren't even classic, then. Every mom had one, and apparently had some place to go in it.

I would stop at the Snack bar and get a red-striped tagboard box of popcorn for fifteen cents, and a Nesbitt's orange for a quarter. For seventy-five cents, my mom could drop me at the theater for almost six hours. A teenager with a challenged complex-ion, in a dark blue, gold-trimmed uniform pushed the doors open for me, and revealed the insanity within. In those days, they sat you, pointing out your seat with their flashlight, and as soon as they chased some other kid back up the aisle, you got up and moved to where you really wanted to sit. I liked to sit slightly up from the middle, down the right-hand aisle.
If you could look past the teeming kid mass, the flailing arms, kids standing on the seats, kids crying for their moms, kids running full speed down the aisles pursued by the harried teen ushers, you'd behold the intense decorative splendor of the State Theater interior, whose tropical Botticellian paisley flourishes fluoresced slightly when the lights went down.

They were the strangest mass baby-sitting spectacles ever, those Saturday matineés, made possible by Warner Brothers cartoons and Italian sword and sandal spectaculars, stacked up in technicolor trinities like: The Thief of Baghdad, with Steve Reeves; Duel of the Titans, with Reeves and Gordon Scott; and Mole Men Versus The Son of Hercules, with Mark Forest. Or: Son of Spartacus, with Steve Reeves; Son of Hercules, with Ed Fury; and the classic Hercules Unchained, with Steve Reeves and the beautiful Sylva Koscina.

The show started up with an animated snack bar bumper, and a "smoking and crying baby booth in the rear" card, right before the golden Warner Bro-thers frame bounced the screen into life, and the kidmob, at least for a little while, calmed down to watch the cartoons. About half way through the mus-cleman marathon, the kids would get restless and started taking the place apart at the seams, starting with the inevitable winging of the flattened popcorn boxes, with their wick-edly unpredictable trajectories, and ending up in an all-out pandemonium that necessitated the turning on of the house lights, and the theater manager's stern announcements from the stage. Any unruly or destructive children would be ejected from the theater. The kids could care less, but everyone quieted down so the lights could go back off, the movies could start back up, and the insanity could build again to another fine state of perfect hellaciousness, starting the whole process all over again.
The last two or three hours were always like that, the over-taxed theater staff shouldering the Herculean task of containing a thousand agitated boy-children, all ready to break their slave's chains, and slay the Minotaur. I didn't take part in the antics much, I was too deeply immersed in the incongruously lip-synched world of quasi-myth, nascent formative sexual stereotypes, and the enhanced and simplified life onscreen, complete with it's clear and predictable moral resolutions. Why wasn't that my life? It confused me, I'm sure, like everything did, and I just wanted to be Steve Reeves in my jaunty dress-toga, there by the statuary-lined reflecting pool, saying my sad, heroic goodbye to the beautiful Sylva Koscina. Why would I ever leave her? Oh yes...the minotaur wanted to steal her, and I had to stop him.

The show let out late in the still of the afternoon, and all the moms idled up in their massive Impala or Fairlane or Country Squire wagons to collect their kids as they poured out onto the too-hot, too-bright sidewalk. I walked myself the five or six blocks over to Adams Avenue, to my Grandma Minnie's apartment, the little place of her own my Dad had set her up in. She was worried there, waiting for me to show up, questioning her daughter's judgement — a poor little boy walking all that ways alone.
She made me "supper," usually some canned corn beef hash, or succotash and fried baloney, a piece of white bread warmed in the bacon grease she kept in a coffee can by the stove. I pretended to eat, or hid it when she wasn't looking, waiting for the reward at the end of the sad little pioneer-style meal, and she never failed me. After I'd pushed the meager little meal around my plate long enough, she'd make me a piece of bread with her famous peach and pear jam on it — still the best jam I've ever eaten.
Mom always showed up a little later than she was supposed to, loaded me up, asked how the movie was. We drove home, mostly quiet, and I just wondered, Where is my chariot...and where is Sylva Koscina right now?

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