You mention the Park Theatre in McKenzie, Tennessee, and you get my full, undivided attention in a heartbeat. The local newspaper in the city of my birth ran an article last week naming the reopening of the refurbished movie house just off the town square as the lead story for 2016. I read every word of the article with appreciation and a healthy burst of nostalgia
I had no idea that it started as a car dealership and was used as a wholesale grocery. I reckon we never gave any thought to who turned it into a movie theater. Buddy said it used to be a potato house and that’s about the sum total of our knowledge of its past.
McKenzie’s 1,858 population count in 1941 included my parents and older brother. World War II pushed back my arrival date for several years. It made Leon five years older than me…..and my “keeper” when we walked the mile or so from our end of Stonewall Street into town for the Saturday Matinee.
I don’t remember the first movie I ever saw there. It must have been around 1951. I do know the Park Theatre quickly became a magical venue for all of us. A special, special place! It had a heart. And soul. I’m telling you, it made the whole town come alive!
You’ve got to understand we had no television. The radio sounded good but you had to make up your own pictures! None of us had ever been in a house or a car with air conditioning. The first thing you noticed when you paid at the outside window and stepped in the door was the cool air that would ’near bout knock you down. The tiny black and white tiles “looked” like a movie theatre. The popcorn smell permeated everything. The bathroom had those giant urinals that would swallow up little boys if you got too close. The chairs were the most comfortable things I’d ever sat in. And if you had to be home by a certain time, the neon Bryant-Carroll Clock down on the left front wall glowed in the dark!
I sat spellbound as Roy Rogers rode across the screen in “Under California Stars.” Listen, I was no longer a little kid from the country. I WAS IN CALIFORNIA! I hollered “watch out” when the thug wearing the black hat was about to get the drop on Roy. I cheered when the posse raced to save the ranch. I walked home feeling good about life……
To call the Park Theatre just a movie house would do it a grave injustice!
We had baseball games and the swimming pool in the summer. Nothing much else….. If we wanted to get out of town, we had to do it via the Park Theatre. If you wanted to get your pants scared off, you had to pay fifteen cents and man up for “The Thing” or “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” If you wanted to see John Wayne win World War II, he only fought it in one place in town. If you wanted to see Burt Lancaster take care of the Clanton/McLaury gang, the Park Theatre put you on Fremont Street in Tombstone. If you wanted to see Paul Newman eat fifty eggs, “Cool Hand Luke” was your ticket.
The special re-release of “Gone with the Wind” was so long they stopped the movie right in the middle so you could go to the bathroom and get something to eat!
We went in bunches. Sometimes in pairs. And often we went alone and met up with whoever was there. We shared popcorn, Milk Duds, Raisinets and Junior Mints. Bobby Brewer would lick one side of a Necco Wafer and drop it in the aisle, wet side up, and watch to see if Mr. Clericuzio would “pick it up” on the bottom of his shoe as he hurried toward the front with his ever present flashlight to quiet some of those Gleason boys.
I fell in love in the Park Theatre. The year was 1961. The movie was “Parent Trap.” The girl was Hayley Mills. It was held over heels. I borrowed some money from Leon and went back the next night! You can’t pay a girl a higher tribute than that!
“Lonely are the Brave” captivated me the next year. It is quite possibly my favorite movie of all time. And who could forget “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “3:10 to Yuma” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?”
I could go on. But you get the idea. It was our entertainment. Our contact with the outside world. The cartoon made us laugh. The newsreels kept us up to date. And the movie shaped our thoughts, views and opinions on a given subject at a particular moment in our lives. I told you it was special! And I dare say there are hundreds of theaters all over this land that have evoked the same memories, the same escapes, the same hopes and dreams.
Oh, if we could only bring them all back…..and “Play it again, Sam.”