Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | June 10, 2020

Summer Movies


Going to the Movies

The Heaths were not much a movie going family.  In West Hartford we always needed someone to drive us there and back.  Rarely, our father himself would want to see a movie so he’d take anyone whom he deemed old enough to go.  Being old enough could change from time to time, film to film, mood to mood.  I was always old enough, Pam was most of the time old enough, John was seldom if ever old enough. For a while, by which I mean three of four years, we would go regularly to the Saturday morning movie at the Central Theater in West Hartford Center.  Before the feature – never a current film, most often a Western – the projectionist ran many cartoons.  The audience loved them.  The problem with the Saturday morning movies were their scheduled ending time, 12:00 noon.  My father most often was the one to pick us up.  To him, 12 o’clock meant 11:45.  If we were not walking out the doors at 11:59:45, he parked the car and went in to find us.  I can’t count the number of movies we did not see the end of.

Summer, though, that was different.  Close to Great Elm were five movie houses all reachable by car in twenty minutes or less.  Dover Plains (NY), Amenia (NY), Millerton (NY), and Lakeville (CT), Canaan (CT) which for a time also had a drive-in.  Every night each theater showed their film twice, at seven and nine P.M.  I cannot recall going to the late show until I was perhaps 15.

For a time, each movie house except Canaan, showed different films.  It was theoretically possible to see four movies a week, but we never did that.  Then something changed and Dover Plains and Millerton began to show the same films, and not only that, but the run of the movie was upped to two weeks instead of one. Rarely we pleaded and cajoled our way into three movies in one week. 

At first, Mother drove us to the seven o’clock show.  She insisted that we leave early so she would not to be too late for cocktails at the Big House.  That was the theory anyway.  Everyone knew, including Mother herself, being where she was going on time was not our mother’s best skill.  If the movie were in Amenia, say, barely ten minutes away, to be at the Big House by 6:30, she would need to have left Amenia at 6:15.  Allowing five minutes for us getting out of the car, Mother giving us money which she never thought to do before hand, and turning around to go back to Sharon, we would have had to be at the movie house by 6:10.  In actuality, she never got us to Amenia before 6:20 and never headed back until just before 6:50.

Mimi and Mother were very close.  Mother was her first child and, take it from me, the first child is valued in a way that no other subsequent child can be, not necessarily more, but different in quality. They enjoyed each other’s company tremendously. Nevertheless, Mimi preferred that cocktails be served at 6:30 and supper at 7:00.  Mimi did not have a cocktail until someone was with her to join her.  To wait, and more important, to make the servants wait, to begin the evening at 7:15 disappointed Mimi and made her unhappy, not that a casual observer would ever be able to tell.  Mother, however, was no casual observer.  To Mother, Mimi’s unhappiness because of her inconsideration was abundantly clear and neither tolerable or to be repeated.  Not long after,  Leslie became the driver who took us all the time (he would say, carried, Southern vernacular for take). 

For Leslie to drive us required one more step.  Mother needed to call Leslie to ask him if he would mind. (He never minded. That part was just formality because Mother always paid Leslie for his trouble.)  Unless Mother was reminded more than occasionally, she would not remember to call. However, Mother did not like to be reminded more than once.  Mimi, of course, solved the problem.  We asked Mother if we could go to the movies.  If she said yes, we would call Mimi.  Mimi would ask Elizabeth, Mimi’s maid and Leslie’s husband.  Elizabeth would tell (not ask) Leslie he was driving us to the movies.  That system worked best. 

Occasionally Mother would say, “Yes, you may see (name of film), and I’ll even drive you as a special treat.”  She was being only gently sarcastic with the special treat part.  The thing was that unless Leslie was to be the driver, going to the movies became fraught with anxiety about making sure our mother was ready to leave on time. 

We tried telling her that Leslie liked taking us.  That was when we found out she was paying him.  “Of course, Leslie likes taking you.  I pay him handsomely to do so.”

Then one summer the Trowbridge’s engaged a young woman – or perhaps she was an old teenager.  Today she would be called an au pair.  Gay Nelson was tall, blonde, beautiful, funny, generous, kind, patient, agreeable, and, well, any other positive quality you might want to find in such a person.  And I was deeply in love with her.

Among Gay’s other accomplishments was the fact that she was an expert equestrian.  As soon as I knew that, I invited Gay to ride with me and Williams© in the mornings.  At first, Williams did not react positively to my having done that without consulting him first.  In fact, he was annoyed.  His eyebrows got lower in the middle, and he said nothing for almost a full minute.  Then he said, “Alright,” but he was not thinking alright.

In Williams’ Stable, things were arranged, put away, and scheduled the exact way Williams believed a stable should be.  My inviting Gay upset the order.  To accommodate Gay, he would need to saddle and bridle one more horse, comb and rub down one more horse, clean and condition one more set of tack.  I’ve seldom since known someone of such even disposition.  He spent each day alone with the horses, keeping the stables just so, and whistling what I think were blues tunes.  One more set of tack and one more horse lengthened Williams’s day.  He could not rearrange what happened or in what order, so the only way to handle an additional rider was to add the time necessary.

As I suspected or maybe hoped is more truthful, the first time Williams and Gay met, they were instantly friends.  They were both horse people and they recognized each other as such.  They spoke horse.  They could and did talk about fetlocks and withers, gaskins and croups, throat latches, curb chains, saddle flaps, and cantles.  Gay had trained horses, not as many as had Williams but a significant number nonetheless, and she loved them, as did Williams.  Though they were not the same age, not the same race, not from backgrounds that were in anyway similar, still I think Gay could have happily spent every day she was in Sharon at the stables, and Williams would have been happy to have her there.

Be careful what you wish for. I’d not heard that before, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have thought about it. Anyway, I got my wish to be able to be with Gay more, but it didn’t exactly work out the way I had hoped.  When I rode with Williams, he led, I followed.  We walked the horses up the driveway, up the dirt road to the woods, onto the bridle path, through the woods and out onto a path wide enough for two horses, and long enough for a prolonged canter.  He took his reins in his right hand, rested his left on the back of his saddle, and motioned me to come up beside him, which I did.  He looked me over to see that I was seated properly, had my boots in the stirrups properly, and that I had a proper hold on the reins.  He would say, “You ready?”  I’d nod, but we had already started.  Both horses trotted a step or two, then responded to the double click sound Williams voiced, and just like that, we were cantering down the path, almost tunnel like, with here and there branches that required ducking under, if  you were I, avoiding gracefully if you were Williams.  The path ended, we slowed.  Go left for a longer ride that would wend its way up Sharon Mountain, or right for the shorter ride, down Herrick Road and right again onto the Green, and from there right to the gates of Great Elm.

Then up the driveway and up the ramp into the stables, the outer stables where the horses were unsaddled and groomed.  I took off my saddle, put it on a large saw horse, and led my horse to her stall, where I removed her bridle and brought it back to hang it on a hook by my saddle.  I’d say goodbye to Williams and say I’d see him tomorrow or whenever the next riding day would be.  He said, “Alright,” but did not pause or look up from rubbing down the horse he had ridden and  that would be that.

When Gay started to ride with us, she rode behind Williams.  I rode behind her.  When we got to the cantering tunnel, she rode next to Williams, I rode behind them both, dodging the occasional clump of dirt one horse or the other threw back at me.  And that’s the way the rest of the ride went.  Me behind no matter when or where.  I was happy enough that Gay rode with us, but Gay was clearly more interested in Williams than in me.  I only went riding three mornings a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but in no time at all, Gay was riding every morning, and every once and again, she’d take one of the horses out by herself if Williams suggested this or that horse could use some exercise.  Then one day, Gay was the one who took me riding.  That was such a position of Williams’ trust and respect, even I recognized it.  Oh, well, at least I was alone with Gay and the horses for a while.  That was nice.

On the other hand, Gay could drive.  And she liked movies.  And there was nothing else about night time in Sharon that was at all interesting (because there was not one thing to do at night in Sharon except stay home).  For most of that summer, William and I and Gay went to the movies twice, sometimes even three times a week.  When there was a movie that the younger children would enjoy, they went too.  The Trowbridges also had a big station wagon, so passenger space was not a problem.

I couldn’t go to just any film.  An insurmountable obstacle to some films, usually the ones that were of interest to growing boys, was the Catholic League of Decency.  Any film the League found objectionable was not one Heaths were allowed to see.  Trowbridges were under no such restrictions which made me toy with the idea that I’d convert to whatever brand of Protestant they were. Then I remembered what my Catechism days had told me what happens to the soul of someone who turns away from the Church.

 Jane Russel was, to William and me, fascinating.  I’m sure we didn’t know what sultry meant or what bedroom eyes suggested, or why a bosom that began to rise and fall rhythmically was so riveting; but the meanings and whys did not for one second make us not want to see any film Jane Russell was in, such as The French Line which was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.

            To this day I still want to see The French Line, but at the same time, I don’t.  If I see it, I’m going to compare it to almost anything one can see today on cable or the major networks in the 10 PM slot for that matter.  Then I’ll be disappointed or deflated.  If I don’t, I can remain ignorant of what wonderful sights there were in that film to cause the august Catholic League of Decency to condemn it. We settled for The Pale Face wherein Jane Russel appeared with Bob Hope.  The League had no problem with this film but the reason is convoluted.  Bob Hope appeared in many films with Bing Crosby.  Bing Crosby played priests in many films, memorably in The Bells of St. Mary’s, a tear-jerker with Ingrid Bergman;  and, the clincher, Bing Crosby was a Catholic (not to mention that Juju loved him only a tad less than she did Jesus).  Had my mother known that Bob Hope himself would become a Catholic before he died, she would have been doubly okay with The Pale Face.

The movie houses in Dover Plains and Canaan had pretensions and tried to make their lobbies look like the movie theaters in cities.  In Canaan, for instance, the ticket both was outside the double set of double doors to the lobby, and there was a slight pitch on the way up to the refreshment stand.  Dover Plains had the same arrangement except that the ticket booth was inside the doors on the left hand wall.  The other three – Amenia, Millerton, and Lakeville –  were just what they were:  once upon a house, now, after rearranging the downstairs some, a place that showed movies.  On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, you bought your tickets at the refreshment stand because there was only one person there.  You could also buy popcorn, of course, and a small selection of candy bars, oversized and overpriced. The popcorn in Amenia was sold in small, brown paper bags.  The bag was tightly full, and the top was triple folded to create a seal of sorts.  Millerton and Lakeville sold their popcorn in boxes, but you could watch the popcorn scooped out of the machine where it had popped.  The Amenia popcorn was made from white kernels and bagged by the owner at home, and then brought to the theater each evening.  The other two used yellow popcorn.  All three had a soda machine.  You asked for a cola or an orange, and most of the time you could get the one you wanted.

The population of Sharon in 1955 was 2300. None of the movie houses were ever crowded, except for maybe the late show on Saturday night.  I don’t know for sure because I never went to one. We could always sit where ever we wanted, like left or right or the center, back, middle, or front.  All the towns around Sharon were about the same size, Dover Plains might have been larger by not too many. There just weren’t that many people.  Going to  the movies on a weeknight wasn’t a thing people who weren’t on vacation did.  That area at that time was not a destination, a vacation place like the Poconos or Catskills or Maine.  Almost all the kids I knew there were grandchildren of families that lived in Sharon or Lakeville. They spent all or part of their summer vacations at their grandparents’ home.  Going out wasn’t what people did.  If you ate a meal away from home, it was breakfast or lunch, not supper, unless you were very old and lived alone. Then you might go to a diner.  Both Amenia and Millerton had diners.  Sharon eventually had a place called The Raven that was only open for lunch or breakfast .Other than the movie houses, there was a bar in each town (the one in Sharon was in Sharon Valley along with the Catholic cemetery) maybe two, but nothing else.  Those were bars, like from the olden days,  long and narrow places where men who worked all day sat on a stool or in a booth. They were all closed up by nine or so, at least they were on the days we passed them on our way back from the movies. 

Two years after William and I had our drivers’ licenses, the towns had or were in the process of changing.  A new bar opened in Amenia, for instance, just up Rt 44 a bit.  It had a dance floor  – or more accurately, the center of the room next to the juke box was table free, and people danced on it.  The juke box played mostly selections chosen from the recordings being played by the New York disk jockeys.  Cousin Brucie and Dan Ingram are the names I remember.

So much changes in the life of a child on the day of his 16th birthday, and all is explained by becoming a licensed driver and the being assaulted by hormones.  That is not true of the 18th birthday, however, for what changes then is gaining the right to vote which does little to alter one’s behavior.  In 1963, however, if you spent your summers in Sharon , 19 minutes from Dover Plains, 10 from Millerton, and 8 from Amenia, in each of those places you could legally consume alcohol.  I should mention here two other attractions of the bar outside Amenia: a vending machine that dispensed packs of cigarettes for 25 cents and the beer, a (small) glass, was 10. (A pitcher was commensurately inexpensive.)

My birthday is in March, William’s in August.  For most the summer, I am a numerical year older.  One evening before his 18th  birthday, William and I both had dates.  We wanted to spend the evening smoking, drinking, and dancing – you know, just like adults. The options were that bar in Amenia.  William’s age, however, was a potential problem. While the bar tenders didn’t always ask for identification, sometimes they did.  We solved the problem thusly:  William borrowed my license.  When we arrived,  he and his date would go in.  If he were asked for id, he’d show the license.  After maybe ten minutes, William would say, “I forgot my cigarettes in the car.  I’ll be right back.”  That, of course, was just in case the bar tender got suspicious. 

That is not the way things worked out. You see, there is an intersection in Amenia, an odd one.  At the intersection, Rt 343 which has brought you from Sharon, turns left onto Rt. 22 which will take you to Dover Plains (not the quickest way to get to Dover Plains, to be sure).  Also at the intersection, Rt 44 which is also and has been since Millerton, Rt 22, turns right as Rt 44 headed to Millbrook and beyond. As Rt 22 goes, it goes straight through the intersection toward Dover Plains, and joins the part of 22 that had only recently been 343. 

That intersection today has a full green, yellow, and red traffic light.  Back then it had a flashing red light if you were coming from Sharon, and a flashing yellow light for traffic on 44/22 or just plain 22.  Recall the population of this area.  The only traffic that night was William and his date in his mother’s car, and me and my date in my mother’s car.  William considered the flashing red light to be something one ought to be cautious about at this time of night without actually coming to a full stop.  I thought otherwise, but since William was leading the way, I did at he did.  On my way through, I saw the State Trooper car down the road on the left, turn on its flashing lights.  I was already pulled over by the time he made the turn to follow.  William had not.  He had proceeded to the bar.

The excuse I improvised for why my friend in the car in front had my license in his possession was, to use a contemporary word, lame.  No matter, the Trooper didn’t care why I didn’t have my license, he still wrote a ticket.  He asked if I knew where my friend who also didn’t stop at the flashing red light was.  I told him I would lead him there which I did.  When we arrived, the Trooper, showing great sensitivity, I thought, suggested I tell William he would like to see him.  I asked if he wanted me to return with William, he said that was not necessary. 

My date and I found William and his date at a table next to the dance floor.  I gave William the speed version of what had happened, made sure he returned my license to me, and told him he needed to go talk to the Trooper.  The Trooper, William told me, made no mention of William’s being underage.  He said he understood that there were no other cars on the road, other than his, but that a flashing red light means a complete stop no matter what.  He gave William a ticket, too, and elicited a promise from William that he would never again disobey a traffic signal or sign.

That last part about the promise is not true.  At least I don’t think it is.

The reason the movie houses of my Great Elm summers occurred to me as topic, is an incident that should have been in the chapter about our friendship, William’s and mine.  But it’s ugly, and I’m the cause of the ugliness.  I didn’t want the stain on that chapter.  In fact, I don’t want the stain in this memoir at all, but I don’t see how to avoid it.  There is a connection to going to the movies so I must have shuffled away from the former to here.

William and I were obviously not the only boys in Sharon during the summer, but the other boys came and went.  I know there were more than two, but only two are vivid in my memory:  Harry Loomis and Tom Piel.  Tom needs a chapter all his own, but Harry is part of this story.

Harry was like us and not.  He liked fishing and shooting and swimming.  He played tennis and golf.  He came over to swim, and I think I remember him at Hatch’s Pond.  Certainly, his grandparents, the Carletons, were one of the Sharon families included among the Hatches’ invitees.  But Harry was singular in the ways he was different.  His khaki shorts looked different from ours, always pressed, clean, neat.  He always wore a blue, button down, long sleeve shirt.  His hair was dark brown, and very short, and grew, it seemed, from front to back.  Harry brushed it to the side without much success.  Had he ever tried to let it grow longer, I’m sure combing it in any other direction would not have been possible.  He had brown eyes, thick, dark eyebrows, and wore round, metal framed glasses, all the time.  His unaided eyesight was terrible.  And his laugh was different from anyone else’s.  I liked his laugh.  I tried to copy it, but never could. And he was handsome, not the way boys can be handsome.  He was adult handsome.

Because Harry came to Sharon irregularly and unannounced, his presence was always special.  He didn’t telephone me or William.  We would just find him at the club one day, or at Hatch’s maybe.  We’d renew our acquaintance, and start back doing things together, the three of us. Nothing new, nothing different, but it was the three of us instead of William and me:  fishing, wood chuck hunting, laughing, talking, tennis, and golf.

One time I issued a formal invitation to Harry to join us, brothers and sisters, for dinner and then to go to a movie. What I think is, Harry had mentioned he was leaving, and going, I don’t know, somewhere, for the rest of the summer, and I wanted as much of his time as I could get.   I write this now and it sounds like I was asking him on a date.  I guess in a way I was.  The invitation, as all such were in Sharon, was communicated from my mother to his grandmother, and necessitated a reply call after Mrs. Carleton had caught up to Harry at lunch.  Shortly after, likely while we were with our summer reading books, Mrs. Carleton called Mother to say that Harry would be delighted to accept.

I’m fairly certain Harry spent most of the afternoon at Great Elm, and that the three of us – William, Harry, and me – probably went swimming, and may have hacked around, as we used to say, doing other things.  Then it was supper time.  Before William went home, he asked what we – he meant the three of us – were doing after supper. This was the moment I had been hoping to avoid.  I didn’t want William to come with us.  This was my invitation to Harry, not to William and Harry.  I told William that we, Harry and me, were going to the movies.  That is not the way William heard it.

William went home to supper, Harry and I had supper at the Barn.  Around twenty to seven, William came back up from his house.  Shortly thereafter Leslie drove up in the jeep.  I had requested the jeep especially.  Somehow riding on the iron benches in the back was very special.  Harry and I climbed up into the back.  When William made to follow, I said, “You’re not coming.  I didn’t invite you.” Before that moment I don’t think Harry realized I meant to exclude William.

William and I went back and forth so much so that Leslie only sat at the wheel but did engine off.  He was certain William would be joining.  Why not?  When had I ever gone to the movies without William. 

I held firm.  Harry was excruciatingly uncomfortable and quietly tried to intervene on Williams’s behalf a couple of times.  I held firm.  Leslie started the jeep.  William said, one last time, “Come on, Jimmy.  Please?”  And I watched him stand there while the jeep drove away, not mad but terribly hurt.

That is the where the memory ends.  I don’t recall anything about the movie, whether Harry spent the night or Leslie dropped him off at the Carleton’s house after the movie.  The next day William and I spent the day together as usual.  I did not apologize.  I have never apologized.  That stunning moment of selfishness, insensitivity, and deliberate cruelty festers in my mind.  It pops up at the damnedest times for no apparent reason, and I wonder if William remembers it, too.


© To avoid confusion, I shall remind the reader that Williams (full name Boykin Williams)  was the groom.  William (full name William Trowbridge) was my friend.


Responses

  1. Another delightful chapter. Which of us has never hurt a friend? None, I think. Whatever happened to the delightful Gay, do you know?

  2. your memories bring back so many of my own, in slightly different ways, but the outdoors! Horseback riding, cantering, riding bareback at a full gallop, the endless brushing; friendships, movies, doing things I regret later.  the only suggestion, unless I missed it, is to add your people’s names to the narrative when referring to them as mother or grandmother.  I get so confused when people refer to a grandma without identifying which grandma.  I know Mimi is Grandma Aloise (and never called that), but others in the future may not know that Mimi is ‘grandmother Mimi,’ my mother’s mother, and your mother is Mother Aloise.  At my mother’s funeral, my brother did the eulogy and referred to our mother by her grandma nickname, Cara, which no one outside of the family knew.  People afterwards asked me who “Cara” was, even though it was an obvious reference to the deceased.   But another fun read!Whatever happened to your friend Gay Nelson?

    • I haven’t the least idea. I think toward the beginning of the next summer, she came to the Trowbridges’ house for a visit, perhaps for the day only. After that, never again. An interesting side note: during the dreary winter of that year between summers, I thought I had seen her on a commercial for a local business. I asked her when I saw her during her visit and asked if it was, in fact, she I had seen. It was.

  3. btw, I’m behind on emails, have about 50 new ones to go through, including one of your previous columns.  I’ll get to it eventually!

  4. Your story reminds me of our Saturday trips to the “pictures” where one usually viewed the latest western.  The highlight of our week!  Also, your grandmother, Mimi, must have been devastated when your mother passed so suddenly. Do you remember?  Didn’t knowyou were such an avid horseman  — did you ever horseback ride with Edie?  Our daughter loved horses — I still have the many ribbonsshe won in dressage.  Love to you both and hope to see you soon……Frances…


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