Red Lobby Benches -1962 (The Magnificent 7)
Gayle and I slipped back and forth and up and down the long red plether lobby benches as we waited for the 8:00 pm showing of Music Man at the Liberty Theater. The line for tickets wound around the corner, but we had just waved to Miss Pearl as we strolled past the line and into the lobby. Being grandkids of the owner of Eunice, Louisiana’s picture show had its perks. Normally we watched the six p.m. feature, but this Saturday our parents had their annual “progressive supper” where five couples went to five houses for a multi-coursed dinner. Two-year-old Kelly was staying with Grandma and Stella, so the picture show served as a babysitter for the older kids, with Big Jim and Miss Pearl as overseers.
We played in the crowded lobby as patrons waited for the early feature to “let out.” Since the carpeted area right past the concession stand inclined up towards the entrance into the theater, the two long red lobby benches held interesting dimensions for games. The beginning of each bench was high above the carpeted floor, and at ages four and six we struggled to climb up to the seats. As one bench got closer to the usher’s chair and the other ended at the theater entrance, the distance from floor to bench was shorter and no problem to climb up on.
We had created the Swimming Across the Lobby game for the times we had to wait for the show to start. The lobby’s carpet was the Calcasieu River; the lobby bench on the right side was the sand bar line while the left side bench represented tall pine woods. The mostly grown-up theater audience in the middle were alligators, and kids were snapping turtles. If you touched any of these, you drowned. On the sand bar side of the bench you could sit and plot how to cross the river. On the tree-lined side, you had to stand and hold on to the walls or risk tumbling into the dangerous waters. You could not stay on either side longer than ten Mississippis. If you did, your sister was allowed to push you into the Calcasieu.
Since we had arrived twenty-six minutes before the eight o’clock feature, the lobby had few alligators to avoid. We went across the lobby with big confident swimming strokes. Only once did Big Jim say, “No running,” (to G. of course). Claude Emile sat on the tall end of the sand bar side reading a Superman comic. He pushed Gayle off the bench because she got too close to him, so she fell into the river and had to avoid four alligators that had just bought popcorn and sodas.
I did not relish swimming across the lobby. What I enjoyed was scooting up and down the long length of the red benches as I counted in my head. I’d start at low end of the pine woods next to Big Jim where my toes reached the floor and then slide towards the concession stand and watch the floor get farther and farther away. On a less crowded night the benches would be free of people and I would move up and down as fast as my uneven arms would allow. I could pretend I rode a horse clippity-clop up a mountain. My horse would be the world’s smartest and fastest animal, but he let only me ride him. We’d trot up the mountain to get a bag of gold as a reward for saving a baby from the outlaws who had kidnapped it.
I had forgotten about my sister, who had left the tree side bench and was swimming over to force me into the river.
Black Beauty and I were halfway down the mountain when Gayle grabbed my right leg to climb up on shore. I kicked her like a reflex move and she fell backwards. The four-year-old landed with a thud and startled an unsteady grandma and her toddler grandson.
“My lord, cher! Why you on the floor?” she said.
“Oh, yi, yi! I’m gonna die,” said Gayle as she struggled to stand up.
I jumped off the red bench and stood up her dramatic sister.
“Sorry, ma’am,” I said.
“Find your momma,” said the grandma and she led her grandson up past the theater’s entrance and into the Cry Room/ Smoking Area.
“You’re drownded,” said Gayle.
“Give me your nickel. I’ll get us some popcorn.”
“I want Dots.”
“You don’t have enough money. A nickel only can get you a Tootsie roll or Pixie Sticks.”
“They cost two nickels,” I said as I led my sister to the concession line. “Let’s get popcorn with both our nickels; it lasts longer.”
“I want popcorn.”
Gayle shook her pageboy bob back and forth. “Dots!”
“Let’s flip for it,” I said and took out my nickel and tried to hold it on my curved index finger and use my thumb to flick it in the air the way Dad did. The nickel plopped to the floor and rolled away. Gayle got on her hands and knees to follow the coin, but it rolled its way behind the glass candy display case. She stood and pushed a short wooden flap door that separated customers from concession workers and her from the nickel she needed to get Dots.
“Hold on, kid! You can’t come back here,” said a teenager with braces and over-sized glasses. Her brown eyes were magnified by her thick lenses.
“Dots,” said Gayle.
“Get in line,” said the teen.
“Nickel?” tried Gayle.
“Dots cost a dime.”
I grabbed my sister’s hand as the teen pushed her to her designated area, and said, “Sorry” for the second time.
“Ginger! I want Dots.”
“All we have money for now is a Tootsie Roll. Give me your nickel.”
“ No. Dots!” And she stomped away.
“Get back here,” I said and watched Gayle walk up toward the main lobby and get in everyone’s way. A man wearing overalls and a sweat-stained cap took a step backwards to make way for the black-haired, blue-eyed child who walked with both hands balled into tight fists. I stopped to sit on the red bench on the tree side. The lobby had filled with young couples and families and rowdy teens. The popcorn machine was overflowing with the hot, buttery kernels I craved. The popping sounds slowed and spaced out until I heard a staccato zydeco…zydeco…zydeco.
The steady clop of horses in a line through the brown world of mountains, sand, and scrub grass kept me confident. The six gunfighters followed the man dressed in all black. Their combined gun, knife, rifle, and tracking skills made them ready to defeat the outlaws that tormented the village of farmers all dressed in white. Working together, we seven sharpshooters would be magnificent! As the youngest gunslinger in the bunch, I brought up the rear. Being the only girl, I fought for acceptance with more action and less talk. None of the other six men were blabbers. Their tight-fitting cowboy hats and their swift hands gave them taciturn demeanors and bold movements. During that day’s siesta, I could sneak off to catch a few fish or snare some rabbits to add to their supper. I knew my six-shooter’s aim had improved after riding with these men. A sharp jab to my shooting arm startled me.
“Take care of Gayle,” said Claude and he pointed to a tall guy with his short date talking to the four-year-old. The guy looked annoyed while his girlfriend was all smiles. I walked over to them.
“You shouldn’t kick strangers,” said the tall one to Gayle.
“ You’re lost, aren’t you, honey?” said his petite date who was not that much taller than me. Gayle gave the teen the once over and caught sight of the box of Dots in her right hand.
“Dots!” said Gayle.
The girl laughed. “You like Dots?”
Gayle returned the laugh and nodded.
“I’ll give you some and then you tell us where your momma is, ok?”
Gayle cupped both hands and held them up to receive some of her favorite candy. I watched the generous girl fill both my sister’s hands.
I approached and said, “There you are, G. Let’s go find our seats.” I put my right hand on Gayle’s left shoulder to steer her away.
“Keep better watch of your sister,” said the tall guy and his date winked and waved at Gayle.
Gayle put most of the Dots in her pockets and popped two in her mouth. She then handed her nickel to me and said, “Tootsie Roll.”