Apartment on the Monorail

Apartment on the Monorail

Some people can look back with nostalgia about living in New York on the elevated train, or in Chicago on the El. We look back with fondness on our first “home,” the Sheridan Apartments on Fifth Avenue in Seattle on the monorail. It was a tiny studio on the second floor in the back – two rooms, a kitchen and a bath. Green was the theme – green walls – green chair cushions and the shaggiest green shag rug ever that overspread the two rooms: a living/sitting room in front, which opened onto the bedroom complete with murphy bed. If there had been a window in the wall from which the murphy bed dropped, we could have seen my old workplace, the Cinerama Theater. The UA Cinemas 150 and 70, my new workplace was also close by, a short two and a half block walk. Consequently our Roadrunner sat most days down in the parking lot, viewable from our kitchen window.

And talking about the kitchen. A postage stamp would have been bigger. We used to joke that you had to step out of the kitchen to open the fridge. You definitely could not open the doors on the fridge and the oven at the same time. Despite these little drawbacks it was a nice place to entertain friends. We had family over – from both sides – and friends – from our schools, Dave our best man, and co-workers from the UA.

Our space was not limited to the second floor. One could wander down to the basement for the laundry, or up onto the roof where an urban garden offered a place above it all. Karen used to sun herself up there in the summer. The Space Needle peered down on it from the north, with Queen Anne Hill frowning from behind.

Across the parking lot, on the corner of Lenore Street and Fifth Avenue sat the Trojan Horse Restaurant / nightclub. For the years I stood at the door at the Cinerama tearing tickets I saw a parade of famous names from the music world cross its marquee – Glenn Yarbrough, The Modernaires, Frank Sinatra jr., The Shirelles, The Platters, O.C. Smith, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Della Reese, and the Kingston Trio. The parade continued now that we were “neighbors,” – the Checkmates (in a reunion engagement), Ray Charles, Lloyd Lindroth (the Liberace of the harp), Lou Rawls, Bonnie Guitar, Harry James & Orchestra, and B. B. King. We never caught any of their acts. Number one, we had no money in our entertainment budget, and number two, I was always working during the times of their shows. However, there were some late, late nights, when I caught a few stray notes that escaped via the back door when some employee was out for a smoke.

The memories began early in this studio apartment (the most memorable I will cover in a future post that I’ve entitled “Thunderball, Mr. French”). On our very first morning there, we were awakened – no startled – actually shaken out of our murphy bed by an unholy crash and clatter from the alley just the other side of the bedroom wall. We thought the walls were caving in. It was only the Monday morning garbage truck making its way down the alley, welcoming us with the only concert we could afford – the Urban Gotterdammerung.

Dad and the Duke

Dad and the Duke

One of the perks of working in the theater business, besides watching films for free during the run, is to be invited to its premiere before it opens. Oftentimes they are a gala events with celebrities in attendance, be it the mayor or governor etc. But the ones that are really interesting to go to are those with celebrities from the film itself.

One of the more memorable events of this sort, at least for my Father and I, was one that was set for February 1974 at the 7th Avenue Theater in Seattle. The 7th Avenue was one of the old movie palaces in town, having opened in 1929. It was originally going to be called the Mayflower with decor to match, but the property was sold to another concern before it was finished and they did it over in Spanish Baroque (however they kept the Mayflower-like ship’s prows on either side of the auditorium that covered the organ pipes).

The event for which we were all gathered was the Northwest Premiere of the John Wayne film McQ.

The year before Duke had spent the summer of 1973 in Seattle (and the Washington coast) shooting exteriors for the film. He was all over the local news. Seattle Mayor Uhlman had declared the second week in that month John Wayne week, and the governor got into the act too by extending that honor throughout the state.

Little tidbits would pop up in the press about him, other cast members and the crew. Such as, during production Wayne was living on his yacht The Wild Goose which he kept at the Seattle Yacht Club and that he had brought his own chef along. Car ads popped up touting vehicles for sale that had been used in the film itself. And a flurry of stories swirled around the date of June 14, 1973. That was the date that his studio Warner Brothers had selected to hold the World Premiere of another Wayne film “Cahill US Marshal.” Also at the 7th Avenue Theater. We did not make this shindig, but it would have been really interesting if we had. Not only was the cast and crew of McQ on hand, but also those from “Cahill.”

[Aside – in attendance (besides the Duke) were Diana Muldaur, Eddie Albert, Robert Duvall, Clay O’Brien, Michael Wayne, Andrew McLaglen, Marie Windsor, and Jackie Coogan. Members of a third film dropped in too. James Caan and Marsha Mason from Cinderella Liberty were also shooting in Seattle at that time. Their director Mark Rydell came too, and for good reason. He had directed another recent Wayne film “The Cowboys”].

But at this World Premiere for “Cahill” some uninvited guests showed up. The tragic events at Wounded Knee were just two months old, fresh in everyone’s mind. And the American Indian community wanted it to remain there, so they rolled into town to protest this injustice by picketing the film and John Wayne himself, calling him the No 1 Indian killer.

At the time of the McQ premiere I was no longer at the Cinerama, but had switched over to the United Artists Cinemas 150 and 70, moving up to assistant manager. How I ever got a Saturday night off, I do not know, but I was there. I was on the left side section towards the back. My Dad had chosen a seat on the aisle that ran right next to the wall. I don’t recall if there were any other celebrities there that night, I had my eye on one only. And there was no mistaking that six foot four frame and the lumbering gait as John Wayne ambled down that very same aisle. Just before he came abreast of where my Dad was seated, Dad got to his feet and extended his hand to shake his. He was thrilled to have the Duke shake his hand. He had admired his films ever since ushering at the Paramount Theater in Salem, Massachusetts, and saw the likes of The Wake of the Red Witch and The Sands of Iwo Jima.

I asked my Dad about it afterwards. All he said was: “He had one helluva grip!”

Singing in the Rain in Seattle

Singing in the Rain in Seattle

I may have been beginning my junior year in college, but I was probably at the post graduate level for viewing films, all thanks to the Harvard Exit.

Around town the latest features were:

The French Connection – still racing down the suburban screens after opening the year before

The Godfather – packing them in at the 7th Avenue

Deliverance – floating down the river at the Music Box

Superfly – jiving at the Town

Ground Star Conspiracy – at my dad’s theater the Renton Village Cinema (bet you’ve never seen nor even heard about that one)

And as I mentioned last time, I was tearing tickets at the Cinerama for Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask.”

My girl friend and I did see five of the six listed above, but we were more interested in films of an older vintage. Films that were in good supply at Seattle’s premier revival house, all (or almost all) in glorious black and white.

It was at this time that we caught up with the film that beat out not only The Maltese Falcon but also Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar for 1942. That film was John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. I must say that I think Kane was robbed, but I also can see why Valley won. Both had stunning cinematography and magnificent ensemble casts. (And yes, I do love Ford’s films very much). Obviously in the mind of the voters, one just razzled while the other dazzled.

We took in a comedy double bill of Duck Soup and Horsefeathers, following the serious drama of Valley. Cinematography was not the distinctive for the Marx Brothers films. The sparkle came from the antics and patter of the madcap quartet. It was a good portent, for now I was anticipating catching the brothers (pared down to a trio) in A Night at the Opera. I say that I was anticipating it, not so much Karen, whose taste in comedy runs along different lines. Hurrah for Rufus T. Firefly.

In the comedy line, we both enjoyed Buster Keaton in The General which popped up on the Exit’s schedule a few weeks later. This had been on my Must See list ever since reading about it in Brownlow’s The Parades Gone By. And it did not disappoint. One marvels at Keaton’s comic genius, a genius which can engineer comedy gold out of large inanimate objects. Every time we pass by Cottage Grove down in Oregon, I long to get off and go in search of the places where Keaton filmed what many consider his masterpiece. It was the only place in the US at the time that had the right track gauge for the trains he wanted to use.

And now, for the whole reason for this post. (It seems I have veered, -I swear it was unplanned – into the comedy genre). What I want to blog about is the best comedy film of all time, and the best musical film of all time. They are one and the same. And I will define it even further – Singing in the Rain is the most perfect movie made under the Hollywood studio system.

I can state truthfully that neither of us knew what we were in for when we took our seats at the Harvard Exit that night. Right from the opening credits through which Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor sing and dance the title tune, all the way to the HAPPY ending, we were treated to a rollicking good time. It was exhilirating, and dare I say intoxicating, in the best sense –  a joy and a delight to see Kelly dance (not only in his famous solo reprise of the title tune, but throughout), and jaw-dropping wonder at O’Connor’s solo turn that made us laugh. And sweet, winsome Debbie Reynolds won our hearts completely.

And the contrast with the black and white films we had seen could not have been greater. The colors popped off the screen. I could say that the colors “sang and danced” too. All the elements came together – cast, crew, sets, costumes, writing, songs, choreography to make a sweet cinema confection.

We were not alone. Leo the Lion roared at the beginning and the audience roared its approval at the end.

Note – we recently saw the new release The Intern, a film directed by Nancy Meyers and starring Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway. We were delighted that a clip from Singing in the Rain was used to effect as the title character is remembering a time when he and his now departed wife had watched it together. It was a poignant moment. (And it was all my wife could do, not to burst out into song along with it).

Hitchcock and Me

Hitchcock and Me

I had to do some research to nail down the time period that I was at the Cinerama theater. As I mentioned in a former post, the theater changed hands some time during my tenure there. I was able to run down the date that this occurred by checking with the Seattle Times newspaper website. On August 15, 1972, the Cinerama was taken over by the Sterling Recreation Organization.

Using this same site I was able to track down the films that were booked at the Cinerama and hopefully to trace back to the time I started. I am not quite one hundred per cent sure, but I think I began when Stanley Kramer’s film, Bless the Beasts and Children was playing there, which puts the date as sometime in November 1971. I don’t think many people are familiar with this film. Not many saw it when it was out. It was a “coming of age” story about a bunch of misfit boys out to save a herd of bison from slaughter.  It wasn’t long before a second feature, the sci-fi film Marooned was added to it to help out.

From then until the take over, I tore tickets for:

Ryan’s Daughter – by one of my favorite directors – David Lean

Sometimes a Great Notion – Paul Newman (starred and directed) which might have been a re-release as it opened originally in 1970

A Clockwork Orange – Kubrick – this carried an “X” rating for its violence and controversy

Silent Running – directed by Doug Trumbull (famous for the SFX on Kubrick’s 2001)

While Bruce Dern and his robots Huey, Dewey and Louis were trying to save the last of Earth’s plant life, another figure joined the lobby to promote an upcoming film. And I had my eye on him.

Alfred Hitchcock was a great showman as well as a legendary director. For his upcoming film he had had full size cutouts of his standing figure created for theater lobbies across America. There he stood with a finger pointed at whomever he was facing. And attached to the back of the figure was a small tape recorder that continually played a message from the Master of Suspense – all centered around neckties – to huckster for his latest film – Frenzy.

I prevailed upon Mr. McKnight to give me the cutout after the film completed its run. And he acceded to my request, but not until after the run was stretched a bit when Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me was added to boost the attendance.

When Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask” moved in, I moved Hitch out and gave him a ride home in my Roadrunner.

Upon arriving home, I propped Hitch up on the front step and rang the doorbell. When my Mom answered the door, she must have jumped a foot in the air, and three feet back. After she recovered her composure, she told me, “Let’s do it to Dad!”

So we did.

Just Trying to Help

Just Trying to Help

I worked with an interesting set of people at the Cinerama. Jack Hamacher was the manager, but I did not see him much after he hired me. He was more of a delegator and kept behind the scenes, (in stark contrast to my dad’s style of managing). Mr. Hamacher’s style was more of the older generation that came up in the forties and fifties. Corinne Strello worked the box office and had for years. She was a blonde fashion plate, and held aloof like her boss. I did what I could to help at every opportunity and kept a low profile.

My favorite on staff was the assistant manager, Mr. McKnight. He had direct supervision over me, the lowly doorman. His was a gentle command with a calming presence. His smile wreathed a cherubic face that matched the rest of his body. For he was barrel-chested, right down to his toes. I would harken to his Mr. Magoo like voice (which he matched in tone, if not cadence), and do my chores, often with him lending a hand beside me.  And he had a little buzz of a laugh as he would tell a joke to wile away the slow periods between crowds.  He saw to it that I was free to go after the last show was passed in, while he stayed until the last customer had left and the last light turned off. This usually got me off around 10pm. It was a blessing not to be there until after closing which in some cases could be well after midnight.

One night when Mr. McKnight sent me on my way, I got in my Roadrunner and pointed her homeward. By habit I wended my way over to I-90. I dropped down off of a hill and pulled in behind a car stopped at a traffic light. The car ahead of me was held back on the same incline that I was. Once the light would change we would each pull forward down off of this slope and level off onto a street that eventually fed into I-90.

The light changed and the vehicle ahead of me pulled forward and bounced a bit as it met the new level surface. Before I moved forward I was shocked to see a gush of gasoline push back that car’s licence plate and splash all over the road ahead of me. I drove forward and soon was on I-90, the car with the problem some distance ahead of me.

It was obvious that this person with the “leaking” car had just refueled, and somehow had failed to replace their gas cap, probably leaving it at the station. Soon we were through the tunnel and down on the pontoon bridge headed towards Mercer Island. My mind was a whirl as to what to do next. There were two lanes both directions, but they were narrow ones, and with the tricky to negotiate “bulge” up ahead I decided not to go alongside. Periodically more gasoline spurted out the back, due to some unseen circumstance or condition.

Passing over Mercer Island I was still pondering my options. It was night, and not being a cop, I really could not pull them over. I decided to wait to see if it continued the way I was going. If the person took I-405 South I would attempt to alert them to their dangerous situation. Visions of carelessly tossed matches plagued me.

At the I-405 exchange, the vehicle took the ramp for I-405 southbound. So it was decided. I sped up – easy to do in a Roadrunner – took to the passing lane and drove up beside the doomed auto.  I honked my horn and waved. It was a woman at the wheel, alone. She sped up. The fact of her sex made it worse. Should I try again and risk terrorizing her? This time, visions of discarded cigarette butts, glowing red.

I scrawled a quick sign on a piece of paper with a pen, and charged up beside her once again. I held up the sign to my passenger window and honked. We were beside an off ramp. She took it. Just to get away from me, I thought.

I kept on in the passing lane. In my rearview mirror, I could see her headlights stopped at the top of the ramp, poised for a turn onto the overpass. I could only imagine how scared she must be. She appeared to stay there. I hoped she was near her destination. And I hoped she soon would discover the problem with her gas tank, and perhaps know that the crazy guy in the Roadrunner was just trying to help.

The Really Big Screen

The Really Big Screen

I was no longer working at the GCC Renton Village Cinemas. After a brief hiatus as a sales clerk in a bookstore at South Center in Tukwila (made brief by my forgetting to hold the last copy of a book for a customer who called in to reserve it), I was back in show business as a doorman at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle. It was a good fit. My school – Seattle University – was not too far away, just up on First Hill.

My tenure there was made interesting by the fact that it was the first time that a company changed hands while I was employed by it. It would not be the last time. When I was hired, the theater was owned by United (aka Pacific) theaters, noted in the Seattle area as a drive-in circuit. They only ran three hard tops in the state. Later, Sterling Recreation Organization (SRO) acquired those three theaters and added them to their mammoth chain. [Aside – Paul Allen now owns it, and has spared no expense in bringing it up to date.]

The building sat (and still does) between 4th and 5th Avenues on Lenora Street. The lobby windows faced Lenora, which was my point of view when manning the “door.” I was right across from the box office. People came in to buy their tickets, and when it was busy they went back ouside to line up along 4th Avenue. Sometimes when it was real busy I needed to go out and check the line. We had signs that I had to move every once and a while. They read “Ticket Holders Line.” You wouldn’t want them to be waiting there for ages, not realizing they were in the wrong line, especially if they hadn’t gotten their tickets. And if the line was particularly long, I would reassure them that there was plenty of room. In fact the line had to go around the block plus, before the auditorium would fill up. Amazing how many people can be strung out in a line (sorry, unintended double entendre, it was the 70s after all).

The auditorium was red, seats and curtains. There were a little over 800 seats total, so it was just a bit smaller than Cinema 1 in Renton, but it always seemed so much bigger. The customers were fed into it from the right and the left into a central traverse aisle, from which you went back into the higher seats, or down to those seats closer to the screen.

And it was unlike any screen with which I was familiar. Usually it is all of one piece, stretched out in a frame and mounted at the front of the auditorium. This one was made up of over one thousand – one inch wide strips of screen material, placed side by side in a curved arc, and stretched their full length of 35 feet onto a frame, and attached bottom and top.  And like their flat counterparts, they were each perforated to better allow the sound from the speakers to pass through. So to look at it from your seat, you were only aware of this huge screen that filled about a hundred feet across the front, and bowed away from you at the center.

It was a very impressive theater in which to view a film.

Sixteen and 2001

Sixteen and 2001

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”
Dave was intent on dismantling HAL. And HAL knew it. And I was watching with intensity. Would Dave be successful turning off the murderous computer?
We were seated in the RKO Theater, a 3200 seat Cinerama screen in downtown Boston to see Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odessey. And we were there to celebrate my sixteenth birthday. Not since Lawrence of Arabia had a film captured my imagination and inspired me with awe.
From the opening music and the first frame there is an interplay between the two, the music enlivening the image and the image in return amplifying the music. The iconic image of the shuttle lining up to dock in the space station waltzes in my memory still. The film moved at a walking pace. You had time to think about what you were seeing and hearing. You would form a question, and then succeeding images would fill in your answer – what was that stewardess doing? Oh yeah, she was changing her up/down orientation in order to enter another area, where the old up would be the new down. The bits and pieces coalesced together to tell a simple story, expanding ever outward as more people were introduced into the quest of seeking the source of the monoliths.
I think I had more questions than answers by the end of the movie. Many viewers did. Some points went over my head and other subtilties were missed on my part. Further viewings, or in my case, reading the Arthur C Clarke short story upon which it is based, filled in the missing pieces.
It is a great film to reflect on, and I have done so over the years (I even wrote a short story in college inspired by the film, that I will put up on the blog soon). At its base the quest of the movie is the search for the creator. It is ironic given the materialistic, evolution driven world view that is its foundation gives off a spiritual vibe. But then again, in a way it makes sense. When you don’t take God at His word about who He is, you “create” God in your own image, limited by your own understanding.
On another note – or reflection – 2001: A Space Odessey marked a great divide. Before it came on the scene, entertainment in the US was filled up with stories of the old West, many stories that never happened. Now with this switch to sci-fi, we are multiplying stories that will never be.