For two and a half years, I had been wanting an answer to that question, and was beginning to think I wasn’t going to find out until I turned eighteen.
Then, while browsing the newspaper’s movie section on a Wednesday afternoon in the dead of winter, I saw that Lolita (1962) was showing at a sub-run house in Greenwood, a neighbourhood I had never heard of before, and there was no mention of an age restriction. I called the theatre and asked about it, and was told the theatre was open to all ages. I tore out of the house, leapt off the porch and ran down the street, visions of that lollypop-licking girl with the heart-shaped sunglasses dancing in my mind.
Despite the phone call, I was prepared to be refused a ticket at the box office. There had been plenty of times when I was turned away even though there was no age restriction mentioned in the ads. I had to beg the box office girl at the 5th Avenue to allow me to see Cleopatra (1963),” explaining that my parents had dropped me off and wouldn’t be back to pick me up until the movie was over. The matron at the Paramount was made of sterner stuff, and held to her insistence that I was too young to see Splendor in the Grass (1961). But the woman at the Grand Theater didn’t think twice about letting me in.
First up was Elvis Presley in Fun in Acapulco (1963). His character was named Mike, just as it had been in the World’s Fair movie, and he was working on someone else’s boat, as he had in Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962). After eluding the affections of an under-aged girl, as he did in Blue Hawaii (1961), he met a female matador, who kept him busy until Ursula Andress, who I remembered from Dr. No (1962) came along. Man, what a rib cage she had.
Although suffering from guilt for the accidental death of his brother, Elvis had the three top hotels in Acapulco out-bidding each other to contract him as a singer, and the two most beautiful girls in town were clawing out each other’s eyes over him. It was a utopian picture of adult life, one that I would believe in fully until the scales fell from my eyes shortly after my fiftieth birthday.
I stayed in my seat during intermission, afraid if I was spotted in the lobby before the start of Lolita, the theatre manager or one of his henchmen would decide to throw me out for my own good. While waiting for the movie to start, I overheard a conversation between the two old ladies sitting behind me.
“No, they aren’t showing Lolita this afternoon. That’s only on at night. They’re showing a kid’s matinee instead.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Lolita is not a movie for children.”
“It certainly is not.”
I didn’t want to believe what I heard, but feared it was true. Then the lights went off, and the next move started. It wasn’t Lolita. It was Gorgo (1961), an English monster movie that combined the stories of Godzilla (1954) and King Kong (1933). That wasn’t in itself so bad, but they added a little kid as the hero who made friends with the monster and discovered he was just a lost lad and that his mother was searching for him.
I held on to the possibility that Lolita would be shown after Gorgo right up to the moment Elvis Presley’s name appeared in crooked red lettering across the Acapulco sunset. Dejected, I almost left the theatre when I realised that if I just relaxed and watched the Elvis movie again, there would be a good chance Lolita would come on next. It didn’t. Not then anyway. I stayed put and watched Gorgo again, and my patience finally paid off. I got to see Lolita.
When it was over, I waited at the bus stop for over an hour before I thought to look at the posted schedule to find out when the next bus was due. There were no more buses. This route didn’t provide any night service. I found my way home by following the bus stops. The three mile walk gave me plenty of time to think about the movie.
The world must be full of men who marry divorced women to get at their children. They wouldn’t make a movie about somebody like that if his was an isolated case. That I had four sisters made me start to worry about my stepfather’s motives. Maybe he was going for the Lolita jackpot. I started thinking about his habit of going into their rooms at night to tuck them in, and how it sometimes seemed he spent a long time in their bedrooms. I wondered what my mom did while he was up there making the rounds. Maybe she was in on the whole thing. Maybe he had threatened to murder her if she tried to interfere.
I let my mind race on like this for a while until my thoughts got too silly to continue, and I went back to thinking about the movie for. I wondered what the Dr. Strangelove guy was doing in it. The drama teacher he was playing seemed like he had run right out of the other movie into this one by mistake. Then it struck me that he was a child molester too, just like the main character, and that these kind of guys might be wandering around in all sorts of disguises. Stepfathers, drama teachers, and who knows what else. The whole country was crawling with old guys who were trying to get at little girls.
No wonder they didn’t want anybody under eighteen to see the movie. The adults didn’t want any of the kids to have any clues about what they were up to. Or maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe the adult world was full of mostly normal people, and they had made this movie to alert single women with kids to watch out for sneaky guys like this who pretended to be in love with them but really wanted to slime their kids. In that case, the movie was for people over eighteen because it wasn’t healthy for curious youngsters like myself to be thinking about this kind of stuff.
In the summer of 1965, The Grand started a new Friday night policy. For 99 cents, you got three rock bands and three movies going from 6:30 to about midnight.
On the first night, Sir Camel and the Humps played what would become the standard three-song set of Louie Louie, House of the Rising Sun, and Gloria. The projectionist started The Skull (1965) while the band was still clearing their equipment off the stage. It would still be a few years before I knew the difference between Hammer, Amicus, and American International Pictures, but I could sense the difference between The Skull and other horror movies right away. This neither had the fairy tale atmosphere of the Christopher Lee Dracula movies nor the implied terror of the Poe adaptations that starred Vincent Price. It was more modern, more plausible. When they brought out the book written by the Marquis de Sade bound in human skin, I believed it was real. And when the skull of de Sade commanded its owner to commit murder, I felt the helplessness of one caught in the grip of such an overpowering compulsion.
When the movie ended, Little Jack Horner and the Plums, which boasted a member who would eventually join the Mothers of Invention, started setting up their equipment and most of the audience headed to the lobby to get candy or to the can to smoke. The owner of the theatre stood to the side of the concession stand, where he could keep an eye on everybody, and two cops milled around in that way that cops do when they think they can keep a crowd under control simply by being there. I went into the can and bummed a cigarette off a guy and started smoking it. After a few minutes, one of the cops came inside and said that everyone who didn’t have an ID saying they were eighteen had better douse their smokes, but he left before anybody had a chance to do what he said.
When I came out of the can, the cop was talking to an agitated parent whose kid must have snuck off to somewhere other than the movie because neither the cop nor the parents could find her. My guess was that she was either hiding in the can or off making out with some guys at a party somewhere. I was getting excited listening to the parents tell the cops about how much they worried about her daughter now that she was a teenager and had got boy fever, and decided to spend the next movie trying to find a girl to make out with.
While the second band played the same songs as the first, I scoped out the theatre for cute girls, and spotted a dark-haired one sitting by herself. I didn’t have the nerve to take the seat right next to her, so I sat in the row in front of her and waited for the lights to go down before I turned around and fed her a line. With all of that bikini dancing and making out, Beach Blanket Bingo was a perfect movie for hustling girls. I imagined most everyone in the theatre was getting pretty excited watching all that stuff. About half an hour into it, I turned around and asked the girl if anyone had ever told her she looked like Annette, only better. She smiled and I leaned closer to her to ask if the seat next to her was empty. When she said it was, I crawled over the seats and took it. She didn’t seem to mind, so I put my arm around her and she leaned her head on my shoulder. I started kissing her and kept kissing her for a long time until the kid behind us leaned across to her and whispered, “Wait’ll the lights go up and you see all his zits.”
I split right before the end of Beach Blanket Bingo, and hid out in the can while Sir Walter Raleigh and the Coupons played Louie Louie, Gloria, and House of the Rising Sun. Then they surprised everyone with an encore of Satisfaction that, from what I could hear in the can, sounded pretty good. Once the movie started, I went back into the theatre. It was a dull John Wayne picture, The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), and my mind kept wandering back to that girl, so I went to the can to finish the smoke I had butted when the cop came in for the second time. Right after I lit up, a kid that must have been about seventeen came in and started pushing me around. “You’re the guy that was bothering my sister, ain’t you?” he asked, and I denied it even though I knew he must be the girl’s brother. “I’ll be waiting for you when the movie’s over,” he threatened, then walked out. I picked up the smoke that I had dropped after he punched me the first time, and took a couple of drags. When I was pretty sure he was back in the theatre, I scrammed out of there and beat it home.
When school started that fall, The Grand introduced family night on Wednesdays, with all seats priced at 50 cents. I only went to family night once, and the movie was so bad that I never returned. It was something called The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), about a 4-F guy during WWII who turned into a fish and spotted German submarines for the Army. I guess if you’ve got an actor who looks like a fish, he has to be allowed to play one at least once. But I couldn’t take it, and left after half an hour. Worse than the movie was the atmosphere in the theatre, with all those children hanging on their parents’ necks. When they advertised it as family night, they weren’t kidding. No gangs, no chicks, no smoking in the can. It was a total washout.
With the exception of a few nature documentaries, a movie or two about a dog, some fairy tales and fables, a little Jerry Lewis and anything with Hayley Mills, I couldn’t stand movies pitched at children. I could imagine the movie producers listening to writers tell their ideas for movies. They must have thought they could shove anything that was too idiotic or improbable for adults down the throats of children.
Having nothing else to do, I wandered along Greenwood Avenue to check out the neighbourhood. After about a mile I came to a movie theatre called The Ridgemont, where a line of adults were buying tickets for a double feature of The Pawnbroker (1964) and The Servant (1963). I got into the line and, getting closer to the box office window, noticed the “No One Under 18 Admitted” sign. I knew I couldn’t pass for 18, but decided to try anyway. The girl didn’t even look at me, just took my money and punched out the ticket.
The Servant was creepy with dark insinuation. I wasn’t clear on the details, but loved the horror-movie performances of Dirk Bogarde and James Fox in a movie that wasn’t supernatural. Bogarde took evil away from the spooks and brought it down to a human level. In one scene, some nasty business was reflected in a mirror that made me want to see more completely what was happening. From that moment on, one of the most important things to me about a movie was the degree to which it triggered my desire to see.
The Pawnbroker hit me from all directions. This was the first time I saw a Jew as a fully developed character, not simply an element in a horrific newsreel. When I was living on Queen Anne Hill, I befriended a Jewish kid out of a fascinated need to find out why some people thought they were so different. I went over to his house and searched for some mysterious thing that might explain what distinguished them. But I found nothing. Morton was just a kid like any other kid and his house was just the same as any other house you might visit.
The character Rod Steiger played reopened the mystery of the Jew. At first, he seemed like a stereotype, refusing to haggle over prices for the stuff people brought in to his shop to pawn. Then I realised they were just selling junk, and that the pawnbroker was doing them a favour by giving them even a dollar or two. Flashbacks showed that his family had been murdered in the war, and I realised that he acted tight and selfish because if he let the slightest bit of emotion loose, he would probably fall apart. When a prostitute came in and offered her breasts, he couldn’t even get excited about them because her humiliated nudity recalled images of his wife naked in the camp, and who knows exactly what the hell those god damned Nazis did to her…
The information I had received about the Holocaust from books and a few movies was entirely historical. These were the horror stories from the world before I was born, having little if any relevance to my immediate life. But I had been in pawnshops, and had talked to the cranky old men in the cage on the other side of the cash window. Now I had an idea who they were, where they came from, and why they sometimes acted as if already dead, having little interest in those of us who were fully alive. But it wasn’t just pawnbrokers, or concentration camp survivors, that the movie opened me up to. It was all the war-shocked veterans who never fully returned to life after living so long among the dead, and that included most men over the age of forty.
It was after midnight when I got home. I had taken the lake route without once thinking about Ivy’s or Hair’s. It was hard to get that pawnbroker out of my head, and I couldn’t understand the end of the movie. He impaled his hand on the receipt nail, which didn’t seem like a Jewish method of self-punishment, and I wondered if the pawnbroker had become a Christ figure, which didn’t make any sense. Then that wicked servant from the other movie creeped into the picture, and I didn’t understand him either.
About the Author
Bill White frittered away his early years as a rock musician in Seattle WA, then moved to Boston, MA, where he wrote, acted, and directed for the theater, and made experimental films. Returning to Seattle, he became a film and music critic for the Seattle Post Intelligencer until its demise in 2009, after which he wrote a novel and a memoir before retiring to Peru, where he married the beautiful and intelligent Dr. Kelly Edery. Currently, he is making anthropological films in Ilo. Peru, and is writing a volume of short stories inspired by popular songs, as well as continuing his work with Washington historian Paul Dorpat on the chronicling of Seattle’s 1960′s counter-culture through commentary on each issue of its underground newspaper, Helix.