Today I went to the Alamo and bought tickets for a show tonight. As I walked back to my car the heat of the concrete felt like it was burning the soles off my Keds. Memories are strange things. The summer of 1971 in Ruston, Louisiana came rushing at me in a puff of stifling pavement heat.
I lived with my grandmother then in a big old house with no central air and no car. I couldn’t spend my whole summer reading and watching TV in her bedroom/sewing room where the window unit blew out semi-cool air. Many afternoons I’d walk down to the Dixie Theater to see what was showing. Sometimes I’d hang out in the record store/bookstore on the corner across from Railroad Park until it started. Sometimes I’d just buy the ticket and sit in the cool, beautiful theater and wait. The Dixie was one of those beautiful old theaters with a crystal chandelier and elaborate artwork on the ceiling.
I never minded going to the movies alone. If I was alone nobody was going to tell me what I ought to like. I grew up in the South in one of those families that can turn out writers and/or eccentrics. The Dixie and the public library helped me become some version of the former and saved me from becoming too much of the latter.
My experience with movies before I started going by myself reflected my parents’ taste and their perception of what my taste should be. We went to Disney movies and musicals and sweeping historical flicks. We’d go to comedies that weren’t too sexy. Once we walked out of a movie called What’s New Pussycat because they had gone in thinking it was another Pink Panther movie. This sort of thing seems kind of innocently adorable now, but embarrassed the fire out of me at the time. Anyway, going by myself let me try out all kinds of films and discover what I liked.
That was the summer Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory came out, the Gene Wilder version. I think that was the first film that made me think about the people who make films rather than just the story itself. I’d read the book and the visuals and casting changed how I felt about the story. I liked the movie more than the book.
I was huge western fan at the time. Support your Local Gunfighter starring James Garner and Big Jake starring John Wayne didn’t disappoint. I might have gone to Big Jake more than once. And cried every time. That was the film that caused me to demand an animal body count before I’d commit to go. Apparently I’m not the only one. If only there had been doesthedogdie.com back then.
That summer I found out how much I like sci-fi. The Omega Man, Escape from Planet of the Apes and The Andromeda Strain all came out that summer. So did Willard. The cheesy horror flick started a life-long guilty pleasure. I love creepy creature and apocalyptic disaster movies even when they are bad. Sometimes bad just adds to the pleasure.
That summer I saw four films about teens that don’t end with happily-ever-after: Billy Jack, Red Sky at Morning, Summer of ’42, and Bless the Beasts and the Children. Summer of ’42 was rated R but nobody checked me for id. I’d read all the books except Billy Jack before I saw the movies, so I knew what to expect anyway.
I thought most of the people I knew were living happily in their two-parent, air-conditioned, retail-purchased bubbles. I lived outside the “norm” and movies like these made me feel less lonely. I’d had enough things go down in my life to appreciate the idea that even if my face cleared up and even if I somebody loved me romantically, life might not work out. I remember wondering if “bubble” people entertained that possibility. Red Sky at Morning and Summer of ’42 confirmed that some of them did.
If the camp in Bless the Beasts and the Children had been for girls I would have fit in there. I wasn’t ever going to be one of the “bubble” kids, but there might be other misfits keeping a low profile at Glenview Jr. High School who might want to hang out with me. This idea significantly expanded possibilities for a social life and gave me some hope for the next school year.
I cried at Billy Jack . Not the quiet Big Jake tears but ugly loud sobs that made somebody behind me lean forward to tell me, “shut up, it’s not even that sad.” I was really embarrassed and left quickly right after the movie before the lights came up. I cried because I’d never thought about having a defender and I wanted one. And a commune where I could think and say what I wanted without being bullied and ridiculed. Sometimes a story becomes personally influential because of where you are when you see it.
I never got a defender who knew martial arts but I got pretty good at defending myself with verbal martial arts. Going to the movies will do that for you. I’ve used movie take downs and one-liners more than I care to admit. I wish I could say they were all original.
That summer the Dixie was my refuge. A cool place full of stories was exactly what I needed. The Dixie Theater closed in 1980, the year after I left Ruston. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is now the Dixie Center for the Arts.