Life at the FRONTIER
c. Michael L. Goodman
High noon and cars begin to ease up to the curb at the corner of South Shipp and West Dunnam to disgorge chattering children onto the sidewalk under the marquee of the Frontier Theatre. Mom turns our two toned, blue and white ’57 Ford Country Squire station wagon into line with the rest of the mother chauffeurs. After checking to make sure we each have our dollar and an extra dime to call home, Jill and I hop out into the warm marquee shade with the growing crowd of mostly elementary and junior high kids. Girls in peddle-pushers or pale print dresses, almost all of them with bangs and ponytails that bob and swish as they collect excitedly into familiar gaggles. Boys with crew cuts and flat tops dressed in blue jeans or slacks with white or geometric print button-down shirts and white tee shirts visible at the collar meander singly or in pairs pretending to be interested in the “NOW PLAYING” and “COMING ATTRACTIONS” posters. No one willfully ventures out of the shade into the scorching Saturday sun and the heat radiating off the building’s red brick façade and the sidewalks.
High schoolers usually come later when the kiddie crowd has moved into the theatre, or they wait till the evening show and come with dates; but there are always a few who come to the early matinee. These few older boys among us run a comb through their greased hair to make sure their wimples and ducktails are perfect and furtively check out the older girls in tight skirts with pastel colored blouses who are checking their lipstick or adjust the chiffon scarves at their necks.
When the circular ticket office at the left of the entrance finally opens, we cheer and jostle into a ragged mass of a line. Impatiently, we wait our turn to push our money through the half-circle hole at the bottom of the ticket window. A cool hurricane of stale cigarette smoke mixed with the smell of eau de cologne and the hum of the ceiling fan blows through the hole in the window into our faces. If we do not carefully hold on to our dollars as we push them through, they will escape from our hands and fly back out the window on the breeze. The bored looking girl behind the glass punches colored buttons on the counter, and a ticket jumps out of a slot. Change rolls down a miniature slide into a dish just inside the window. Clink! Clink! Clink!
We push through the glass, double-door entrance, and a flustered, teenage boy in a red jacket and pill box hat punches our ticket. “Stop pushing,” he chides us. “You’ve got time! It hasn’t started yet. Stop pushing!”
The foyer with its charcoal colored walls trimmed in red is always dark as we come in from the bright outside. The red carpets with gold flowers and the red velvet curtains have a faint, comfortable, musty odor of age and stale popcorn mixed with the smell of fresh popcorn from the glass-cased popper behind the snack bar candy counter. The light from the glass candy cases is defused by the pressing crowd of noisy kids. The suspended corn popping pan rumbles as it drips popped corn like golden lava into a yellow mountain below. The candy counter girls have shoveled the last mountain of popcorn into paper bags and thin cardboard boxes and lined them up in regiments against the glass case to await the attack of the matinee kids. Jill and I always buy the same three treats: a dime box of popcorn, a Dr. Pepper, and a nickel Big Hunk. Jill likes Bit-o-Honey sometimes, but I stay with the Big Hung because it’s bigger and lasts longer.
When we have our treats in hand, we weave in and out of the tangle of kids past the steps that lead down to the men’s restroom and pass through the red velvet curtains into a curved, gently ramped hall. The pale blue walls reflect the blue lights high in the ceiling and seem to glow in the darkness helping us find our way up the ramp. At the end of the ramp, we enter a wide, high walled aisle that runs across the middle of the theatre. Kids our age never go up the steps to the raised area above the wall called the “balcony.” That’s where the high school kids sit. I always take Jill to the middle opening in the wall and walk half way down the aisle toward the screen. Sitting in a seat on the middle aisle has the best view of the screen, even though other kids climb in and out of the row. If Jill has to go the bathroom it is easy to get her back to the lobby and return to our seats without having to climb over other kids. I don’t mind taking her when it is not a double feature. We always stay and see the single features twice, so I don’t miss anything.
The side walls have murals painted in shades and tints of blue. On the right wall is a riverboat and trees along the river shore, and on the left is an Indian maiden waving to the riverboat from more trees. After seeing all those westerns, I wonder if she is a decoy for an Indian attack on the riverboat. The murals fade to black when the blue ceiling lights are turned off. The screen flashes into life with a Looney-Tunes or Disney cartoon and the kid chatter turns to cheers and whistles. Usually there is a short subject, a news reel, a cartoon, the feature, and a preview of next week’s movie.
I am enamored with the movies. In the coal dark theatre, I am a participant in a world that is real for only a glittering afternoon. Westerns are my particular favorites. The colored shadows that flicker on the screen in front of me is the only reality for the afternoon, and I relive the stories all week. I am there with Charleton Heston as he parts the Red Sea; I watch the clock inch toward high noon with Gary Cooper; I struggle to pull the African Queen through the feted swamp with Humphrey Bogart; I stand in the Teton valley with Brandon DeWilde and cry for Shane to come back. And I also blubber through tear jerkers like Old Yeller, twice.
After the second showing, the white lights are turned on and the theatre ushers start cleaning up before the evening show. The matinee diehards that are left in the theatre file out into the foyer and line up at the pay phone to call home. We then push out into the real world of a faded afternoon to wait for a ride.
The rows of white light bulbs under the Marquee are now on and they splash light on the windows of passing cars. Neon tubes of red and white on the tower above the marquee spelling out “FRONTIER” sputter and buzz like a thousand angry insects. It is especially nice if it has rained while we were inside. Then the colored lights shimmer on the wet street and passing cars. The sidewalk beneath the marquee is a bright cave where whirling tides of exhaust fumes and ozone and wet dust smells wash over us. But it’s not raining this evening, so warm evening air wafts over us as we read the “COMING ATTACTIONS” posters and count the number of weeks we have to wait for the movies we want to see.