My siblings and I grew up at the picture show. Our grandpa J.C. Keller, Sr. had opened Eunice’s first movie theater in 1924 and once owned five theaters in town. By the time our parents married, Grandpa had died and Grandma owned the Liberty Theater downtown. Uncle Jake and Aunt Rose ran the show for their mother.
Saturdays meant double feature matinees at the Liberty. The Saturday lineup was often westerns or comedies with Little Rascals and Looney Tunes in between. Since all of Grandma’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren got in free, I saw everything that played in town until 1968 when the ratings system (G, M, R, and X) censored my movie freedom. Matinees were my favorite: four hours of sitting in the third row, sharing popcorn and candy with my sisters, and letting the moving pictures and stereo sound take us to exotic places with high adventures.
This Saturday’s lineup was top-notch: Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, nothing but music and comedy with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello! We pooled our dimes to share popcorn and candy since our parents only gave us each a dime. (We wondered why our parents were so stingy since we didn’t pay to get in the show).
I sat in the middle and shook popcorn into Gayle and Kelly’s laps; Gayle doled out even amounts of Milk Duds. The thick velvet burgundy curtains opened and the pre-movie show started. The theater of kids got quiet.
This reverent silence did not last. Today’s Daffy Duck cartoon and Spanky and Alfalfa’s adventure were reruns, so the audience talked and messed around. When tossed popcorn hit my middle sister’s head, Gayle stood up to yell at the silly kids behind us, but she made a quick about-face, sat down, and said, “Big Jim.” Kelly stopped kicking the empty second row seat letting it push forward and pop back. I removed both feet from the seat’s arm rests in front of me. The three of us sat up straight as Slim Jims as the picture show’s usher and handyman lumbered down the aisle. Big Jim spent most of his work time on his usher’s throne in the lobby where he sat on the chair’s arm rests and had a good view of the screen. At random times he swayed up and down the aisles with a flashlight and threatened moviegoers with “Shhhhh!” or “Get your feet down!” During rowdy matinees he would add, “Don’t make me take off my belt!” to the most disobedient ones. The idea of seeing the entire length of Big Jim’s belt was enough to shush the sassiest rebel-rouser.
My sisters and I were extra respectful of Big Jim’s power because he was close to the family. When Mom and Dad went out nights, the picture show became a free babysitter. If their grownup fun lasted longer than the movies did, Big Jim waited with the us until Dad drove up. Big Jim might change out movie posters or help Miss Pearl, the ticket seller, or one of the projectionists. If he still had more waiting time, he’d ask us about a movie or tease us about having boyfriends. I tried my best to balance respect and fear when interacting with Big Jim. His sweaty face had him often repositioning his black-rimmed glasses on his face, and he must have bathed in Aqua Velva. (This overuse of cologne did not serve Big Jim well when he dressed as Santa Claus for Grandma’s family Christmas Eve parties). But we endured Big Jim’s attention and his good-bye hugs when Dad pulled in front of the Liberty to pick us up.
I remember a Saturday night we girls were hanging out in front of the theater to wait for our folks when Claude Emile appeared and called Frankie and Johnny (one of our favorites) “a stupid waste.”
“You’re stupid,” said Gayle and Claude held up his special frog knuckles as a threat. Kelly stuck out her tongue and skipped close to him and backed away.
I said, “You don’t like Elvis cause you don’t like music.” His answer was yanking my head back by my ponytail and running inside to bother the projectionist.
“Coullion! Coullion!” said Kelly glad to be rid of the nuisance of a boy like Claude.
I looked up and down the empty street wishing Mom and Dad would get there soon. I needed to pee like a race horse, but I didn’t want to brave the show’s spooky basement bathroom located past the lobby’s water fountain and down an old staircase that ended at a musty bathroom that reeked of disinfectant. “Gayle, come with me to the bathroom,” I said.
“No way! It stinks down there!”
“Kelly?” I said.
“No! I call shotgun on the way home,” and she knew she had to be near the curb when Dad drove up to claim that spot.
Big Jim came outside with a box of red plastic letters. The projectionist followed him with a ladder and with Claude Emile in the rear.
“Is the bathroom still open?” I asked.
As the guys started to change the show’s marquee, Big Jim said, “I think so.” My full bladder forced me to chance it, and I went inside and smiled as I passed Miss Pearl counting the night’s ticket money.
The concession stand was dark except for the light on the popcorn machine. The lobby was dim, and the worn carpeted stairs down to the girls’ bathroom were nothing but darkness. At the top of the stairs I saw a weak beckoning light from the bathroom. I hugged the wall because the stairs were steep and I counted eight steps then six that turned left before I hurried to the first of two stalls. The overpowering sweetness of the round pink disinfectant tablets in the toilets made me hold my breath. I left the stall door open and focused on the sink. My pee came in a forceful stream, and I closed my eyes in relief for the final few seconds. I opened them and sighed just before the lights went out. “Shit! Shit!”
The basement bathroom was as black as the inside of Dracula’s coffin. I heard the nearby scamper of what I felt sure was a rat as I fumbled for toilet paper to finish my business. I blinked hard in hopes my eyes would catch a spec of light, yet the picture show was devoid of any illumination beyond the lobby. I knew time would help my eyes adjust to the blackness so I waited and listened to my fast breaths and the scratching steps of the rat’s family. After seventeen seconds, I gained the confidence to face the dark. I straightened my useless glasses and used my good right hand to follow the wall until I reached the first set of stairs. I took the first steps slowly even though I imagined a bathroom zombie followed me in the darkness. When I reached the final few steps, a distant red Exit sign’s glow gave me confidence to move faster. From above I caught music from Miss Pearl’s transistor radio, and my head converted the muffled sound to zydeco…zydeco…zydeco.
I held my breath and jumped out of the striped plane. I was free-falling and doing summersaults through a clear sky. Far below a crowd of surfers looked up at me and pointed. I pulled my parachute cord at the best time to land on the beach amid my bikini-clad best friends. All cheered and clapped as I took off my red helmet and let my poofed-out brunette hair pop into place. Then I shed the jumpsuit and felt right at home in my sexy red one piece bathing suit. A go-go song played from my boyfriend’s radio, and the crowd of teens shook, shimmied, and jerked to the beat. A loud engine roar broke up the dance when Eric Von Zipper and his band of black leather hoodlums zoomed up on motorcycles. I grabbed Frankie’s hand and together we walked up to the Ratz gang. From his sidecar Von Zipper opened his mouth to say something ridiculous, but all I heard was –
“Ah ha! Got you!” as the lobby lights came on and Claude Emile pointed and laughed at me walking past Big Jim’s chair.
“Shut up, you booger breath!” I said. Then I heard Dad’s car horn outside. I ran out the theater, endured Big Jim’s hug, and joined my sisters in the gray Mercury.