As a kid, I had a love-hate relationship with the Somerset movie theater: I loved the movies but hated the hoods hanging out there. The old movie theater was located on our side of Somerset and took only twenty minutes from our house or ten minutes from the Somerset Country Club. Except for a drive-in further away, the theater was the only place to see movies in the entire county. In fact, as far as I knew, it was the only theater this side of the Allegheny Mountains, and, even then, the only reason I knew Pittsburgh had movie theaters was because Daddy took us see “How the West Was Won” and it was the greatest thing I ever saw; “How the West was Won” was a Hollywood blockbuster shown on a large, panoramic screen in downtown Pittsburgh, and I was in awe, enthralled – movies, I realized, were more than chucked up stories shown on a yellowed, patched-up screen back home.
The Somerset movie theater was like a piece of the fabric proving Somerset, itself, was a significant presence, even though the city was situated in the middle of no-where on the top of the Allegheny Mountains. Just like offering the only access to the turnpike in the area, or being the place where Daddy and Mother conducted business in the county courthouse or within one of the surrounding law offices, or where the retail stores were located where Mother bought us fashionable clothes for Sunday school or dungarees for the rest of the week, or took us grocery shopping in the new A&P on the strip, or where we sat in the kids section of the library while she ran errands, or where we visited numerous doctors’ offices for camp physicals or eye glasses, or where we rushed to the emergency room for stitches or to have our broken bones repaired, or where we swam all day and ran across the golf course in our bathing suits and bare feet, the movie theater was one more reason why Somerset was the center of the universe, why everyone sooner or later came to Somerset, and why we were there all the time.
We saw practically every movie shown in the Somerset movie theater. All the Disney movies, the Jerry Lewis movies, the Tony Curtis movies, all the Natalie Wood movies, the Jack Lemmon, John Wayne, Dean Martin movies, the Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe movies – we saw them all. We even saw the Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, especially if we were good and promised we wouldn’t be scared, though frequently I sat horrified and swore to my brother Charley I would never take a shower with the curtain closed again.
Often, whether at home or the country club, on what seemed like a whim or a last minute decision, Daddy would race us to the movie theater and, as a result, we never arrived on time. Fifteen to twenty minutes into the movie, we would enter the darkened theater to find our seats, hoping for a bright scene so we could sit together, trying to figure out at the same time what was going on and what had occurred before we arrived, why the Swiss Family Robinson lived up a tree, or Kirk Douglass was 20,000 leagues under the sea, or why gorgeous Natalie Woods lay splendid in the grass or wanted sex as a single girl, or when exactly were the days of wine and roses, and how did Gregory Peck choose his team for the Guns of Navarone, or meet the crazy people in Dr. Newman, MD., let alone represent a black man in a murder trial in the deep South.
Frequently, after the movie, we would remain seated, waiting for the beginning of the next show if only to understand the story. The teenage boys cleaning the auditorium didn’t care and Daddy never picked us up on time. When we left the theater, the ticket booth would be dark and empty, and we would stand alone for what seemed like hours outside under the darkened arcade, watching Somerset’s high school kids and farm boys from the county drive by the theater, hooping it up and hollering at Allison and Holly to join them, both of whom invariably would stand back away from the street and away from the gaudy, glassed-in, movie posters.
In the parking lot to the left of the theater – a dark, dreadful place created by some moron demolishing the building next door – kids parked near the back wall, smoking cigarettes and drinking at their cars, inviting my sisters to join them when the boys came out to wave down hot-rods driving past the theater. Waiting for Daddy in those days took forever, and if he was coming from the country club, it could take even longer.
Still, going to the movies was better than sitting at the country club in our half-wet bathing suits, wondering when Mother or Daddy would take us home, or, going home, being babysat by a local, country girl whom my parents had arranged at the last minute to meet us at the house, watching the stupid shows she wanted to watch on tv, listening to Holly fight with her – my oldest sister furious that our parents hired a girl to be with us when she herself was so close to the babysitter’s age.
Daddy would explain to Holly and the sitter that the sitter was there not to watch over Holly but to be sure Charley, Allison and I took showers and went to bed in a timely manner. Still, he would warn, Charley might not listen to her and Allison and I might be unhappy that she was there to babysit us and not Holly and not Charley either, who would do what he pleased. Better to just sit, he would advise her, and watch tv and be sure we didn’t burn down the house.
We actually preferred it when they couldn’t find a sitter and had Holly babysit us. Then our club, the 4-Gs, would kick into gear and who knew what havoc would unfold. The fights between the boys and the girls in our family would be incredible with Allison and me on the sidelines watching it all or being drawn into the power struggle between Holly and Charley, taking sides to form temporary allegiances. Truth be told, neither Charley nor Holly could dominate the other without our help and our help was available to the highest bidder or, rather, to the person with the most worrisome threat.
Consequently, if no sitter could be found, our parents preferred we go to the movies so we would be safe, the house would be intact when they got home, and, most importantly, they could spend the evening socializing with their Somerset friends.
On a Saturday, after a day of swimming or playing at the farm, Mother and Daddy would have a quick discussion as to whether or not to send us to the movies or call a sitter, and often the decision, much to our delight, was to shuffle us off to the movies. We would jump into Daddy’s Ford Falcon, and he would whisk us to Somerset. Soon we would zoom down the commercial strip, past the Old Farm with the roller-skating waitresses and the new A&P grocery store, bumping across a small bridge and old railroad tracks at the far end of the strip, then charge up the hill into the city proper.
Our Presbyterian Church was located one block to the right of the movie theater at the top of the hill; it sat sacred, gray, and regal with chiseled stone, in line with the courthouse and county buildings further up the tree-lined street, and it was our destination every Sunday morning rain or shine, but on Saturday night the movie theater lay straight ahead on main street just before entering the town square. With much of the commercial district emanating out of the center of town in the three other directions, the theater seemed to be apart from everything else, a decaying structure of burlesque architecture brightly lit for a night of fun and Hollywood concocted adventure.
Pulling up to the theater on the left we would jump out of Daddy’s car and run across the street. Charley or Holly had the money and quickly we would buy the tickets from the older woman or teenager in the ticket booth. I can remember wondering what the person thought; questioning us in his or her mind as he or she handed us our tickets and change: did we realize how long ago the movie had started, were we aware that this was an adult feature, why were we arriving so late…
The interior décor continued with the same vaudeville flourish as the outside architecture, with the concessions stand and the lobby outfitted in the gaudy paneling of the Roaring Twenties and the carpeting deep red and loud, and, at one time, vivacious, but now stained, threadbare, and seedy. A large standing area behind the auditorium seemed out of place for a movie theater, but would have allowed for “standing room only” at one time if a “live” traveling show had come to town. A large women’s room was located to the left of the standing area and was spacious with a lounge area separate from the inner room with the toilet stalls. I was envious that my sisters had such a nice facility to go to the bathroom.
It was the men’s room that I hated. Located in the basement of the theater down a horrible set of steps with a rusty railing, the men’s room was a challenge at any age, but especially so when I was a young boy. The basement was dimly lit with peeling paint on perspiring walls, and the bathroom was directly across a small open area in which men could stand and smoke cigarettes or wait, perhaps, outside if all the toilets and urinals were being used. Often this was where the Somerset toughies – hoods, we called them – would stand clustered together in their leather jackets, dark jeans, and black engineer boots, smoking cigarettes and laughing among themselves. The teenage ushers were afraid of them and, as long as they didn’t make too much noise, left them alone, and, given they were down in the basement, the manager didn’t mess with them either. Certainly, no one seemed to be pushing them out of the theater and into the back parking lot where they would be soon enough once they were old enough to drive.
I hated going down the long set of steps to the men’s bathroom and would wait until I absolutely couldn’t hold my pee any longer. Fidgeting in my seat, I am sure I drove my brother and sisters crazy. At first, when I was younger, Charley would accompany me, but as I got older his desire to be interrupted in the middle of a movie to take me to the bathroom waned completely. Until, without telling my parents, he refused to go along with me, and if I pressed him, I was sure, he would beat me up when we got home. No, this was something that I had to do by myself.
Once, I remember, we arrived late for “Lonely are the Brave” with Kirk Douglas and because we wanted to get our seats and catch the story as quickly as we could, none of us went to the bathroom ahead of time. Half way through the movie I had to go, but Charley refused to accompany me.
Creeping down the worn steps, holding the crusty rail, I dreaded who or what would be waiting for me at the bottom and, sure enough, given this wasn’t a “kids movie” and I had to be the youngest person in the theater that night, it was inevitable there would be trouble. As I came to the bottom of the steps there they were waiting for me, a group of young teenage hoods, hanging out between the stairway and the men’s room door.
“Hey kid,” one said from the middle of the pack. I looked away and tried to keep walking to the bathroom, but a tough kid with slick black hair and open jacket stepped forward and blocked my way.
“Hey, I’m talking to you,” he said roughly. “You have a cigarette?”
The group became silent, there were like five guys standing there, but they were rapidly growing in numbers to something like fifty, along with cyclopes clutching spiked clubs and giant octopuses with swirling tentacles behind them, and now the four other guys were staring at me waiting for me to respond to their leader. I couldn’t ignore them, but I didn’t want to answer him either.
“No sir,” I mumbled, pleading in my eyes to go to the bathroom. The smell of cigarettes and stale air from the bathroom was horrible.
“You don’t have a cigarette? Damn! Want one of mine?” the teenager asked, turning back to his friends, laughing and pulling out a pack from his shirt pocket. The other boys joined in his laughter and came closer to me.
“Do you have a match?” another boy asked. He had blonde hair but it was long, stringy, and dirty.
“No sir,” I stammered to him, looking back to the steps – so many steps to get upstairs. I could hear the movie sounding distant and distorted, vibrating through the room, but no one was coming down the steps to rescue me.
“Hey, where are you going?” the first boy asked me, pulling me closer to him, turning my attention back to him: his black pupils, his sharp nose, the red pimples on his face.
I desperately needed to get to the bathroom. I had already waited too long and now these guys were making me squirm.
“The bathroom,” I stammered. The hallway was old and dark and doors behind the hoods led deeper into the theater. They could pull me back there and I would never be heard from again. “I – I – I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Wait a sec. Where are you from kid?” he asked.
“Brotherton,” I answered weakly. “Please….”
“Hey, farm boy,” another one of the hoods responded, “where are your cows.” The other boys laughed.
“Do you have sheep?” the leader of the group asked me, eyes lighting up, again turning the attention back to him.
“What? Yes, sir.” I responded feeling myself starting to tinkle in my underwear.
“Do you play with your sheep?”
What was he asking me? “Yes, sir.” Everyone burst into laughter.
“Please, please, I have to go to the bathroom.”
“This isn’t a movie for kids like you. Why don’t you just stay here with us,” the second kid suggested. “We can all be friends. You have any money? I want some popcorn.”
Everyone burst into laughter again.
“Give me some money, “ the second kid continued, more threatening this time.
“I don’t have any money.” I moaned. I already had eaten my Milk Duds and had nothing to offer them. “Please, I have to go.”
It was already too late. I knew the tinkle would turn into a torrent if I didn’t move now.
“You need money for this bathroom. You need to pay us.”
I thought I would faint. The door was open, the bathroom was empty.
“Please,” I started crying. I could feel myself losing the battle. I was wetting my pants in front of these guys and it was awful. I could smell the pee.
“Let him go!”
Suddenly I heard Charley’s voice behind me. Charley had come down the steps. “Let him go. The manager is calling the police.”
Charley was three years older and much larger than me. He was my brother and not intimated by these hoods. In the surprise of hearing his voice, the boys changed their focus, and I took the moment to run into the bathroom.
“Picking on a little kid,” Charley said to them, following me quickly into the bathroom before they could challenge him.
Charley went to the urinal next to mine, but he didn’t say anything. I looked over and he had a grim expression on his face. Seeing me staring, he asked, “Are you okay?”
“I think so,” I stammered, worried about getting back upstairs, positive he would beat me up later for getting us in this predicament.
“Jerks,” he said.
When we came out of the bathroom the hoods were ready to fight.
“Hey farm boy,” the blonde-haired boy hissed, “Bet you’re not so tough outside.”
Charley ignored them and kept walking to the stairwell, directing me quietly, “Don’t listen to them. Come on. Let’s go.”
Someone jabbed his shoulder and another threw a cigarette butt at his back, but we went up the stairs before they blocked our path.
“Charley,” I said, when we were in the standing room area. “I peed my pants.” I started to cry, relieved to be upstairs, but not knowing what to do.
He looked down at my blue jeans. “It doesn’t look so bad,” he said. “Stop being a baby.”
I stopped crying and waited for him; he was my older brother, he would know how to fix this. Charley’s idea, after a minute of thinking, was for me to go into the women’s lounge and take off my underpants.
“No….” I said. I had never stepped into the ladies lounge. What if there were girls in there? I couldn’t…
“Go on,” he said. He would watch the door so no one would enter. “You’ll be okay.”
I hated his plan, but there was nothing else I could do. I couldn’t go back downstairs to the men’s room, not with the hoods down there, and I wasn’t going to sit next to my sisters and all the strangers in the dark theater smelling like pee.
Reluctantly, I crept quietly into the lounge, looking around for anyone who might be in there, seeing myself reflected in the table mirrors all about the room: a small little boy caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, watching a movie I didn’t understand, hours from being picked up by Daddy, from going back home to the farm where I would be safe.
Minutes later Charley threw my underpants in a garbage bin and cuffed me across the head when I thanked him for saving me from the hoods.
Categories: My Family Story