Front Row Seat – 1965
I slid into my front row seat and let the sounds and the seventeen-foot images envelope me. My sisters had opted to sit fourteen rows behind because Kelly did not “wanna be close to the boogie man.” Gayle volunteered to sit with her, and I knew she shared Kelly’s nervousness.
Sitting alone was not my first choice, but I could enjoy my Tootsie Roll uninterrupted. I didn’t allow myself to open my candy before the feature began, so I focused on the ripple effect of Big Jim’s rounds as kids started behaving as he swayed his 400 pounds left and right down towards the screen, walked past the front row, and resumed the left/right motion back up to the lobby and his usher’s chair near the lobby’s water fountain. His flashlight jumped around as he discovered and corrected feet on the backs of seats, trash tossed to the floor, or unnecessary talking.
As The Raven’s credits began, and the audience settled down for the Saturday matinee, I unwrapped my chocolate-flavored treat allowing myself one chunk of the taffy-like candy every ten minutes. With ten sections in a roll, the candy should last for the whole movie. But since I didn’t possess an accurate sense of time, I usually finished a Tootsie Roll half way into a movie.
The only concession stand candy that could last a full feature was the hockey puck sized Giant Sweet Tart – a single hard Sweet Tart as thick as it was wide. (made in 1965-66). My favorite was the grape one, and I first used my front teeth like a beaver. If I later licked the endless amount of sour/sweet goodness when I tired of scraping off its powdery goodness, my candy lasted for the whole movie! This Saturday afternoon I opted for a Tootsie Roll because my tongue and the insides of my cheeks were still healing after the Giant Tart I had last week. (Mouth ulcers were an unfortunate downside to gnawing on 3.5 ounces of sugar for ninety minutes).
Vincent Price’s voice recited the beginning stanzas of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” as I chewed my first section of Tootsie Roll. “Once upon a midnight dreary as I pondered weak and weary” was familiar because Daddy liked to entertain us with the classic poem. He knew the first two stanzas by heart but made up the rest of the poem adding original gruesome rhymes of his own.
On this Saturday afternoon, I enjoyed the poem’s opening lines, but the movie’s mood went from ominous to comical six minutes in. After Vincent Price let the raven through his chamber door, the bird did not keep repeating, “Evermore,” but started asking for a glass of wine in a British accent. Several minutes later, Vincent fixed a magic potion to return the bird to its human form. Jaunty sound effects accompanied the scene as the bird directed Vincent to fill a bubbling cauldron with dead man’s hair and lizard’s tongue. After drinking the brew, the raven transformed only partly. A buggy-eyed man’s head replaced the bird head, yet the rest of his short, pudgy body was feathers and wings. The easy audience laughed, but I wanted to be scared. The poem Daddy recited to us had the sorrow and darkness of a man tortured by the death of his wife. The raven was supposed to drive the man insane, not boss him around like a bratty wino.
I was chomping on my third section of chocolate taffy when I heard a familiar scream. (Not, of course, from the horror movie turned comedy).
“I’m bleeding!” was followed by “Shhhhh! Wanna make Big Jim come over?”
I recognized my little sisters’ voices and left my front row seat to check out the drama. Kelly and Gayle sat in the middle of their row while folks nearby tried to shush Kelly.
“Blood!” said Kelly. “Lookit!”
“Kelly, come here,” I told the five-year-old from my squat position in the aisle.
“Ginger?” said Kelly as she passed both annoyed and interested kids on her way to me. Gayle followed and we made our way to the lobby with me holding Kelly’s hand.
Big Jim stood next to his usher chair and watched us walk toward the red lobby bench a few yards from him. We knew Big Jim was a loyal employee of Grandma’s and he cared about our safety, but he still weighed 400 pounds and wore a very long belt.
I heaved the whimpering Kelly onto the red lobby seat and checked out her injuries. I saw no blood.
“Lookit,” said Kelly, and she opened her mouth and simultaneously held out a small hand holding a tiny bloody tooth. “Blood.”
I pulled a crumpled concession napkin from my shorts pocket and placed pressure on the place where the missing lower front tooth had been. “Press down here,” I instructed.
“Ya’ll need help?” said Big Jim who moved closer to us. Gayle climbed on the lobby bench to help Kelly stop the bleeding.
“We’re ok, Mr. Jim,” I said.
Gayle leaned in to put her hand over Kelly’s. “Push real hard,” she said.
“Owwww!” said Kelly.
When Big Jim realized how minor our emergency was, he returned to his usher chair sitting on its arm rests and said, “OK, but ya’ll let me know if you do.”
Big Jim almost knocked down a small boy who had followed us into the lobby. For the kid the possibility of seeing real blood trumped the movie’s lack of anything remotely scary. He held a cherry-flavored Giant Sweet Tart in a sticky fist and licked the candy as he stared at Kelly. His bright red tongue made his mouth look bloodier than my sister’s. He seemed too young for the black-rimmed glasses he wore, and his blond crewcut revealed a lumpy little head. After avoiding a Big Jim collision, the boy stepped closer to Kelly. He still believed there would be blood. This close I thought I saw blood on the boy’s tongue.
“What you want?” said Gayle to the gawker.
The kid blinked several times and licked his messy candy. My sisters did a stare-off with him. I moved both of my sisters’ hands to discover Kelly’s mouth had stopped bleeding.
“Let’s go get you a drink of water,” I said and put Kelly on my hip.
All three of us crossed in front of Big Jim towards the water fountain. I placed Kelly on the top step of the wooden block that acted as stairs to give short kids access to the coldest water they had ever tasted. Kelly still had to get on her tippy toes for her mouth to kiss the metal spout. I stood to the right of the water fountain and pushed the spring-loaded handle that started a trickle of water. Kelly slurped several gulps before Gayle said, “Ok, my turn.” Kelly kept slurping until Gayle nudged her back. But just when Kelly decided she’d had enough and Gayle put her foot on the next step, the Sweet Tart boy cut in. He used his knotty head to butt his way in front of Gayle, and I had to pick Kelly up so she would not fall off the wooden step-up.
“Hey!” said Gayle. “I’m next.”
But the boy had pocketed his cherry candy mess, stood on his toes, and turned the handle to produce the weakest dribble of water possible. He made desperate slurping sounds and I could relate to the cool relief he must feel on his abused tongue. Gayle, on the other hand, felt no empathy for someone who cut in front of her.
“It’s my turn!” she said as she shoved the kid off the wooden steps. The boy toppled over, his glasses flew off, and he bit his swollen tongue during his fall. He tumbled his way to half a foot from Big Jim’s untied cheap shoes.
“What are ya’ll up to?” said Big Jim. He pulled the boy up by his right arm and blood bubbled from his lips.
Big Jim stared straight at me and my sisters. He meant business, so Gayle forgot about her thirst and jumped off the water fountain step and hid behind me. Kelly gave the usher a wide-eyed stare as if she imagined Jim’s extra long belt leaving its pants loops.
Then the boy’s extreme scream changed Big Jim’s focus. I couldn’t believe a puny child could create such a sound. The initial, “WHAAAAA!” was high-pitched and steady like our town’s noon whistle. But then he took a deep breath and spit out blood for a string of low toned “Heh! Heh! Heh!’s” that reminded me of Jerry Lewis’ sound effects. Big Jim let go of the little screamer’s arm, and the boy rolled down part of the slanted lobby floor.
With the quick moves of an action hero, Gayle left her spot of safety and ran to stop the boy’s descent. She stopped his rolling and sat down next to him on the faded carpet. Using the napkin that had stopped the bleeding in Kelly’s mouth, she slowed the blood flow from the boys’s mouth. In seconds Gayle held a bloody paper mess. The kid looked up at Gayle’s blurry face. Big Jim had gotten a cleaning rag from the concession stand and handed it to Gayle since he would not be joining the kids on the floor.
Kelly pulled me towards the action where several curious theater goers had gathered, opting for the lobby drama over the lame horror flick. I, understanding the importance of corrective eyewear, picked up the boy’s glasses and handed them to Gayle who put them on the boy’s face with her right hand while she applied pressure to his already swelling mouth. The crowd of spectators kept a respectable distance due to the proximity of Big Jim.
A gangly girl with stringy dark pigtails pushed through the kids. “Booger! What you doing now?” she said and frowned down on her little brother and Gayle. The sister pulled him up and walked toward the bathroom stairs. When they passed, I noticed the boy’s jeans were held up by a large safety pin. The sister frowned down on her younger brother, saying,“Gotta get you cleaned up. Again,” and she shook her head as she dragged the boy away without so much as a “merci beaucoup” to anyone.
“Get on back to your seats,” said Big Jim. The kids obeyed and I watched Gayle return to the water fountain. Kelly decided she needed another drink as well and followed.
Wearing my new blue-framed glasses, I noticed a pink piece of candy on the floor near Big Jim’s chair. The poor boy’s half-eaten Giant Sweet Tart had escaped his pants pocket during his accident. I picked up the sticky mess, but I couldn’t make myself throw it away. I put it in my pocket. My heart was a tangle of pride and sadness, and I decided to sit with my sisters when they finished drinking and walked back into the dark theater.