See You at the Movies
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We didn’t have multi-screen cinemas when I grew up. We had walk-in theatres: one ticket booth, one screen, and one concession stand, one per town. There was the Capri in Van Nuys, the La Reina in Sherman Oaks and the Reseda Walk-in in downtown Reseda. There were a host of others in the San Fernando Valley but the general rule was one per town. They all looked identical. They had the same red velour seats, and they all smelled of stale buttered popcorn. The only thing that set one apart from another was what they showed on the big screen. Naturally, we didn’t have web sites we could visit to see what was playing. Nor could you drive downtown and read a list of options off a large marquee. The simplest way to find out what was showing was to open the entertainment section of The Valley News and Green Sheet, and you hoped that something decent was playing nearby.
I always knew what was showing at the Capri because it was on the boulevard and I passed by it practically everyday. When The Sound of Music came to town it stayed at the Capri for months. They lost my business during that time. I did come back for the hip and tragic biker tale of Easy Rider though. It ended with a crash and so did Peter Fonda’s career. But Easy Rider was pivotal in launching Jack Nicholson to stardom. Rumor had it that the Capri was shutting down when ‘The Last Picture Show’ was displayed on the marquee. We were all relieved to discover that this was only a movie title. It was a scandalous film starring Timothy Bottoms and a significantly less wrinkled Cloris Leachman. (Bless her heart.)
Though there was usually one theatre per town you could always count on a double feature wherever you went. It was much like going to a rock concert where you’d have an opening act before the featured band played. Usually the opening act was some second rate pop group whose prior gig was at the local bowling alley. Then the headliner would come out and help you forget what you just suffered through by delivering a first class show. That’s how it was at the movies. There was normally some cheesy B flick defiling the screen just prior to the main attraction. That was always a good time to visit the concession stand and stock up snacks for the feature presentation. When my mom took Rick and me to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid we had to tolerate this hideous film entitled The Prime of Miss Jean Brody. That was way too excruciating for two teenage boys to endure. It got even more awkward during the scene where this unwholesome gal posed for a nude portrait. The scene seemed to last forty-five minutes or so, especially since we were sitting next to my mom, who had the innocence of a nun.
We also had a drive-in theatre in Van Nuys. I think the rule for drive-ins was one per every ten towns. Lucky for me, though, the Sepulveda Drive-In was right near my house. I saw quite a few features there but they were all silent movies. They were silent because I watched them from the parking lot next door. I’d sit on the narrow seat of my ten-speed Huffy and preview what was playing until an angry store manager would run me off. While I rarely got to see a full-length feature from start to finish I did get to preview some very long movie trailers. But I’d be peddling away before I saw anyone on the big screen ride off into the sunset. However, there was at least one time I made it to the closing credits at the Sepulveda Drive-in without paying admission. It was when I saw The Cowboys, starring John Wayne.
Jay and I just happened to be walking down Sepulveda Boulevard one evening when my friends, Jimmy and Vincent drove by with their dad, actor Dick Van Patten. Mr. Van Patten pulled up while Jimmy waved us over. “Wanna’ go to the Drive-in?” he called with a cheery east coast inflection. Our hearts said yes but our wallets said, “You’re outta’ luck, dudes!” But, as a gesture of kindness and generosity, Mr. Van Patten offered to sneak us in. He popped open the spacious trunk of his late model Delta 88 Oldsmobile and we climbed aboard. “Don’t make a peep!” he whispered as the huge steel lid fell toward our faces. By the time we crept out of our dark hole, Mr. Van Patten was stretching the canned speaker to the car window. Then we all sat back to watch The Cowboys.
Watching movies with the Van Patten’s was like dining out with Food Network princess Rachel Ray. It wasn’t just entertainment to them. It was part of their diet, the dessert they saved their fork for. They keep their eyes glued to the screen, taste every frame of the film, savor it then salivate for more. Mr. Van Patten was fascinated by The Cowboys and offered a colorful running commentary. “This is a fantastic movie!” he’d exclaim. “I’m really involved!” When I’m involved in a movie I tend to get lock jaw but not Mr. Van Patten. “Oh this is terrific!” he’d carry on. “Do you like it Jimmy?” I completely understood why Mr. Van Patten went into showbiz. It was more than a craft or some meaningless path to popularity for him; it was his lifeblood and passion. If I had been as passionate about Jesus as Mr. Van Patten was about film I never would have backslid.
* * * * *
When you’re a fifteen year old with the face of a twelve year old it’s hard to pass yourself off as a seventeen year old. I mention this to tell you I was restricted from seeing many movies, specifically the ‘R’ rated kind. With my baby face, lying about my age wasn’t even an option. And a false ID was way too risky for a squeaky rascal like me. I’d get found out in a heartbeat. But there were ‘R’ rated movies I desperately wanted to see and I wasn’t willing to sit through another one with my mother. I had to come up with something that would spare us both of that kind of embarrassment.
I finally found a way to beat the system and it worked like a charm every time; tinted glasses and a fake mustache. This wasn’t one of those cheap mustaches you wear with some tacky, five-and dime Halloween costume. Mine was the kind professional actors wore in motion pictures. It was made of authentic human hair which was blonde just like my own. A sticky substance called spirit gum was used to glue the cookie duster beneath my schnozola. This simple disguise aged me by about two or three years, just enough to slip me under the puberty radar. I never got carded when I wore the ‘stache. I think the ticket lady was actually too bewildered to card me. I probably looked like a total freak. I’m sure I sounded like one too when my Felix the Cat voice squeaked, “One ticket for Barbarella please.”
If you’ve ever wondered what a hypocrite is I just described one for you. A hypocrite wears a disguise and pretends to be something he is not. Many Christians are often accused of being hypocrites because they are sinners but the truth is not all sinners are hypocrites. A hypocrite would be a Christian who hides the fact that he is a sinner. He pretends to be more spiritual than he actually is. If you can admit to being a sinner saved by grace, and you make a genuine attempt to be the same person on Monday that you are on Sunday, chances are you are not a hypocrite. But if the person on Sunday doesn’t line up with the one on Monday, you’ve got a mask full of spirit gum… and that’s when things get real sticky!
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