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Alice Kahn

Grable, Stanwyck and Me . . . The Last Picture Show

June 26, 1988|Alice Kahn

I was born in a balcony at the Lawndale Theater on Roosevelt Road near Pulaski in Chicago. My daddy owned the picture show.

My mother told me that she used to leave me in my crib in the balcony with a favorite usher, a man named Big Ben. Ben was 6-foot-6 and 400 pounds with his shoes off. Between the double features, he'd take me out for a couple of Romanian garlic steaks and several chocolate malts. What I couldn't eat, Big Ben would finish.

I was about 4 years old when I became conscious of this whole scene. The time was the late 1940s, and the popular films of the day were moody private-detective stories-- film noir --and screwball comedies. As a result, I came to think of life as a dark, menacing screwball comedy, a philosophy that has stood the test of time.

To my knowledge, no one has studied the psychological effects on a young child of continually watching '40s movies and eating Milk Duds nonstop. We do read a lot about how a generation raised on television threatens our future. Yet a recent survey of young book club members--junior intellectuals--found that they believe Pee-wee Herman to be as qualified for the presidency as Michael Dukakis. Which proves either that all short guys look alike or that books ain't so great either.

I know that one result of my childhood was that I believed that time was an enormous clock whose hands could speed up or go backward, that the days of our lives were calendar pages flying in the wind and that space was a fast-moving train rolling through towns named Milford's Landing, Altoona, Cedar Rapids and Laramie.

I thought that men wore big hats and greatcoats to hide their shoulder holsters. I thought that women wore cloche hats and carried slim leather bags containing pearl-handled revolvers. I thought every town but mine had a soda shop owned by a guy called Pops who slapped his face and said, "Sheesh!"

Mostly, I thought picture shows were palaces and that my dad was a king. When we walked down the street, everyone knew him and said hello. He was the man who brought them joy. He was the guy who introduced Screen-O (big-screen Bingo on Saturday nights). He was the kill-joy who nabbed them sneaking in the exits.

One day, when I was either sitting in the easy chair pretending I was Barbara Stanwyck fleeing a killer or standing in front of the mirror in high heels wondering how I'd ever grow up to be Betty Grable, my dad told me he was selling the theater. TV was coming in. Besides, his mother had just died, and he said he "didn't want to be around music anymore."

After that we'd spend a lot of time in other people's theaters. Mostly we'd go on sweltering summer days when those melting ice-cube letters spelling out "Air Conditioned" beckoned like an oasis.

To my dad, it was strictly business. He'd comment how empty the theater was, how low the grosses must be, how dirty the lobby looked, how the bulbs in the stars in the ceiling needed replacing and, finally, how lousy the cast was in the movie. As soon as the film came on, he'd fall asleep.

He was growing old. He was a deposed king in someone else's empire. The Lawndale, his kingdom, had been sold. It was reopened after a Name-the-Theater contest as The Rena. They gave away free dishes to try to lure people in.

I'd watch him sleeping in the theater through Jeff Chandler, Tony Curtis, Mario Lanza, Mitzi Gaynor, Deborah Kerr, Terry Moore. . . . The hands on the clock would start turning back, and I'd try to imagine what it was like when I was the owner's daughter sleeping in a crib in the balcony of my daddy's palace. How did it feel to be royalty? Once I had a 400-pound usher buying me steaks. Now, like Cinderella, I had to wait in line for popcorn with everyone else.

Was it possible that Dennis O'Keefe or Spencer Tracy or Michael O'Shea jumped out of the screen and put me in the wrong crib? Sheesh, what a mix-up! And no one knows.

I tell you, pal, I'm really a princess.

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