Ringside at the Movies

A few months ago, I was given a seat from an old movie theatre. The theatre was called The Regent, and it was the one my parents bought in 1949 when I was five. When it closed six years later, I never gave a thought to what might happen to any part of it—the projectors, the screen, the seats—but then, over fifty years later, I happened to hear that a small local museum was mounting an exhibit about small-town theatres. I contacted the curator, and told her what I could about our theatre. Then last year, out of the blue, she let me know that I might be able to get one of the old theatre seats. She’d heard that several had been in use in the choir loft of a Lutheran church, but they were being replaced. Perhaps I’d like to have one? I didn’t have to think. I was thrilled by the offer, and thrilled to see it and bring it home. Problem is, now I don’t know what to do with it.
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Our movie theatre stood on a side street in a Lutheran-Mennonite village in southern Ontario. My parents bought it in order to give my father a break from the rigours of teaching high school sciences, but it was still an unlikely decision. My father was an introverted, devout Catholic who thought Hollywood was the Capital of Sin, and my mother had once been a well-known school music supervisor and the leader of her own dance band in Toronto—not someone who ever saw herself selling tickets in a rundown B-level theatre. But this is what they chose to do.

“Our show,” as they called it, had once been a hotel livery. Around the turn of the last century, it was converted into a hall for amateur nights and silent movies complete with a piano down front where the pianist ad-libbed soundtracks to echo the drama of the scenes—approaching villains, approaching trains, gun battles, love at first sight. In the early 1930s, it was upgraded; sound equipment was installed for the latest thing—talkies—and about 150 new comfortable-enough seats were affixed to the cement floor, including the one I now have here in my house. 

My mother had taken me to some of the grand theatres in Toronto, so I knew how downscale our show was. We had no marquee, no snack bar, no velvet ropes, no uniformed ushers, not even indoor bathrooms. Just rows of maroon and green seats, and a screen flanked by dusty, red velvet curtains and equally dusty Union Jacks. Smelly outhouses stood just beyond the exit doors. Mondays and Tuesdays were for film noirand other grownup movies—the ones I wasn’t allowed to see—and Fridays and Saturdays were for family movies, 25¢ for kids and 50¢ for adults. My mother organized the monthly programs, did the books, sold tickets, and loosely kept track of us kids running in and out during the newsreel to buy gum and penny-candy at the corner store. There she’d be, a very large woman in a small ticket booth, chatting with hangers-on as she rolled up coins in brown paper wrappers. Whenever I heard The king is in his counting-house counting out his money, I pictured my mother, even though I knew that kings had ermine-trimmed cloaks not old space-heaters to keep them warm. Upstairs, an ex-RCAF mechanic kept the two enormous projectors working, and downstairs my father kept everything else going: stoking the furnace, taking tickets, cleaning up, dealing with the occasional rowdy, and ushering. 

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Sometimes I got to be an usher too. I’d watched my father so I knew to hold the flashlight straight down against my leg; shine it at the floor in front of the empty seat, and then turn it off on the way back the aisle unless, like my father, I felt compelled to use it to stop older kids from necking in the back rows. And of course I’d do that too, just to be a pest. 

I loved helping my father get things ready. Sometimes I’d stop on my way home from school to hold the tightly furled posters while he thumbtacked them into the display boxes out front. On Saturday afternoons, in the stale, empty, brightness where there were no runaway stagecoaches or gun battles, I’d help him by running along each row of seats and knocking up the ones that hadn’t tilted up on their own. He’d follow behind with his push broom gathering up the cigarette butts, wrappers, and squashed candy bags from the rough concrete floor. If he didn’t need my help, I’d busy myself seeing if I could roller-skate fast enough down one aisle to coast all the way across the front, and part-way up the other. 

Every Friday night, I and 50 or 60 other kids sat front and centre and watched a newsreel, a cartoon, and the double feature in those seats. Once in a while, I’d be allowed to take a friend upstairs to the little viewing room beside the projection booth where we would watch the projector’s beam of light cut a path through the cigarette smoke. 

We kids loved every single movie we saw: black-and-white or full colour; thrilling stories of cowboys and Indians and settlers and war heroes and bank robbers and crimefighters and pirates and sultans, people who lived in exotic Hollywood worlds far, far away from our staid little village. We’d be so caught up in the excitement that when things got tough for the good guys we’d jump and try to help them with warnings like, “Look out!” or “Behind the door!” and then we’d clap and whoop in relief when things worked out. And they always did work out because in those worlds, not unlike the stories we heard at school, the bad were always punished and the good always inherited the earth. The fun of it came back to me years later when I was watching Apollo 13 on TV, and I found myself cheering out loud when Tom Hanks’ voice came crackling through the clouds. The heat shields had held! That’s what it felt like at our show, week after week after week.

At school, at church, at home, and at the movies we were immersed in the white, male-centred culture of the day, the one that told us over and over that good girls know their place and dress their place and act their place; however, I saw something different at our show. In those movies, I saw brave, self-sufficient, generous women: valiant army nurses and gutsy saloon owners and daring reporters and tough pioneers who could fight off rustlers one minute and give birth in the back of a covered wagon during an Indian raid in the next. Of course I wasn’t aware of the stirrings of feminism in my little eight-year-old breast, but I remember vividly that they were the ones I always wanted to “be” in our games of Cowboys and Indians.

I realize now that the business did give my father a break, and it did provide us with an adequate income without a lot of work or worry, but all I knew back then was that I got to see a lot of free movies and I had a supply of nickels and dimes on the windowsill so I could buy myself Popsicles and comic books whenever I wanted. And, although my association with the theatre took away any chance of “top-drawer” status in that staid, God-fearing village, I became a popular birthday party guest because I could be counted on to bring a string of movie tickets as a present. It was a pretty carefree time for all of us. 

For the first three or four years, we were sold out every Friday and Saturday nights, in part, no doubt, because we had little competition. People could have gone to see first-run movies in much nicer movie houses in nearby cities, but they were too far away for weekly trips, especially during the winter. This meant that our movies were pretty much the only fun thing available on a weekend night in a village not given to revelry. And then television arrived. Almost overnight, people realized the convenience and pleasure of having little theatres in their own living rooms. In 1955, The Regentand thousands like it across North America closed their doors forever. My supply of nickels and dimes disappeared; my mother found a secretarial job and my father had to return to teaching. His new job required us to move to a small town several hours away, and with this move, my mother declared that I was to reveal nothing about our shabby, shameful, failed venture. “Nobody needs to know!” was a very hard order to obey, as so much of my life, an integral part of who I was, had been tied up with our show.
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And so I now have my theatre seat. I recognised it right away: the smooth wooden armrests, the same half-bald plush on the back that looked to me like little rows of toothbrushes. This same prickly plush used to cover the seats, but it’s been replaced with cracked synthetic leather that would have been just as uncomfortable on bare legs in the summer. What surprised me was its lovely cast-iron endpiece of embossed flowers framed in turquoise, a touch of elegance not seen anywhere else in that rundown place. I’d never noticed them before.

My old seat from an old theatre seems both important and not at all important at the same time. Unlike some things that we treasure from our past, this seat was never a treasured thing in anyone’s eyes. The screen, the projectors, the posters, the tickets, and the seats were just the props; what mattered was the movies. Even so, it vividly connects me with memories of my little gang of friends enjoying the movies far from the controlling eyes of my mother; after all, theatres are dark. It also connects me with both of my parents, both long-dead, although they wouldn’t have wanted to be reminded of that déclassé, bankrupt enterprise that linked them, however minimally, to the tawdry world of Hollywood. It also takes me back to all those hours I spent alone with my adored father in that place where I knew the sights and smells and sounds, where I knew my way around, where I had a few little kid-sized jobs, and where I felt I had every right to be. In my mind, our show was partly mine. I couldn’t have known this at the time, but it was last time I was able to spend so much time with my father. Maybe these memories are enough.

So now what to do with it? I can’t use it as a chair; it’s comfy, but it’s tippy as it was designed to be fastened to the floor. My friends suggest putting it on the porch, or in the garden, or in the living room with a plant on it. Someone even suggested using it as a “conversation piece,” a phrase I haven’t heard since Home Ec classes on interior decorating, but none of those ideas is going to work. So, for now, I’ve put it out of the way. Not until I began writing this did I realize what an apt spot I’d chosen: a dark, quiet corner, out of sight, tucked away behind the TV.

-Mary Breen

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Mary J. Breen has been an ESL and literacy teacher, a health worker, and a writer and editor. She is the author of two books about women´s health, and her fiction, articles, and memoir pieces have appeared in essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, a